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An Imagineer's insight on "Disney's America"

An Imagineer's insight on "Disney's America"

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As I mentioned in my other column today, I dug a few pieces out of the JHM files that I think you'll enjoy. This is from a 1993-era interview, where then-WDI senior VP Bob Weis talks in detail about what his plans for "Disney's America." I think you'll find it most interesting.

"This is not in any way a Disneyland or a Walt Disney World. It is a small-scale regional park which would be a fundamental part of what a family's experience of seeing Washington is going to be about. We want to build a complement to Washington where you can come see, role play and be a part of history. So you'll come here and be able to have rides, shows and interactive experiences that are both about the history of America, about America today and also give you a sense of America in the future.

It's going to cover several periods of American history. It's going to look forward into the American experience. It's going to be perhaps more interactive and a little more gutsy, we think, than previous projects. We're going to talk about the Civil War and the reality of that war, and we're going to talk about the civil rights movement, the Black experience in America, talk about Native Americans and the sophisticated society they had before it was overrun by the expansion of the white population.

We're going to deal with real issues and the diverse population of this country as it was defined through struggles ... So you'll see some pretty tough issues dealt with in this park, as well as lots of fun things you would expect to be part of one of our parks.

The park is located in the rolling hills of Virginia, which in many ways is connected with the Civil War, and we have started the park in a Civil War-era town. In some ways the park is a timeline; we start in the mid-1860s and go backward or forward in time.

Backward, we go to the colonial period and Native America. In Native America, we'll focus on the landscape and the native population that existed there, and we'll build a Native American village in accurate detail reflecting the tribes that are known in this part of the country. There'll be interactive experiences, exhibits and arts and crafts, as well as a thrill ride that wraps around the area, based on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

As you go into the colonial period, we are planning to redo the Hall of Presidents and it will probably move to this location from Walt Disney World. It will play a central role about our government and the intellectual underpinnings of how our country is organized. There is a big live amphitheater adjacent, located on the waterfront, that forms the central part of this project.

Across the water from the Civil War town is a re-creation of a period fort that will form the centerpiece of the park and is adjacent to a huge battlefield, where we'll do Civil War re-enactments and water battles between the Monitor and the Merrimac.

As you start to move into the 20th century, we'll have an icon right on the water of the famous Ellis Island building where many immigrants came through. The theme here is about the diverse people of this country and the conflicts that occurred during different periods in our history. You'll see much about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the other wars we fought and how individual efforts of Americans of all races and creeds helped define the rights we have now. There will also be an area devoted to different ethnic groups, a major food experience, and a major live show on diverse music.

Still another area will explore innovation and technology and the sense of individuals coming here, having a great idea, creating a business and becoming successful. This will be anchored by a major roller coaster attraction traveling through a 19th century landscape with heavy industry and blast furnaces, called the Industrial Revolution. On either side of the coaster will be exhibits of famous American technology that have defined our industry historically, and also new developments that will define industries in the future.

Another are will the period of World Wars. This is an airport area and there'll be a series of hangars containing attractions based on America's military might and the efforts this country has made to defend freedom here and aboard. Through virtual reality technology, you'll get to fly a jet or do basic training as well as hear about soldiers and their roles in defending freedom. We hope that the airport will serve as an exhibit area of planes from different periods, as well as a place where we'll have major flying exhibitions.

Another area, the State Fair, is going to convey the sense that during the Depression of the '30s, Americans knew how to entertain themselves. It will have folk art exhibits and a live show on baseball. It will also contain some of the classic wooden thrill rides of a bygone era.

On the Family Farm, we'll recreate an authentic farm and you'll have an opportunity to see various types of farm industries, big and small, related to food production and get a real sense of America's role in the world's food production, in addition to some hands-on experiences like milking cows and learning what homemade ice cream tastes like.

I haven't done anything like this before. It's somewhat of an extension of what we started with Disney-MGM Studios and what others began with EPCOT Center, to combine education and entertainment in a new, to try and strike a balance between a very cognitive issues-oriented park and something that's repeatable, fun and interesting. It will be a challenge because we have lots of historical ground to cover, to research, and to figure out how to sort through the huge historical library of what America is about and find icons we can recreate. Another big challenge is to make sure that we are fair, to really represent the ethnic diversity and what contributions everyone has made to this and to fairly represent things that are negative about America, things that have tough issues that we either have overcome or have been unable to overcome.

If we build a nice little park about American history, then we will have failed. What's most important is that we must build alliances with important groups that are defining what America is about today - or have defined it in the past - and represent them well. There is no way that a theme park, no matter how sophisticated it is, can truly represent America, but we can fairly represent a cross section of it, and we need the involvement of lots of outside people to do that. A big challenge will be to get them to come and embrace the project, and feel like they have the input to be able to be a part of it."

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