Can Theme Parks Give America a Needed History Lesson?

June 3, 2020, 5:57 PM · Maybe we really needed Disney's America, after all.

If you don't recognize the name, Disney's America was the name of the proposed theme park that The Walt Disney Company wanted to build in northern Virginia back in the 1990s. You can learn a bit more about the proposal in our article, Theme Park History: Disney's America and the historian's dilemma.

Why does this matter, right now? Because Americans could use some history lessons to help guide them through a moment that, without doubt, will be taught in history books for decades to come.

As a non-fiction park themed to America's history, Disney's America could have taught some of those lessons to a broad audience who might not otherwise have sought them. Now, I say "could have" because we don't know how accurate or effective any of the history that Disney's Imagineers were looking to present in the park would have turned out to be. But the themed entertainment design industry offers powerful storytelling tools and talent that has been used to great effect in museums and historic sites around the nation and the world.

Disney's America
Concept art for Disney's America.

Ultimately, Disney did not build Disney's America. But I wish that someone in this industry would revive the concept and develop it for today's audience, employing all that we have learned over the past generation about honest, accurate, and inclusive storytelling.

Yes, a theme park's first priority must be to entertain. But history is where we find the greatest collection of stories to entertain us. Yes, history is filled with dark and difficult moments. But doesn't something always have to go wrong in a theme park attraction in order to provide us an opportunity to triumph?

We need an American history theme park because America's history is not as clean and positive as I suspect too many Americans believe it to be. A theme park might therefore turn out to be the best medium through which Americans might be willing to tolerate some difficult suggestions about our past.

Hard truth: America was founded by corporations and built by slaves on land stolen from natives. We are a nation of people - almost always good in heart and intent - who often live within systems designed to frustrate, exploit, indebt and even imprison millions of us. We have killed a great many citizens of color throughout our history for offenses - sometimes real but often just perceived - for which white people would never have been detained.

It's not "hating America" to point out its troubled past... and present. No, the people who love America most are the ones who care enough about their fellow citizens to demand that America do better. And it's those people whom an American history theme park should celebrate. (Want examples for inspiration? Try Rachel Carson, Louis Brandeis, W.E.B. Du Bois.)

A new "Disney's America" would show us the challenges of our past while inspiring us to rise beyond them to create a better future. It would not hide America's dark and difficult moments, but give us the light to look upon them without fear.

We need that light right now. And when we find it, we need to pass it along to future generations. Perhaps the storytellers of the themed entertainment design industry can help.

I hope so.

Replies (29)

June 3, 2020 at 6:23 PM

Love it! I recently read up and watched a video on Disney's America in Virginia and what a concept it was. I was saddened that it never saw the light of day. Mr. Niles you are right. In storytelling there usually always is a "good" and "bad" guy and I believe in this day and age people are ready to look in the mirror and say that American History is far from perfect as the write up mentioned. Bad guys in US History are not just Nazi's and Communist folk.

Back to the theme park aspect of it, what better way to see and learn about history than in a theme park, moreso in the wildly popular Disney type. Imagine riding an indoor coaster through a late 19th century Gilded Age factory and seeing the progress of industry and the injustices and horrors workers of said factories experienced. You see both the good and bad there. How about a boat ride where we get to see a more culturally rich depiction of Native life. Not just them being relegated to wearing feathers on a horse in the woods. So many more ideas write themselves.

I love History. I disagree with folks that say a Disney park would be a negative. It would bring in a lot more interest to the subject and awareness. The years 1918, 1929, and 1968 appear to have been mixed up and combined in the past 2 or 3 months and people could really learn about what came before in current times. Anyway History is what I do for a living, it was my Major, is my Grad school study and I will forever be a student of it. C'mon Disney, the fifth gate theme for Disney World is staring you in the face!

June 3, 2020 at 7:00 PM

I liked the Disney’s America concept. Given the... passionate patriotism... that seems unique to the American psyche I think it avoids nicely the “selling California to California” problem that DCA had.

In regards to the criticism of it. People don’t always know what they want. Sometimes it takes actually seeing it before you can say “yeah, I get it now”. The iPhone was, on paper a vastly inferior device to the scores of touchscreen smartphones that already existed, but it actually took getting one in my hand before I “got it” and realised why it was going to be big.

Being honest about your countries history can be hard. When I left Australia Aboriginal history and culture recognition was almost zero. When I went back at Christmas, I was shocked by how things had changed, recognition of traditional owners, “welcome to country” rituals, and warnings of deceased people appearing in videos at museums (it’s a cultural taboo in some tribes to depict the dead), and a lot more interest and recognition of the culture. There are still massive problems, but it clearly can get better.

June 3, 2020 at 7:01 PM

This site has lost its mind. Why in the world would you head in this type of direction? And I’m not referring to this article solely.
Disney and other theme parks are places where you can go and have fun w other families no matter where you’re from, what religion you practice, what race you are, and here is the kicker- What political party you belong to.
Why would a website dedicated to covering Disney and other theme parks become so political? Why would you want to alienate half your audience? Can you not help yourself? Do you think your opinion is so important that you just had to write it even though it’s on a theme park website?
These theme parks help to bring us together.
All this site is doing is trying to rip us apart.
Just weird.

June 3, 2020 at 7:02 PM

What part of recognising your past and mistakes is “decisive”

I can only think of one person who thinks he’s never made a mistake.

June 3, 2020 at 7:08 PM

Hey Chad - that’s why I said I’m not referring to this article solely. I’m also talking about the last couple of months of articles coming out of this site. When I come to a theme park website, I want to read about new rides, when they are reopening, restaurant reviews- whatever. When I start reading articles that talk about how terrible the Pres is or how wrong the right is, it’s just really disappointing. Now you may not care since you agree w them, but what about the other half of the country that doesn’t agree with you and the writers here?

June 3, 2020 at 7:28 PM

The only specific article I can see was the black lives matter one. The only grumbling at Robert for daring to have a view on the world outside the gates was when he telegraphed he didn’t like Fox News.

Given that there isn’t any of the things you’re specifically complaining about here, and Robert is proposing a theme park as part of the healing process to bring about reconciliation, your criticism appears to be misplaced.

June 3, 2020 at 7:35 PM

Not true Chad. Go look deeper. If you didn’t see what articles I’m referring to and the tons of discussion in the comments from those articles -well I don’t know what to say.

June 3, 2020 at 7:45 PM

The comments aren’t the articles.

But again, Robert is here proposing some sort of reconciliation process, albeit a theme park one which is a bit unique, but hey, you can visit Mandela cell.

So why did you choose to make this one “divisive” by bring up those battles?

June 3, 2020 at 7:49 PM

Here’s the real question- what political party does Robert belong too? Does he like the Pres or not? We both know the answers to those questions. But therein lies the problem. Why the heck should we know those things about a writer on a darn theme park website?

June 3, 2020 at 7:59 PM

Map1111: "Here’s the real question- what political party does Robert belong too?"

I Respond: So that's the "real question"? Is it really, really "real"?

June 3, 2020 at 8:07 PM

Robert, I'll be the dissenting voice on the wisdom of building an American History theme park. I think it is a bad idea because there is no such thing as pure history. History is not about the past, it is about telling ourselves lessons about the present by cherry-picking, simplifying, and distorting stories from the past to make our point. Example? When I was in public school we were all taught the historical fact that in 1492 people thought the earth was flat. Ridiculous, no one did. Where did this historical fact come from that we all learned? It was dreamed up in the 19th century to make America look even greater and its discovery even more daring and wonderful. Dunno what they teach today. What lessons would you have liked Disney
to teach and which stories would you have liked Disney to use? I've come to believe that almost everything I learned in school is so watered down and distorted that the significance is lost. I'll take the history of a galaxy far, far, away, not diluted, American history, even if it is on a roller coaster and it's followed up with a Betsy Ross churro.

June 3, 2020 at 8:11 PM

Disney parks historically evolve and improve over time. The company's great advantage is the resource of its brand. The model is repeated over and over and over. Disney parks open as flawed platforms (see EPCOT Center, DCA, Hong Kong, etc.) Followed by years of tweaking and added entertainment and attractions. To say DA was a bad idea is to say the most successful theme park operator in the planet's history would have been incapable of improving the initial concept over time.

June 3, 2020 at 8:12 PM

TH Creative- um I guess you got me! I wrote too instead of to. How foolish.

June 3, 2020 at 8:15 PM

America is build by slaves and corporations...true.
Solution: Disney's American History theme park, a big harsh corporation who only cares about $$$. Who funds candidates to have the laws changed (see on google: copy right term extension act. and Banana-republic).
Not a great idea but I understand why you are programmed to think that way.

June 3, 2020 at 9:33 PM

The concept art reminds me a lot of the American Waterfront in DisneySea. I am assuming the Imagineers took some of the design from this?

For me the American Waterfront is the best themed land Disney has ever created. I had the pleasure of experiencing it first hand last spring and the detail and size of the land left me in awe. A massive Ocean liner anchors the land and houses not only a great restaurant but the best themed bar in any Disney park,The Teddy Roosevelt Lounge.We found ourselves vising this lounge daily during our trip and soaking in the ambiance of the dark woods, plush couches, and a ton of Teddy Roosevelt memorabilia. Including some truly spectacular murals.

While wandering through the land one night we came across this quick serve kiosk that had this great seating area with a random display of dinosaur bones. This was all themed to be like some sort of road side (dockside) attraction on the pier. I cannot do justice in describing it but coming across it randomly at night in the middle of the land was just a real treat. I think that is because of the detail the Imagineers put into the theming and backstory of this simple stand that sold beer and sausage. It's these little attentions to detail that abound throughout the American Waterfront in a way very few Disney lands have done before or since. As you wander through the land you suddenly find yourself transported from the idealized docks of New York in the early 1900's to Cape Cod complete with a lighthouse and immersive little village. All of this blends seamlessly and makes you truly feel like you are living out some fantasy version of an early industrial age America.

I have never felt so happy or transported in a theme park before. Add to that one of the best rides in any Disney theme park (Tower of Terror) plus Toy Story Mania, Turtle Talk with Crush, a Broadway caliber show,several well themed quick service locations, and the electric railway overhead. I could go on and on about the American Waterfront. How I wish there was something like it in the American parks.

June 3, 2020 at 9:39 PM

@Map1111 - What makes your insistence on knowing Robert's political affiliations so important? Would that help you mindlessly disregard his words without thinking about them? Here's a few suggestions from someone who has had several political disagreements with Robert over the years:
1. Stop acting like a conservative snowflake and getting upset over trigger words and phrases.
2. Read what he posts and think about it.
3. Disagree thoughtfully and coherently where you think he is off base.
4. Try to find points of agreement.
5. Remember that he pays the bills around here and he can write whatever he wants. The rest of us are for the most part freeloaders.

And in case you're wondering, I'm a lifelong conservative who's never been able to vote for a Democrat. But I do try to listen to them.

June 3, 2020 at 9:45 PM

Disney's America is an interesting concept, that could have been cool if done right. I'm not really sure what it is that you're proposing though... since you don't really go into any specifics.

Maybe they could do it in a way that works, but I certainly don't want to be lectured about the sins of my country at a theme park. Not the place for it. I would NOT be interested if that was the vibe.

You raise another interesting thing to muse... at what point do events transfer from current events to history? And when/how will they be taught in future classrooms?

I took MANY american history courses when I was in school. I don't remember ever going past the 1960s.... or at least not far beyond the 1960s, and often history courses ended at either the Civil War or World War II (graduated from high school in the mid-2000s for reference).

June 3, 2020 at 10:28 PM

@andrewL: Yep, Disney ended up using the America's park concepts for Disney Sea. Just as they had planned an Africa pavilion for World Showcase, it fell through but a decade later, they use the concept for Animal Kingdom.

Look around archives of Imagineering and it's clear they never throw anything out, just wait for another time and place to use them.

June 3, 2020 at 10:31 PM

From what I gather, it's just baffling that rather than see the fantastic money to be brought in via tourism by a Disney Park, Virginia officials threw a fit and spread stories Disney was going to bulldoze Civil War parks to build this (which it never was). Also ignoring how the park would have obviously changed between concept and finished.

Too bad as it was promising and could have been a great place to enjoy.

June 3, 2020 at 11:51 PM

Disney absolutely plundered the DA designs for Tokyo DisneySea and Disney California Adventure. American Waterfront, Condor Flats, Grizzly River Run - they all began as Disney's America designs. So we can see a bit of what that park could have been.

FWIW, the unbuilt Disney I mourn most is Long Beach DisneySea. Not having that park in my home market hurts me.

June 4, 2020 at 12:28 AM

There are entire books written on the "Disney that never was" but obvious how they do find ways to rework.

Look how long it took to finally create a Little Mermaid dark ride. And Expedition Everest was a culmination of all the attempts to make a Florida Matterhorn.

June 4, 2020 at 1:44 AM

I'm not sure a historical Disney park would really take off in today's world. I mean, Epcot began as the "educational park", and now the educational stuff is going by the wayside to make room for more IP attractions.

June 4, 2020 at 4:23 AM


I’m calling you out on your “question”. Why didn’t you answer mine? Why did you choose to deflect? What does a message of reconciliation have with political party choice?

June 4, 2020 at 5:13 AM

I'm reminded of a post I saw on a Facebook Group:

"This group is not a democracy. If you disagree with what I say or what I post you are free to choose not to visit the group or not engage but you do not have the right to complain about it".

Real life affects our enjoyment of theme parks whether we want it to or not. Exploring the ways in which theme parks can either distracts us from the real world or help us to understand it better is a perfectly legitimate stance for a theme park site to take. Like with everything on the internet no one forces anyone to read it. Be grateful that we all have that freedom.

June 4, 2020 at 9:03 AM

@Map1111 - I wasn't pointing out your spelling fail ... But now that you mention it. :o)

June 4, 2020 at 10:39 AM

I think a park centered on history will always be problematic. History is increasingly viewed in the lens of the present, and accomplishments and important historical events take on new meanings as societal norms change. Also, society's view of history is splintering and taking on an ever-growing political tilt that will inevitably offend or alienate the park's potential audience. It also exposes the park operators to making political statements by how history is portrayed and revisions that are made over the lifetime of the park.

I think sticking with fantastical depiction of historical time periods are the way to go for theme parks, and keep the curation of history under the domain of museums.

June 4, 2020 at 11:09 AM

There is a great video on You Tube of a special looking at the American Adventure from 1987. It goes into the challenges (it was going to be a ride but realized a show better) and the big one of facing the worst parts of America yet not be judgemental in modern context. If that's just for one half-hour show, imagine the tricky bits of a theme park.

June 4, 2020 at 11:16 AM

I agree with Russell Meyer. A theme park based on accurate history will be an incredibly difficult proposition to pull off simply because the one thing the theme park cannot provide is context. And like Russell says, viewing the events and actions of the past in the lens of the present changes the interpretation of the events and actions. Things that were seen as proper and even heroic in the past might be seen as less than that in the present simply because most people lack historical context. Like Russell, I believe that a historical park won't succeed unless the history portrayed in it gets "Disneyfied" or sugarcoated.

June 6, 2020 at 11:49 AM

Robert, I enjoyed the article, but I keep going back to this one statement that I find to be misleading.

"Hard truth: America was founded by corporations and built by slaves on land stolen from natives."

"founded by corporations" - Initial exploration of the Americas was funded by monarchs and nobility and corporations, but if you are talking about the founding of the United States of America, well that was accomplished by exceptional individuals working towards a worthy goal. Beyond initially getting people to migrate to the New World as indentured servants in a largely unsuccessful, for-profit effort, corporations had little to do with the founding of this country.

"built by slaves" - During the colonial era, slaves comprised up to 20% of the population with most of them concentrated in the south. Making that claim is a gross distortion of the truth and is extremely disrespectful to the other 80% of the population who helped forge this country.

"on land stolen from natives" - Partly true. During much of human history and that includes the colonial era of this country, the concept of "might makes right" was almost universally accepted. Native Americans stole land and property from each other just as much as the European powers. If the stronger tribe won, then that was just the way it was. Now once the fledgling United States government put on a veneer of civility the "stolen from natives" assertion becomes painfully clear. The dark side of the Manifest Destiny doctrine and the immoral and illegal treatment of the Native Americans is a terrible stain on the history of the United States.

Other than that minor disagreement, I applaud the article.

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