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?
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personally, as an American history buff I think this was a GREAT idea and it’s a shame it didn’t get built, I mean being able to visit different eras of American history? it would have been amazing
I’m no Obama bashing Tea Partyer or anything, but why shouldn’t America have a theme park celebrating it’s successes and triumphs without an “equal focus” on it’s failures? every country has periods of darkness in it’s history and it seems unfair that people believe America should always be “required” to emphasize them when talking about it’s history when I’m sure no one would say the same thing about England, France, Italy, Spain or Canada
and even if it didn’t go into great detail I’m sure the Civil War section of the park would have made it clear the war was fought over slavery and not any revisionist history “state’s rights” type crap, so long as it provided that context I think it would be fine
Well Griff I’m not so sure that people would not want both sides if history for any country. But America is unique in many ways and the single most unique aspect is that we are made of hundreds of cultures. But with that comes the fact that the land was stolen from its Indigenous people and therefore the very foundation of our country is a hard topic to handle in a theme park.
But I agree that it still could be done. I truly think this park got killed much more because of Euro Disney than because if tough history lessons.
The broad concept of Disney’s America – exploring the complex history of our country in a large scale, immersive setting – is a strong one, but I don’t think Disney is or was the right company to execute this idea. As you guys mention, when dealing with the history of our nation it’s important to give equal weight to the good and the bad, and I just can’t see Disney paying more than lip service to slavery, the trail of tears, Japanese internment camps, etc.
If someone wanted to do this idea justice, it would need to be a very different type of theme park. Less focus on traditional rides, and more a recreation of semi-authentic experiences. It would need to have as much in common with museums as it does with other theme parks. I would personally love to see something like this attempted, but sadly the two companies with the money to do it right won’t do it, and no one else has the means to.
I think what you are describing is more similar to high end museums than traditional theme parks and certainly not something Disney or Universal would mess with.
I think Disney saw success with things liek the Hall of Presidents and the American Adventure. They are very basic, very superficial glimpses at history. If they applied that formula to Disney’s America they likely could of had an entertaining and successful park but hardly an accurate or truthful one.
Then again no one wants to go ride a log flume through an internment camp. Somethings are really better left alone unless the motivation if quite a bit different than Disney’s would have been.
For as great as this missed opportunity was I still think WestCot and the Disney Sea project in Long Beach, CA was a bigger loss for the American theme park audience.
It was a dark time for us park fans… we may see this topic come up again later on the list
I’m possibly in the minority here, but I find the designs for Disney’s America to be very lackluster. I mean, these are their ideas? A Lewis & Clark (off-the-shelf) white water ride? A rollercoaster through a steel mill? A Monitor v. Merrimack water stunt show? A lot of this stuff reeks of brainstorming session cast-offs. They are like literally the worst things to pick if you wanted to make a theme park about America. I can come up with about 20 rollercoaster ideas before I land on “steel mill.”
And to make matters worse, it sounds eerily similar to another park Disney did end up building, full of factory tours and shopping experiences. That said, I dig the logo.
I could not agree more Shane. It looks like a mess if a park for the most part. But designs would have changed. Much of the Ellis Island stuff ended up in one fashion or another in Tokyo DisneySea and it’s pretty amazing.
As for the other stuff… Well we have to see what’s next on the list.
Speaking of which… We gave taken a break but the list will wrap up next week.
Those renderings look awesome. But I can easily imagine that during the Euro-Disney money hemorrhage, anything actually built would not have been nearly so impressive.
Exactly Dean. I think the real reason they cancelled the park has a lot more to do with the failure if Euro Disney than it does the formal opposition.
They might have had less opposition if they’d focused on the Maryland side, somewhere between DC and Baltimore. Opposition from neighbors would have been quieter and land there remains much cheaper. The racial issues about the parks messages would have been even louder in PGC however.
You may be right about the location but remember this was Eisner at the peak of his power. For exampel he insisted that Euro Disney was built near Paris as opposed to Spain (a warm location that was very centrally located). Eisner wanted the “prestige” of being near Paris. He may of also wanted to be close to actual historic battlefields and so on for the same reasons.
But again I am sure Disney could have made it work had they really wanted to… in this location or a different one. But I think after a couple years of dealing with the troubles of Euro Disney Eisner lost his love not just for Disney’s America but for big spending on theme parks in general.