Theme Park History: Disney's America and the historian's dilemma
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.
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
were allowed to be built. The theme park would be showcasing America but a dumbed down, historically inaccurate picture of the nation's heritage. Would the Amero-centric and jingoistic concept alienate visitors from other countries? How could Disney accurately capture the horror of slavery in their Civil War era town? Would Enterprise town explore labor unrest and detail the long, arduous fight for an eight hour workday? How would the premier attraction in Native America, the Lewis and Clark rapids ride, deal with the long line of broken promises and treaties? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that Disney would not address these issues and instead would opt to ignore them completely and offer a whitewashed, sterile version of American history. Delving even deeper, the whole tone of the park was misguided. This was great white man history that merely gives passing reference to immigrants and Native Americans and neglects women and African-Americans. Ultimately, the opposition prevailed.
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.
A guardian is a protector of historical interpretation. Historians exist to set the record straight (though "truth" in history is often elusive), refine our understanding of the past so that we may influence the future. Without critical assessment of one's past, you can easily fall into the trap of super-patriotism which can border into dangerous xenophobic ground. To constantly present the United States as savior of the Earth, through our innovation, welcoming attitudes and can do spirit oversimplifies a complex topic and downplays the legitimate contributions of countless Americans who sought to solve our nation's issues. To ensure we do not make the same mistakes of the past we must look in the mirror and acknowledge our shortcomings without forgetting our strengths.
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.
All concept art comes from disneyandmore.blogspot.com and www.disneydrawingboard.com. For additional information on the debate over Disney's America seechotank.com/disneyrom.html
Good stuff. I do find it a bit funny that historians and concerned citizens were worried about Disney skipping over on the controversial bits of history in a theme park when, y'know, it's not like our schools are exactly painting a full picture.
If my memory serves correctly, wasn't a subsequent proposal to put a new NASCAR track right near the proposed Disney site approved? I remember thinking that it was ok to commercialize the area with car racing, but not a Disney theme park.
Extremely well-written and reasoned post.
I think that younger and newer fans might not realize that non-fiction storytelling used to be an important part of the Walt Disney Company. From the True Life Adventure documentaries to the original vision for Tomorrowland, Disney used non-fictional themes in much of its work, which culminated in Epcot.
" 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."
FWIW, I strongly suspect that whenever you see "grassroots" opposition to new development, it's typically organized and paid for by a rival developer who wants to get his hands on that land for himself. And at a cheaper price, because the potential competition has been beaten away.
I had the good fortune to publish a comprehensive history of the project and found that support within the County was strong. The real roadblock were the wealthy living one county over. Eisner's dream of creating something that captured the emotional spirit of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC was dash by those with links to very loud megaphones and Disney's overreach.
I found this to be a very enjoyable and informative read. It leaves me wondering how much (if any) involvement historians had in the planning of the proposed park. If the answer is "little to none," then perhaps a similar idea could get off the ground if entertainers and educators actually collaborated.
There has been no real development in the section that was to be "Disney's America". That's horse country, and a lot of opposition was from the rich horse community. People like Robert DuVall.
An interesting paragraph from an online article sourced at:
This is so fascinating! It could have been a great park and would inspire kids to look at history in more detail. I can't stand history, but being able to walk around back then would help especially in a Disney fashion. I know that people can visit Jamestown or Williamsburg, but this might grab kids attention! Disney could have followed the US school history books if History buffs were worried about the 'Disneyfication'.
I am not sure if Disney would really glaze over history. The American Adventure should be a pretty good example that Disney can do American History, even the controversial parts.
Disney's America would not work for today's Disney. Historical storytelling has went away with the times. I would partially blame the audience. The other problem is with political correctness, which has changed the traditional storytelling for race, gender, or other cultural sensitivities that forces historians to make stories bland and safe. I don't care anymore.
I am a resident of PWC and the plot of land that Disney owned and planned on using to build Disney's America (which was a poor choice in name) is now littered with thousands of homes, new schools due to the thousands of homes and still a poor infrastructure of roads and a lack of public transportation. Those that opposed this thought they were helping and all they did was cause more of the same expansion by builders with no benefits to the residents. There were some people that felt that the theme was too close to home being built this close to the real battlefields of the civil war but the majority of dissenters thought they could preserve their quiet country way of life which they lost anyway without getting any of the potential benefits.
In an interview with the New York Times magazine shortly after he and Mr. Frank Wells came to the company's helm, Disney CEO Michael Eisner expressed interest in developing attractions that were less frivolous and more informative and educational. In the interview he referred to creating "60 Minutes attractions" -- with alternate names like 'The American Workplace' and 'The Industrial Kingdom.'
I'm not sure if this was a good fit for the entertainment giant. It's not that I think Disney isn't able to tell a good and compelling story but if customers would want that from Disney.
Field Trip to a concentration camp? Wow, that sounds intense.
Epcot is not really educational at all its a drunk mall. I always ask people from the nations in Epcot if the food is authentic and they say no. The majority of the beer and wine can be found at your local store and is very low quality. For example Total Wine has German Glow wine.
I just had a Horrible vision of the slave Auction being just like the Wand Shop in Islands...And at the end they even told the Parents here are your options... You can take your slave home for $34.99 or he can be left for the massa to sell him at the next auction.
Anyone who liked this idea should check out this theoretical build-out of this park. Check it out here:
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