Theme Park History: Disney's America and the historian's dilemma
Written by Matt McDonough
Twenty years ago a debate raged between Disney and some concerned Americans on the relationship between history and theme parks. The Disney corporation hoped to tap into the tourist market that visited Washington D.C. and northern Virginia and began marketing the proposed park as a complement to the many museums and battlefields in the area. The actual construction spot was to be just a few miles away from the Civil War site of the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run for you Northerners) in Prince William County, Virginia.Tweet
The proposed park was entitled Disney's America and would have featured several lands, each depicting a different era of American history. The focal point to the park featured the turbulent 1860s. This area came complete with a Civil War era town and a military encampment with costumed Union and Rebel soldiers and a Rivers of America-esque lagoon where patrons could witness a fight between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack (technically the CSS Virginia for the historically minded).
From there visitors could explore President's Square which centered on the nation's origins and included a Hall of Presidents show. Victory Field played to the nostalgia of the Greatest Generation and depicted all manner of aircraft utilized in the World Wars. The thrill seekers in the crowd would have enjoyed Enterprise Town which depicted America's history of industry and innovation, including the roller coaster "Industrial Revolution" which promised to fling riders around a steel mill, complete with blast furnaces.
To cool off you could check out Native America which would have included a white-water rafting ride emulating the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (No word if an audio-animatronic Sacagawea would have made an appearance but I would like to think so).
There was even a good old fashioned State Fair area that showcased how Americans could unwind even amidst economic turmoil such as the Great Depression. Patrons could also celebrate the multi-cultural heritage of America by visiting a recreation of Ellis Island in the We the People
But it was not meant to be. Some local residents of Prince William County balked at the massive proposal and feared the new park would lead to an abundance of gaudy hotels and restaurants unsuitable to their quiet county. Opposition groups also feared the natural beauty and environment would forever be overshadowed by the giant mouse barreling toward them. Historians likewise entered into the fray and offered professional credibility to the citizen opposition groups. Even famed documentary producer Ken Burns came out publicly against Disney.
Opposition advocates efficiently organized and founded Protect Historic America to bring their grievances publicly. They feared that tourists would now skip actual historic sites like Manassas and just get their history from Disney. Worse still, the popularity of the park would lead to further growth which could start to jeopardize historical preservation. They railed against the "Disneyfication" that would take place if such a park
The outcry against Disney reached such a level that Eisner in 1994 cancelled the proposal. (Some of the ideas, like Victory Field and the rapids ride were resurrected and re-themed for use in California Adventure.)
The controversy reveals a much larger question than simply where the next theme park should be built. The bigger question asks are we sharers or guardians of history? Everyone is a historian to some extent as we all must know the past to understand ourselves and must wrestle with this concept.
But Enterprise town may have inspired a kid to learn more about the time period and dig deeper than what Disney portrayed. Would that modicum of interest been absent without a ride on the "Industrial Revolution." The sharing of history is no less important than guardianship. In order for history to stick and remain relevant with most people, it must be presented in an entertaining and thought provoking manner. But while walking through a marketplace where a slave auction is taking place may be historically accurate it is not an activity that most tourists will want to flock to on a bright Saturday morning. Simply put, can history be fun? Was there a way for Disney's America to succeed as both tourist destination and accurate representation of history or was it mutually exclusive? Disney can masterfully transform an area into another place though immersive environments. Can they also take us through an accurate representation of time or should they stick with fantastical places like the upcoming Avatar land? Please post your thoughts in the comments section.
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