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You're KNOTT going to believe where "Disney's America" almost got built

You're KNOTT going to believe where "Disney's America" almost got built

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Given that last Tuesday's story about "Disney's American Celebration" was such a hit with JHM readers, I thought that it might be fun to reveal yet another piece of the "Disney's America" puzzle. Tell a part of the story that happened long after most folks thought that the Walt Disney Company had abandoned all plans to build a history-based theme park.

This would be the late Fall / early winter of 1994. Long after Michael Eisner had formally announced that the Disney Corporation would not be going forward with its plans for Prince William County. Long after the "Disney's America" visitor center in Haymarket, VA. had locked its doors. And long after the folks on the Piedmont Environmental Council had held their victory celebration, thinking that they had successfully driven Mickey out of Old Dominion.

Well, as it turns out, the Mouse hadn't actually vacated Virginia. At least not yet, anyway. For a few months more, the Imagineers wandered up and down Interstate 95. Checking out other possible construction sites for "Disney's America." They even considered one piece of property that was actually located inside the Beltway. A beautiful 1000-acre parcel that sat right at the edge of the historic Potomac.

Given that Disney had always wanted the 19.5 million tourists who annually visit Washington D.C. to also come to "Disney's America," it seemed like this waterfront parcel would have been the ideal place to build their history theme park. But -- having already been savagely hammered by the press as well as by Washington's elite for daring to try & bring a little fun to Foggy Bottom -- Mickey was a very skittish mouse at that moment. Disney Company execs were concerned that -- no matter where they tried to build "Disney's America" now (Be it in Virginia, the District of Columbia and/or any other state along the Eastern Seaboard) -- that DA's critics would still rise up and loudly decry the project.

Which was why -- even though the Mouse would have been able to pick up the property along the Potomac for a very affordable price -- the Imagineers eventually abandoned the Beltway. Heading back to the part of the country where they knew that the Disney name was still loved & appreciated: Southern California.

Now you have to understand that -- about this same time -- that Disney Company executives were starting to get cold feet about Westcot Center, that $3 billion dollar project that was supposed to be built in Disneyland's old parking lot. That state-of-the-art mix of theme park & hotels that would have turned the Anaheim theme park into a real destination resort.

So, as Westcot's fortunes waned, Disneyland Resort officials whined. "How are we supposed to become a destination resort like Walt Disney World if we don't have a second gate?"

Clearly building anything in Disneyland's old parking lot was going to be an expensive proposition. Then -- when you factored in how the construction of a new Disney theme park was going to make it extremely difficult for guests to get in & out of "The Happiest Place on Earth" for 2 or 3 years -- Mouse House managers began to wonder if all the cost & hassle involved with building a second Southern California gate was really going to be worth it.

"Wouldn't it be great," mused the higher-ups in the Team Disney Burbank building, "If we could just acquire a second theme park in Southern California? Without having to go through all the trouble of actually having to build a new one?"

Well, as it turns out (At this very same moment. Which was mid-to-late 1995), the Knotts family was reportedly getting tired of running their Buena Park-based theme park. Which is why the children of Walter & Cordelia Knott quietly put out the word in themed entertainment circles that they would soon be accepting bids for Knott's Berry Farm.

And -- as soon as Disney got the word that Knotts was officially up for grabs -- representatives from WDI drove down to Buena Park to check the place out. To see if there might an affordable / logical way to take the Farm & its hodgepodge of rides, shows and attractions and turn it into a Disney quality theme park.

At first, this challenge seemed rather daunting. As the Imagineers wandered around the Old West Ghost Town, Fiesta Village and the park's Roaring 20s section, the arrangement of the elements in this theme park seemed so random, so arbitrary. There really didn't seem to be a way for WDI to turn Knotts into a place that would deliver a Disney-quality guest experience.

But then one Imagineer saw that exact replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall that sits out toward the theme park's parking lot. And then -- in a flash -- it all came to him. The way to "fix" Knott's Berry Farm was to -- over the course of several years -- slowly turn it into "Disney's America."

The plan -- as this Imagineer laid it out -- was nothing short of ingenious. It called for starting out by radically expanding the area around Knott's Independence Hall recreation. Building many other colonial-style buildings around that hall until this area would then begin to resemble Liberty Square at WDW's Magic Kingdom.

This expanded part of the theme park would then become Knott's Berry Farm's new entrance area. Acting much as Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. does to set the stage for the rest of that Anaheim theme park, KBF's Presidents Square would now be where the new Knott's Berry Farm / "Disney's America" story would get started ... And then gradually unfold over the next several years.

"Why would this part of the theme park have been called Presidents Square?," you ask. Because the big attraction for this area was supposed to be a radically revamped version of that old Disney World favorite, "The Hall of Presidents." An attraction that Walt Disney himself had once dreamed of bringing to Disneyland. Pretty cool, huh?

Anyway ... Once theme park guests had grown tired of exploring Colonial America, they could have  walked across an old covered bridge (which would have taken them above the theme park's main entrance road over to where the bulk of Knott's Berry Farm's rides, shows & attractions were actually located) and then ... Several existing parts of the Buena Park favorite would have been pressed into service to help tell the stories that the Imagineers had already wanted to tell at the Virginia version of "Disney's America."

Take -- for example -- that trio of attractions located to the back of the Old West Ghost Town (I.E. "Mystery Lodge," "Indian Trails" and "Bigfoot Rapids"). That part of the theme park was to have become "Disney's America" 's "Native American" territory. (To explain: "Disney's America" wasn't going to be like "Disneyland." It wouldn't have had "lands." DA was supposed to have had "territories.")

Anyway ... This part of Knott's Berry Farm was now supposed to pay tribute to America's native people and how they lived so close to the land during the years of 1600-1810. And -- as for "Bigfoot Rapids" -- that whitewater raft ride would have acquired a much more serious sounding name: "The Lewis & Clark River Expedition."

Knott's Roaring 20s section? ... That was (over time) to have been reconfigured as "Enterprise," a factory town that celebrated American ingenuity. This part of theme park would have eventually become home to "The Industrial Revolution," a high speed thrill ride that was to have taken guests through a recreation of a working steel mill. Including a far-too-close encounter with a huge vat that seemed to be filled with molten metal!

As for the rest of Knott's Berry Farm ... With little or no change, the theme park's Old West Ghost Town would have told the tale of our nation's western expansion. Reflection Lake was eventually slated to become Freedom Bay. On whose shores a recreation of the Ellis Island immigrant reception center was going to be built.

It really was a rather clever sounding plan, don't you think? And the best part of it was that -- as the Imagineers slowly transformed Knott's Berry Farm in a west coast version of "Disney's America" -- Disney would have still been able to keep most of that Buena Park theme park up & running, making lots of money for the Mouse. WDI would deliberately have done the project in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, working on just one section of the theme park at a time. In order to keep the operational disruptions to an absolute minimum.

"So -- if this was such a clever plan -- why didn't the Walt Disney Company actually go forward with it?," you query. Well, for one reason, Michael Eisner wasn't all that keen on the idea of taking someone else's old theme park and then trying to turn it into a newish Disney-style theme park. Back then, Uncle Mikey had a healthy enough ego that he wanted to make sure that whatever Disney built in Southern California had to have his own personal stamp on it.

Well, Eisner got what he wished for. Like it or not, Disney's California Adventure and the public's not-all-that-enthusiastic response to the Disneyland Resort's newest theme park are now part of Michael's legacy. One that (I'd imagine) he'd just as soon forget.

Anyway ... Getting back to the Knott's Berry Farm / "Disney's America" saga ... Another factor that ultimately derailed this deal was that the Imagineers could never quite figure out was how they were going to safely transport those thousands of Disneyland Resort guests back and forth between the two theme parks each day.

Building a new monorail line to take guests the 7.9 miles between DL & DA would have been prohibitively expensive. Not to mention all of the right-of-way and clearance issues. The more affordable alternative was to just run buses back & forth from Anaheim to Buena Park. But (as you might imagine) the very idea that Disney was thinking about taking busloads of tourists out onto the 5 & the 91 gave the people who handled Mickey's insurance absolute fits.

But you want to know what really sank this plan? The Knotts children actually rejected Disney's bid to buy the property. Not because the Mouse wasn't offering enough money. But -- rather -- because Walter & Cordelia's kids were worried that, as part of the proposed "Disney's America" retheming, the Imagineers would wind up destroying much of what their parents had personally put into that theme park.

Of course, those who know about what has happened to Knott's Berry Farm ever since Marion, Toni, Virginia and Russell Knott sold the theme park off to Cedar Fair, L.P. in December of 1997 will appreciate the irony of that concern ... Given that the Cedar Fair folks have already ripped up and/or closed down many more quintessential pieces of this Buena Park favorite that the Imagineers were ever planning to.

Of course, by the time the Knotts finally announced that they selling the Farm to Cedar Fair, L.P., the Walt Disney Company had long since committed to the construction of DCA. Then-Disneyland president Paul Pressler unveiled plans for Disney's California Adventure in a press conference back on July 17, 1996. And the rest of that story ... you know.

Still, every so often, you'll hear disgruntled Disneyana fans saying things like: "This whole California theme thing isn't really working for me. I wish that the Imagineers would just give it up and make DCA tell a stronger, more exciting story ... Like Disney's America!"

To which I reply: "Jeese, you don't know how close that wish came to actually coming true."

"How close?," you ask.

"Just 7.9 miles to the northwest," I say.

Anyway ... That's another part of the "Disney's America" saga that (to date) hasn't really been told in public before.

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