The Future Ends Today

The list of Top Ten Disney Theme Park Controversies continues today with #2.

If you just joined us click HERE for the first 8 entries on our list.

2) Horizons is shuttered and demolished

Take a beloved fan-favorite attraction. An attraction built on a huge scale. An attraction designed by some of Walt Disney Imagineering’s greatest. An attraction that showcased everything Disney does best. Then suddenly shut it down… permanently. And then for good measure demolish the building in full view for the world to see. No problem right? It’s a perfect storm for fan frustration.

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Herb Ryman could capture the essence of an attraction in concept art like no one else ever could.

If EPCOT Center was an exploration of our optimistic future shared by a united world then Horizons was a crystallization of that future. It was the crown jewel of EPCOT Center. It was the single attraction that represented the spirit, the hope and the goals of EPCOT Center (and Walt Disney’s personal ideals) more than any other.

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The marhcing bad of the future, here today (or in 1984 at least)

Each of the other Future World pavilions focused on a singular idea or industry: Communications, Agriculture, Imagination, Transportation and so on whereas Horizons encapsulated them all into one glorious mega-attraction. Poised like a spaceship on the brink of take-off Horizons was architecturally unique, a beautifully detailed and skillfully executed vision of the future. It was an exciting and unifying vision of things to come and a knowing nod at our past visionaries. Using a side facing Omni-mover ride system Horizons picked up where the Carousel of Progress left off. Guests explored the future of life on Earth, both on land and under the sea, before leaving terra firma and venturing into outer space. It was a long attraction with an abundance of technology and deft storytelling… in other words it was classic EPCOT. Though Horizons debuted a year after the park’s grand opening, and had its budget and scope reduced along the way, the end result immediately made it a classic and the first attraction many think of when discussing EPCOT Center… and then it was gone.

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Horizons had a bit of everything, from comedic robots to Omnimax screens to Pepper’s Ghost “holograms” to orange scents, it showcased everything Disney did so well.

The exact reasons for the closure are murky at best. We know that Horizons lost its sponsor (General Electric) and that is never a good sign for an attraction. But there is a lot more to it than just that. The most popular theory or excuse is that the building was collapsing upon itself and that the land beneath it was hiding a sinkhole necessitating its removal. Some say that Disney management felt the attraction was corny, old-fashioned and passé. Others claim that it simply came down to dollars and cents and that Disney needed the space and a fresh start in order to attract a new sponsor. No one outside of Disney really knows the true reasons why Horizons was so unceremoniously dismantled but we do know that it sent fans into a tizzy.

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These are honestly hard for me to look at… just so sad.

This was the first time in history that a marquee “E-Ticket” attraction was not only shut down, but the entire building was razed erasing any trace of its existence. A new version was not being created, the building was not being re-used, and instead the entire shebang was simply being deleted.

Horizons

Perhaps more than any other now extinct attraction fans have kept Horizons alive in their hearts. Fan-made DVDs, tribute web pages and even fully recreated interactive virtual rides have been created to keep Horizon’s message optimism for the future going strong. If you are old enough to know the original spirit of EPCOT Center then you know that the loss of Horizons was almost unimaginable. It was ripping the very heart out of the park and in fact Epcot has never been the same since.

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You should check this out if you have not already.

Horizons was closed in December of 1994. A year later it suddenly re-opened unchanged (thwarting many theories that it had to be closed due to pressing safety issues). Horizons remained open while both World of Motion and Universe of Energy were closed (due to a bad mismanagement of refurbishments brought on by major design issues with the new Test Track ride) but by 1996 was no longer operating on any regular basis and by the start of 1999 was closed for good. In 2000 the Horizons building is slowly, painfully demolished.

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Roomba my ass!

Today Horizons lives on in the memories of the legions of fans that so fondly recall the power of the message it carried. Far more than a thrill ride or a cavalcade of special effects, Horizons had a soul. A few relics of the attraction have survived and Disney occasionally trots out the robotic butler figure for display on special occasions. Most of the attraction found it’s way to a landfill and a few parts oddly ended up rotting in the Parisian sun (click here to see what I mean).

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I have no tattoos… but if I were ever to get one…

I recently met a park enthusiast in his twenties, he considered himself a fairly hardcore fan. He had visited the parks annually since he was a kid; I could relate. Then I found out that he had never even heard of Horizons… it meant nothing to him, that was a bit sad for me to hear. Sure he was probably 7 or 8 when it shut down and likely never rode it, but to never have heard of it at all was a shock. We all want our heroes and our most vivid memories to live forever… but they cannot.

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As loud and sustained as the fan community complaints may have been Disney knows that eventually they will all subside and that new generations of fans will come in replacing the jeers of the old guard with cheers for the newest and “best” attraction to come along. Such is the theme park circle of life.

Did you ride Horizons? Do you miss it?

For the next entry click HERE

The many misadventures of Las Californias

After a short break we are finally rounding the bend into the top three (or according the Shane the only ones that count) of the Top Ten Disney Theme Park Controversies.

Click HERE to see the previous seven.

3) And speaking of Disney’s California Adventure…

Of all the many propositions one could come up with for a theme park the muddy idea of “The history and culture of California” seems pretty far down the list.

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It may be pretty… but it was the genesis of a decade long struggle for the parks.

The ongoing mess with Euro Disney dampened Michael Eisner’s enthusiasm for theme parks, however he recognized the potential the parks and resorts division held. Disneyland was always considered a one-day attraction visited mostly by locals while Walt Disney World was a vacation destination with the majority of guests visiting from out of the state or from overseas. The average visitor to Walt Disney World spends a week on property. They stay at Disney owned hotels and eat at Disney owned restaurants; those guests are worth a fortune. Disney wanted to transform Disneyland into a similar multiday destination resort and so it needed to expand.

Short on space Disneyland had only one area for a major expansion: the parking lot. Concepts were tossed around for several years including a west coast version of Epcot Center (Westcot) and a U.S. version of DisneySea. Now skittish about overspending on parks Disney scraped those grandiose plans and went in search of something much more modest.

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I know it is hard to tell but this was prior to the building of Disney’s California Adventure.

Fortunately for the Disney accountants (and to the chagrin of park fans everywhere) they decided to dust of the plans for Disney’s America. However California holds none of the historic gravitas of the parks’s original east coast location. Staging Civil War battles or telling the story of immigrants crossing the Atlantic made no sense for a park located in the Golden State. But California is a very diverse state with a rich history all it’s own and thus Disney’s California Adventure was born.

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Can you guess what this park is about? Subtlety was not a strong suit.

Disney’s California Adventure was nothing more than a reimagining of the original Disney’s America concept stripped of its historical relevance and with a few parts swapped out. Victory Field became Condor Flats; it still had a cool albeit modified flight simulator and an airfield theme. The State Fair area became Paradise Pier replete with carnival rides galore. The Lewis and Clark raft ride became the “extreme” sports raft ride named Grizzly Rapids. A tour of a steel mill became a tour of a bakery. The farm themed area became… a farm themed area and so on. A couple things could not be translated; Hall of Presidents and broad stories of American History no longer fit so the park got a movie about the history of California instead. The entertainment industry plays a big part in California’s economy so a miniature version of Disney MGM studios was grafted onto the new park as well.

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Tractors… yup, we got your tractors right here. (located in the Bountiful Farm area of DCA)

The idea of placing a park with a California theme within the state of California struck many people as odd; why simulate what is just outside the front gate? The name too was clunky and awkward but it was the park’s execution that really got fans riled up. Off-the-shelf carnival rides with little or no thematic elements played a major role in the new plans. Even the more elaborate attractions tended to be copies of rides that already existed in other parks (and often better executed in those parks). When one thinks of the original version of Disney’s California Adventure the term “hobbled together” leaps to mind (as well as cheap, ugly and under-developed); from concept on down it felt half-baked.

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Ummmmm… no comment.

Disney’s California Adventure (or DCA as it was referred to it) opened in February 2001 and was immediately met with criticism from both the fan community and the general public alike. Fans missed the special and unique aspects that were typical of previous Disney parks. They complained about the lack of quality attractions, garish and tacky signs and too much emphasis placed on dining and retail locations. The public as a whole shrugged with indifference.

The original line-up of attractions included:

Hollywood Pictures Back lot:

• Muppet Vision 3-D: A 3-D movie that was a duplicate of an attraction from Disney-MGM Studios that opened a decade earlier.

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Already a decade old when DCA opened and stripped of all the exterior charm of the original.

• Disney Animation: A single building that contained several interactive exhibits relating to animation including the Animation Academy and the Sorcerer’s Workshop. This was very similar to the animation attraction at Disney-MGM Studios.

• Hyperion Theater: A live performance venue with little decoration, detail or theme.

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The magnificent Hyperion Theater.

• Superstar Limo: A modest and bizarre dark ride through a cartoon version of Hollywood.

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Can Drew Carey be considered a superstar?

Golden State:

• Grizzly River Run: A white water rafting experience similar to those found at many other parks (including Kali River Rapids at Disney’s Animal Kingdom).

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The prettiest part of DCA.

• Redwood Creek Challenge Trail: A children’s play area.

• It’s Tough to be a Bug!: A 3-D movie that was a duplicate of the same show found in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

• Soarin’ Over California: A flight simulator.

• The Bakery Tour: A very simple walk-through of a Boudin Bakery. The highlight being a small sample of bread guests received at the end of the short tour.

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Children are always enthralled with the magic of industrial bread ovens.

• The Tortilla Factory Tour: Similar to the Bakery Tour yet even more modest.

• Seasons on the Vine: A short movie highlighting winemaking.

• Golden Dreams: A twenty-minute movie about the history of California.

Paradise Pier:

• California Screamin’: A large -scale yet generic roller coaster similar to those found in parks such as Six Flags. As an aside what did Disney have against the suffix “ing”?

• Sun Wheel: A Ferris wheel

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Yup… it’s a Ferris wheel.

• Orange Stinger: A standard “swinging chair” style carnival ride.

• Mulholland Madness: A small “wild mouse” style roller coaster. This type of ride is common in most amusement parks around the world.

Jumpin’ Jellyfish (again with the “ing”): A small-scale parachute drop type of ride aimed at small children.

Maliboomer: A typical free-fall style attraction with no theme.

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Welcome to Six Flags over Disney.

Golden Zephyr: A hanging spinner type of ride.

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A picture is worth a thousand words.

King Triton’s Carousel: A traditional carousel outfitted with sea creatures.

S.S. Rustworthy: A children’s water play area.

That is a total of 21 attractions, not too bad for a brand new park. But there is a huge difference between the sheer number of attractions and attractions that people actually care or get excited about. Upon further inspection 8 of the attractions were off-the-shelf amusement park rides, 2 were simple playgrounds, 2 were 3-D movies (that had been at other Disney parks for years), 2 were basic walk through tours of bakeries and 1 was a brief movie about wine.

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I think the mall has one of these.

That left 6 attractions that could be considered the marquee points of interest; still not a bad number… lets check them out:

1) Disney Animation was for all intent and purposes a clone of the Disney-MGM Studios attraction. It was several small-scale hands-on exhibits and nothing more.

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Home of hands-on exhibits.

2) Hyperion Theater was a stripped down, basic venue… the actual theater lacked in details and the live performance at the time (a show called Steps in Time) was underwhelming.

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You have to look really close but you may be able to catch the trick… the facade and painted sky are actually hiding a huge square warehouse!

3) Superstar Limo was an attempt at creating a Disney style dark ride. It featured simplistic caricatures of Disney friendly celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Tim Allen and the ubiquitous Drew Carey seen along a manic tour of tinsel-town. It was so ill received and poorly executed that it lasted only a year before being closed permanently. It is considered the worst dark ride Disney has ever produced. As an aside Superstar Limo had it’s own mini controversy… not just because it was laughably bad but because rumor had it that an exciting chase scene was to be included. The chase featured paparazzi running down your limo to get your picture and was cut due to the circumstances surrounding the death of Princess Diana. There has never been real evidence of this but who knows.

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Yea, this really was in the park…

4) Grizzly River Run looked nice from the outside. It was housed in the park’s iconic bear-shaped mountain but ultimately was a simple raft ride. It featured nothing to make it “Disney” or special, or to differentiate it from similar offerings at many other parks. Nevertheless it was one of the stronger opening day offerings.

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It’s big so you know it’s “X-Treme!”

5) Golden Dreams was a comedic film that looked at the history of California. Oddly it also featured Whoopi Goldberg. While not offensive in any way it was a second tier attraction at best.

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Apparently nothing says “California” like a woman born and raised in New York City.

6) Finally we were left with Soarin’ Over California, a new flight simulator attraction. Though corners were cut in its creation the end results were still well received. It was the one stand out attraction within the park.

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It’s not pretty but it’s pretty good.

Disney was obviously aware of criticism it had received after opening Disney’s Animal Kingdom with just a handful of rides. They pumped up the attraction number at DCA to be respectable and yet only one on the roster of rides could be considered special in any way.

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Believe it or not the blue sky is just a painted back drop!

Making matters worse no berm or landscaped barrier was erected around the park. Unlike Disneyland guests could easily see outside of Disney’s California Adventure. Visitors could plainly see hotels, a neighboring convention center, power lines and more. Frankly it was just plain ugly. Even within DCA there was very little shade or true themed elements. All of Paradise Pier was nothing more than stock amusement park rides with flat signs touting whacky names. The Hollywood Pictures Back lot featured painted flats as facades and most other areas felt low-end and poorly done.

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This hub cap looking thing was the centerpiece of the park… DCA’s castle if you will… breathtaking but maybe for the wrong reasons.

On the other hand Disney lavished time and money into building high-end restaurants from Wolfgang Puck and Robert Mondavi (both gone within the first year) and built far too many retail locations. The intent was clear; Disney thought this formula would attract the same crowd who visit the World Showcase at Epcot. It was a cost effective way of getting a second gate open without spending money on high-end rides.

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When fine dining establishments out number major attractions you know that there may be a problem.

Salt was rubbed into park fan’s wounds when Disney opened Tokyo DisneySea at the Tokyo Disney Resort seven months after Disney’s California Adventure premiered. Tokyo Disney Sea was an incredibly lavish and detailed park. Where as California Adventure had virtually no unique or “E Ticket” rides DisneySea was bursting at the seams with them. Every single element of Tokyo Disney Sea was well thought out, expertly crafted and often stunningly executed. The American Waterfront section of the park even borrowed some old themes from Disney’s America’s “We The People” area, now executed amazingly well. Tokyo DisneySea showed what Disney was capable of while Disney’s California Adventure showed what shortsighted marketing driven decisions lead to. The startling contrast and obvious quality gap between the two parks alienated many of Disney’s faithful.

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Proof that Disney’s America was not all bad.

DCA was such an underwhelming mess that many fans refused to set foot in it. It became a black eye for the entire company. Rather than expanding Disneyland into a multiple day resort, Disney’s California Adventure became a consistent drain on the bottom line and a public relations nightmare; in other words it was a total failure on all fronts.

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Spectacular!

The attendance numbers were a fraction of the projections (while those of Tokyo Disney Sea easily met and beat even the most optimistic goals). Disney soon tried every quick fix they could think of; prices were slashed, package deals were created (often giving away tickets to the new park) and new advertising campaigns were created. Nothing helped. Meanwhile Disneyland next door was setting attendance records.

Fans knew that it is attractions and specifically stellar, big budget rides that draw the crowds however Disney was blind to this fact. Tokyo DisneySea proved that the Imagineers had not lost their touch; they simply were not given a reasonable budget or directive to work with.

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Quick fix attraction additions continued the wonderful theme… look at the rich details poured into this attraction’s facade.

Several makeshift additions were quickly green-lit for the park. A version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire: Play It! Was added. A simplified version of the Tower of Terror was installed and a Bug’s Life themed kids ride area was put in. But the numbers for the park were still abysmal. It was too little, too late and without enough care, thought or originality.

Disney finally realized that there was no choice other than to dramatically alter the park. In an unprecedented move Disney rebuilt, redesigned, reconceptualized and expanded huge swaths of the park. They spent over a billion dollars adding unique attractions and creating a sense of time and place that was previously absent. Nearly a decade after the park opened the new Disney’s California Adventure became a hit. Attendance number rose dramatically and despite the rocky start the park is now considered a success.

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Now that’s better!

It’s still frustrating to think of what they could have done if given the proper budget to work with form the get go, but at least this one has a mostly happy ending and is hopefully a lesson well learned.

For #2 click HERE!

Photo credits (thank you!):

Yesterdayland, J. Spence, Mouse Planet, Mice Chat

U.S.A.! U.S.A!

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.

Click HERE to get caught up to date in case you have just joined us.

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.

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They made a logo and everything so you know they were serious

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.

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Look, a balloon… just like the original concept art of Disneyland

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.

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I was going to try and make some jokey reference here but frankly it gets really touchy when you are talking about Civile War era America… so I’ll just leave it alone.

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.

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Grizzly Rapids Lewis and Clark raft ride

President’s Square would have been home to a new Hall of President’s attraction, theoretically relocated from Walt Disney World.

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Hall of Presidents (HOP) should not be confused with International House of Pancakes (IHOP) though Lincoln does make a mean apple baby.

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.

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Can you say Tom Sawyer Island?

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.

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Guests apparently ride on rivers of mustard through a steel mill… or something.

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This is like the fifth time in Disney history where they tried to make an Edison Square type of attraction… Not going to happen guys.

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.

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The American Waterfront section of Tokyo Disney Sea looks a LOT like this

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Ah yes, the good old days of the depression and scurvy in the streets… what a wonderful memory

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.

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Six Flags over Virginia

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.

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What exactly are those two guys in the foreground doing? It looks as if they are both about to drop their pants.

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.

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Lets be honest… Disney does not have a spectacular history when dealing with ethnic minorities

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.

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Disney doesn’t even like dealing with this… can you imagine the challenges Disney’s America would have presented?

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.

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Damn straight!

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?

Click HERE for number 3.