Disney's America was a planned theme park that was to have been built by The Walt Disney Company in the early 1990s. The park was planned to be built near Haymarket, Virginia, only five miles (8.0 km) from the site of the Manassas National Battlefield Park near Interstate 66 west of Washington, D.C.. Announced in November 1993, the park was to have been dedicated to the history of the United States and was scheduled to open by 1998 with a $650 million (equivalent to $981 million in 2016) planned budget. Amid opposition from citizen's groups, however, the project was canceled in September 1994.
The concept was revived in 1997 as a potential re-theming of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, when the Knott family offered its amusement park for sale. However, the Knott family refused to sell its park to Disney, largely due to concerns over what Disney would do to the property, and the project was canceled again. Several of the proposed elements of Disney's America were incorporated into Disney's California Adventure, which opened in 2001.
Michael Eisner stated the genesis for Disney's America was sparked by a visit taken by him and other Disney executives to Colonial Williamsburg three to four years before the 1993 announcement. After coming up with the concept, Disney spent two years scouting potential sites near Washington DC. However, officials from Explore Park, a history theme park near Roanoke that opened in 1994, alleged that Disney stole some of the ideas for Disney's America from their park after a 1987 meeting between the officials from the two companies.
At the time it was announced on November 11, 1993, Disney had already purchased or held options on the 3,000 acres (1,200 ha) of land needed for the proposed park. After concept plans for Disney's America were drawn up for the history-based attraction in 1993, it became Michael Eisner's pet project, obtaining the support of outgoing Governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) and incoming Gov. George Allen (R), as well as the Virginia Commission on Population Growth and Development. Wilder said he was "pleased that you [Disney] have come to us," and Allen promised to "kick down any hurdles" that would hold up the park. Wilder, who had learned of the proposed park approximately two weeks before the announcement, elaborated that Disney had not forced Virginia into a bidding war through government concessions to attract the development, in contrast with the first American Legoland park, which was the subject of an ongoing competition between Prince William County and Carlsbad, California. Many local citizens, including the head of the Haymarket Historical Commission, supported the project for economic reasons.
This is not a Pollyanna view of America. We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the underground railroad.
—Bob Weis, Disney Senior Vice President (November 1993)
Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design & Development, stated the park was designed to be a one-day experience, and the goal was to make history "real but also make it fun." Rummell acknowledged that creating entertainment around historical events such as slavery and the Civil War could be controversial, but he elaborated that "an intelligent story, properly told, shouldn't offend anybody ... But we won't worry about being politically correct." The location was chosen to tap into the tourist crowds visiting Washington DC and several local attractions, including the battlefield at Manassas, Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens, Jamestown, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Dulles-based Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.
Although Disney did not ask for concessions at the announcement in November 1993, the company warned the purchase of land options would not proceed without improvements in roads and infrastructure. Allen proposed US$163,200,000 (equivalent to $269,460,000 in 2017) in State of Virginia spending, one of the costliest incentive packages offered to-date, to improve roads at the proposed Disney site, defray relocation costs, and promote tourism in the area. In addition, Prince William County had requested US$50,000,000 (equivalent to $82,560,000 in 2017) in loans from Virginia to improve water and sewer lines. The project was granted subsidies by the Virginia state government in March 1994, with Disney advancing the subsidy proposal on the last possible day and threatening to abandon the project if it was not passed. The Disney's America project received additional project support as late as September.
Public opposition to the theme park and associated development was strong, especially from a vocal group of prominent historians named Protect Historic America. Historian David McCullough described Disney's America as a potential "commercial blitzkrieg" in May 1994, predicting the same urban sprawl that surrounds Disneyland and Disney World for Virginia. Other members of Protect Historic America included C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Franklin, James M. McPherson, Barbara J. Fields, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., William Styron, Tom Wicker, Richard Moe and Roger Wilkins. McPherson warned that sprawl "would desecrate the ground over which men fought and died."
Disney also faced opposition from groups concerned that historical events such as the Civil War and slavery could be trivialized by teaching history through entertainment and possibly selling "little souvenir slave ships." Eisner would later disavow comments from Weis, a senior vice president who had stated a planned exhibit on slavery would "make you feel what it was like to be a slave," saying that Weis had misspoken and was not used to speaking to the media. Rummell also rejected the fears as premature: "Those are harsh words for a production that not only hasn't opened, but hasn't even been fully written." Weis later stressed the content of the park had not yet been decided, saying "I'm not sure we have a certain direction yet ... Our thoughts are evolving" in March 1994. By August 1994, novelist William Styron penned an opinion that any exhibit that would allow visitors to "experience" slavery would be inadequate and soon afterward, Disney announced the proposed slavery exhibit had been shelved.
In addition, the heavy subsidies proposed from Virginia faced opposition in the state legislature. By late February 1994, the planned Disney park was still locally popular in Haymarket, but faced opposition from nearby towns who echoed McCullough's prediction: "following [the theme park] will be all the things people want, gas stations, motels and, God help us, the fast-food strips." A national farm conservation group, the American Farmland Trust, voiced its opposition to the project, saying it threatened up to 50% of the state's orchards and 15% of its farmland.
Oponents of the theme park project alleged Protect Historic America was merely a front to advance the interests of wealthy landowners who owned land close to the planned development. Disney projected up to 35,000 automobiles per day, which raised traffic and pollution concerns amongst local residents. The Disney official in charge of the project, Mark Pacala, penned an editorial touting planned road improvements as benefiting all motorists. Virginia Transportation Secretary Robert E. Martinez announced the state would seek a full federal review of the planned freeway improvements, which would delay the approval of road construction funds. Other residents, citing the already-low unemployment rates, were skeptical of the economic boost generated by the park. An economic report commissioned by park opponents said that Disney had overstated economic benefits, saying that only 6,000 (not 12,000) jobs would be created, in mostly low-wage, low-skill categories, and the park would only bring in an additional $1.5–5.1 million in annual tax revenue (compared to the $14.1 million Disney had estimated). Disney Vice President John Dreyer dismissed these protesters as stereotypical NIMBY citizens, saying "I think it's very similar to the arguments you've heard about a dozen projects around the country—which is, 'I'm here, I don't want anyone else to come.' " Despite the vocal opposition, polls showed a majority of Virginia residents supported the project.
Operators of other area attractions, including Colonial Williamsburg, feared that Disney's America would siphon away tourist time and spending instead of adding another attraction for the Washington DC area.
Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-TX), a Civil War buff, introduced a resolution on June 16, 1994 to send a message to Disney not to build the project in the proposed location, saying he was "not opposed to Disney or the park, as long as the project is built in another location." Andrews was joined in support by Reps. Tim Roemer (D-IN) and Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), with Torricelli adding that Civil War history should "not [be taught] by Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck."
Disney's America not only will not replace historic sites but rather will add to their luster by enthusing our guests about events that occurred there and the people who took part in them. We are confident our project will actually encourage more people to visit historic areas. And we believe our presentation of the American heritage can make a significant national contribution to the important cause of historic preservation.
We plan to use all of the tools available to us -- filmmaking, animation, environments, music, interactive media, live interpretation -- to bring the American experience to life. We are working with historians and other experts to make Disney's America an engaging and genuine encounter with America's past. Together, we have identified some common themes that run through the American experience -- our persistent resistence [sic] to injustice, our quest for tolerance and inclusion, our history of rising to challenges, our faith in the promise of the future and our belief that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.
We believe that every person, particularly the children, who can touch history and sense the emotions of a time or event, will be impelled to learn more. This is the vision and purpose of Disney's America.
—Michael Eisner, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company (June 1994)
Eisner rebuked protesters and detractors, especially the historian members of Protect Historic America, saying in a June 1994 interview with The Washington Post that "I sat through many history classes where I read some of their stuff, and I didn't learn anything. It was pretty boring. I guess I can say that I object to some of their stuff." Eisner was surprised by the opposition, stating that he had "expected to be taken around on people's shoulders" for both the economic stimulus of 19,000 new jobs and the entertainment value that would allow visitors "to get high on history." In the same interview, Eisner reiterated Disney's rights to develop on the 3,000 acres (1,200 ha), saying "it's private land that is not in the middle of a historic area." Eisner did not rule out moving the park to other sites, noting that the governors of Maryland and North Carolina had begun to court the company.
A crowd of 3,000 protesters, including Ralph Nader, staged a march in Washington DC opposing the park in mid-September 1994. Specific objections at the march included Disney's precedent of a privatized governing district in Florida and skepticism about Disney's plans to "make you feel what it was like to be a slave."
We remain convinced that a park that celebrates America and an exploration of our heritage is a great idea, and we will continue to work to make it a reality. However, we recognize that there are those who have been concerned about the possible impact of our park on historic sites in this unique area, and we have always tried to be sensitive to the issue. While we do not agree with all their concerns, we are seeking a new location so that we can move the process forward ...
Despite our confidence that we would eventually win the necessary approvals, it has become clear that we could not say when the park would be able to open -- or even when we could break ground ...
The controversy over building in Prince William County has diverted attention and resources from the creative development of the park. Implicit in our vision for the park is the hope that it will be a source of pride and unity for all Americans. We certainly cannot let a particular site undermine that goal by becoming a source of divisiveness.
—Peter S. Rummel, president of Disney Design and Development Co. (September 1994)
Disney announced they would not build the Disney's America theme park at the originally-proposed site near Manassas on September 28, 1994, despite the political backing of numerous officials. By the time Disney withdrew the project from Haymarket, the New York Times reported that Disney felt they could gain official but not public approval, resulting in unacceptable delays. Disney put the 600 acres (240 ha) of land they had already acquired up for sale in March 1995 and relinquished options to purchase an adjacent 2,037-acre (824 ha) property in December 1994. The land slated for the proposed park has instead since been used to build tens of thousands of single and multi-family homesites in the Dominion Valley and Piedmont housing developments and Camp William B. Snyder for the Boy Scouts of America. Since the demise of the Haymarket project, the promised road improvements have been on hold and traffic has increased from the housing developments built on the site, though some residents credit the new housing with attracting a wealthier, more-educated population; the population of Prince William County grew by nearly 100,000 people in the 10 years following the end of the project.
At the same time they announced they were abandoning the Haymarket site, Disney announced they still intended to build the theme park at a "less controversial" site in either Virginia or Maryland. One anonymous Wall Street analyst claimed there was a schism in support for Disney's America amongst top executives at Disney, including opposition from the recently-ousted Jeffrey Katzenberg. In addition to scrapping Disney's America, the Walt Disney Company also abandoned other theme park projects in the 1990s, including WestCOT and Port Disney.
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The plans for Disney's America called for nine distinctly themed areas within a 125–185-acre (51–75 ha) theme park serving up to 30,000 visitors per day. Much of the information is taken from a promotional brochure published by The Walt Disney Company in 1994.
Some of the ideas alleged to be lifted from Explore Park for Disney's America include the Lewis and Clark-themed water ride, Native American village, American main street and working family farm.
Additionally, there were tentative plans to sell a portion of the land to a developer to build over 2,000 residential units and donate land for other municipal buildings, including schools and a library. Disney intended to leave up to 40% of the total land undeveloped as a greenbelt/buffer between the Park and its surroundings.
Soarin' from Epcot and Disney's California Adventure evolved from some of the rides planned for Victory Field.
Other concepts originally intended for Disney's America were slightly re-themed and re-worked as elements of Disney California Adventure, including the Bountiful Valley Farm (Family Farm), Grizzly River Run (Lewis and Clark Expedition raft ride), California Screamin' (State Fair roller coaster ride) as well as Condor Flats (Victory Field).
Faced with public relations issues in the wake of vocal opposition, Disney put together a conceptual study of a park in August 1994 with an overarching theme celebrating common American themes and experiences. The conceptual study was discontinued weeks later. The planned pavilions for Disney's American Celebration would have included:
A conversion of Knott's Berry Farm (in Buena Park, near Disneyland) into Disney’s America was drafted shortly after the Knott family announced that they would take bids for its property. The idea for the conversion reportedly came from the exact replica of Independence Hall, which sits in the parking lot of Knott’s Berry Farm.
The plan called for stretching out the park’s entrance across the street to the Independence Hall replica. The new entrance to the park would then be built to resemble Walt Disney World's Liberty Square, although the name of the entrance would have been changed to Presidents' Square. The major attraction for this area would have included the Hall of Presidents.
Another section of the proposed park would have included the “Native American” territories as it would have paid tribute to America’s native people. The area would have included where the Mystery Lodge, Indian Trail, and Bigfoot Rapids are currently located. Also, Bigfoot Rapids would have had its name changed to The Lewis & Clark River Expedition, which was a similar attraction proposed for Virginia. This idea was eventually scrapped because the Imagineers felt it was an "inconsistent hybrid of thrills and education."
Other proposed ideas would have been the conversion of the former Roaring '20s section into the “Enterprise” territory. Reflection Lake would have been converted to Freedom Bay, and would have showcased a recreation of the Ellis Island immigration center. Finally, the Old Ghost Town section of Knott's Berry Farm would have been mostly unchanged. Camp Snoopy and Fiesta Village probably also would have been converted into different “territories”.
The California Disney's America project was canceled due to several reasons. One was a lack of a practical means to transport guests from the Disneyland Resort to Disney’s America. Planners felt that extending the existing Disneyland Monorail System would be too expensive; they also noted that bus transportation would not have been practical. The main factor was that the Knott family had rejected Disney's bid since they were afraid that the Imagineers would replace much of what their parents had originally built. Ironically, Cedar Fair (the company that bought Knott's Berry Farm in 1997) removed more original features from the park than Disney's plans would have done, although keeping the Knott's name and layout intact.