We are heading into the home stretch of the T.T.D.T.P.C.
Today we look at something that was so controversial it never got built.
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4) Disney’s America
It is the rare situation when one of these controversies crosses beyond simply die-hard (lets be honest; nut-job) fans and into the real world. This was much more than park-goers fondly remembering a purple dragon and complaining when it was removed from a ride… this turned into an actual political drama that played out on the nightly news.
It was the early 90’s. The Michael Eisner regime was firmly in control and hitting its peak. They had turned around the studio division of the company managing its transformation from a sleepy also-ran into an industry-leading powerhouse. They were tapping the goldmine of classic movies for home video release and the Disney Stores were taking over malls across the country. At the parks Eisner had opened Disney-MGM Studios, major new attractions such as Star Tours and Splash Mountain and the sure to be a mega-hit Euro Disney was just around the corner.
Eisner knew nothing but success at this point; everything he touched turned to platinum (forget gold… he was way beyond that). In 1993 it was time to expand the parks again and this time he wanted an all-new park in an all-new location outside of Florida or California. Many locations and themes were explored but it was eventually decided that the park would be located near the well-established tourist area of Washington DC and themed around American History.
More specifically 3000 acres of Prince William County in Virginia was to be the location of Disney’s America. This spectacular new park would explore a broad range of historical topics spreading out over nearly 200 years of America’s past. Much like the current Disney formula the park would have featured several different “lands” each themed to a different era:
Crossroads USA served as the main entrance and hub of the park. It was to be themed after a Civil War era town. Antique steam engines would circle the park departing from this area.
Guests could then enter the Native America land. Here a Lewis and Clark Expedition themed white water rafting ride would anchor the area and Native American villages would be represented.
President’s Square would have been home to a new Hall of President’s attraction, theoretically relocated from Walt Disney World.
Next would be the Civil War Fort that would immerse visitors in the most turbulent time in America’s history. From here guests could watch large-scale Civil War re-enactments and a recreation of the battle between the “ironclad” boats the Monitor and the Merrimack.
Despitethe name Enterprise this area was not focused on space travel but rather the late 19th century. A factory town represented American innovation and ingenuity. The major attraction here was the Industrial Revolution, a roller coaster through a steel mill complete with blast furnaces and molten steel.
Proceeding through the park and into the turn of the century visitors could explore the We The People area of the park. A recreation of Ellis Island would have housed live entertainment, music and in an effort to represent a melting pot of cultures featured cuisine from several countries.
A State Fair section was a throwback to the 30’s with a wooden roller coaster, Ferris wheel and baseball fields (featuring old timey games).
A Family Farm area would touch upon the importance of agriculture and offer hands on exhibits and attractions.
Finally Victory Field would tackle more modern military exploits showcasing the struggles of World War II. Themed after a 1940’s era airfield various hangers would have housed the attractions. Here guests would board a flight simulator like they had never experienced before.
The location was chosen due to its proximity to existing historical attractions and the short drive to the related sites within Washington DC. Disney felt that the park would be a perfect compliment to the museums and battlefields of the area. Land was found several miles from the site of the Battle of Bull Run and Disney did feasibility studies and created the concept art and designs required to proceed.
Then all hell broke loose.
Disney was not attempting to purchase an orange grove in the middle of nowhere or some discarded swampland. Disney was not hiding behind a pseudonym or a shell company either. They made their intentions very clear and many local residents (of a generally wealthy area) were not pleased.
Opponents feared that Disney would bring with it tacky hotels, fast food chains and souvenir shops like the type found near the other Disney locations. Furthermore they feared huge crowds of tourists clogging roadways and bringing chaos to their sleepy community. Historians argued that this area was historically sacred and not fit for the volume and scale Disney had envisioned. Moreover many argued that Disney could never properly present the deep and complex issues present in our country’s past. How would they discuss slavery or the massacre of Native Americans? Disney largely planned to ignore these subjects and would touch on them only superficially in the same way the American Adventure attraction at Epcot does. But this was not one attraction at a theme park in central Florida; this was an entire park dedicated to these topics located in the cradle of American history.
Was it disrespectful to have roller coasters and rafting rides a stone’s throw from historic battlefields? Would a brief synopsis of deeply serious issues suffice before junior ran off to ride the inverted coaster and eat a corn dog?
Detractors claimed that Disney would present a version of history in which the United States was the center of the world. One in which there would be an “awe shucks sure we have made some mistakes but in the end we saved the world!” mentality.
Opponents also happened to be wealthy and connected to some of the most powerful people in the country. It soon became apparent that this was going to be a long and messy uphill battle.
Then in 1994 Eisner canceled the plans. Seemingly backing down to the vocal minority who did not want the park to happen. However lost in all of this is the fact that the “can’t miss” Euro Disney park did in fact miss… and missed big. The park opened in 1992 and was losing money at an alarming rate. Enough time had passed that it was clear this was not a short-term problem.
Eisner was facing a failing park draining resources on one hand and a bunch of loud, rich, powerful complainers on the other. Eisner lost his love of the park at this point in time and the choice was really very simple; Disney threw in the towel. They shifted gears and certain elements were re-used in the next parks they did build: Disney’s California Adventure and Tokyo Disney Sea.
At the end of the day it is probably a good thing that Disney’s America did not move forward. These are very serious and sensitive issues and though Disney may have handled them very well if they did not, or if they ignored them completely, the backlash would have been severe. This was also the start of a long dry-spell in spending for the Disney parks. Spooked by the debacle of Euro Disney Eisner was loathe to spend big money on theme parks. Imagine a park not only saddled with serious subject matter and surrounded by controversy but severely underfunded as well.
Was it a good idea or is it a good thing they bailed? What do you think?