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On July 4th, let's remember that theme park which didn't go forth: Disney's America

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On July 4th, let's remember that theme park which didn't go forth: Disney's America

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Picture this: It's August of 1994. And things are not looking good for the Disney's America project.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

What had once been envisioned as a $558 million regional theme park (which was deliberately designed to appeal to the 19 million tourists who visit Washington D.C. every year. Not to mention those 11 million locals who live in and around the Beltway) was now a PR nightmare for the Company. Since Disney's America had been officially announced back in November of 1993, a powerful and deep-pocketed opposition had risen up in Prince William County. And they seemed determined to derail Disney's America. Which - as the Company had initially proposed this project to the public - was to have celebrated " ... the American experience as (this theme park) moves and inspires guests to reconnect with (their) American heritage."

But given that it was this "American Heritage" (or - be precise - the overly sanitized / simplified spin that the Imagineers were expected to put on our complex national narrative) aspect of this project that seemed to really rile up the historians & horsey set of Virginia, Disney officials wondered: Would a version of Disney's America that de-emphasized history be that much more palatable to the project's critics?

WDI decided to find out. Which is why - in August of 1994 - they put together a feasibility study for Disney's American Celebration. Which deliberately downplayed all of the historical & educational elements that had previously dominated this proposed theme park. And in their place ... Well, Disney's American Celebration placed more of an emphasis on our country's creative culture.

Concept art for Crossroads USA. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So instead of areas like Crossroads USA and President's Square. Disney's American Celebration had attractions like Disney's America Live - where you could listen to a 1940s-era swing band concert at the USO Bandstand. Or - better yet - experience some 1910-style amusement park rides while wandering through an authentic recreation of Coney Island.

Mind you, there were still some historic elements to be found in Disney's American Celebration. But instead of areas like Victory Field (which was to have gone into great detail about the U.S.'s involvement in WWI & WWII), this theme park was to have had more nuanced & abstract exhibits like Service and Sacrifice. Which was to have featured this extra-sensory show called "Soldier Story." Where - according to this proposed attraction's logline in the Disney's American Celebration feasibility study - was to have loaded guests aboard " ... a time machine through America's conflicts."

There was also supposed to have been a part of this theme park called the "America People." With one side of this massive show building dedicated to America's Native People. While the other side of this structure was to have told the Immigrant's side of the story with an attraction that was " ½ ride, ½ Muppet film."

Prince William Board Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas
Wilder, and Gov.-elect George E. Allen all look on as Disney Design &
Development President Peter Rummell explains the Company's plans
for Prince William County.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

This proposed theme park featured all this plus the Streets of America section of Disney's America Celebration. Which was where you could have gotten a bagel or dined at a deli while exploring New York Street, or sampled some authentic Cajun fare while visiting New Orleans Square, or gotten some Dim Sum while strolling through a recreation of San Francisco's Chinatown.

"So if the Imagineers put such a diligent effort into reinventing American Celebration, why then didn't construction of this version of that regional theme park go forward?," you ask. "Was the moneyed  opposition in DC and Virginia more than the Mouse could handle? Was this what ultimately forced Disney to pull the plug on this project?"

Well, money was a factor in the Company's decision to abandon Disney's America / Disney's American Celebration. Part of the problem was that the projected production costs of this project had begun to creep up (going from $551 million in October of 1993 to $591 million in November of 1994).

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Then there was the seasonal nature of this regional theme park (To explain: Disney's America / Disney's American Celebration was supposed to go from being a seven-days-a-week operation to a five-days-a-week operation every year beginning in October, then weekends only in December. The theme park was supposed to have been open for the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Years. And then DA / DAC was supposed to have been shut down, locked up tight from January 1st through March 1st) that made Disney's accountants nervous.

And on the heels of Euro Disney's financial problems, Disney's Board of Directors just couldn't see its way clear to financing the construction of yet another high-profile project that might struggle for years before it could finally turn a profit. Which is why Michael Eisner - who was originally so passionate about the unique storytelling opportunities that Disney's America presented - ultimately ordered that development of this theme park be stopped on September 28, 1994. Which was just over a month after the Disney's America Feasibility Assessment (which is where the info for today's JHM article came from) was presented to Mouse House managers.  

So today - on the Fourth of July - please take a moment to mourn that patriotic project that ultimately didn't go forth: Disney's America / Disney's American Celebration.

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  • I don't know why, but I seriously never get tired of reading about Disney's America. Someone should write a book. Hey Jim Hill. Write a book.

  • Any news on the National Harbor project?  I'd still love to see that go on.

  • As Virginia resident who lives within 20 miles of the proposed site, the operational schedule was unrealistic. We got buried in snow Presidents Day in 2003. Two weeks to dig out and prep a park?  No go. Our summers can be 10 degrees F hotter than Orlando.

  • Where were they going to put Slavery Land? A part that relected on the Salem Witch craze? American History wasn't all wine & roses and we wouldn't want to ignore our atrocities, would we?

  • Cheesy.

  • I want to know more about when Disney thought about "porting" this idea to Knotts Berry Farm in Calif.

  • I wonder... have they ever thought of this as a 4th or 5th gate at WDW? (4th before AK, of course).

  • I would love to see closeups of all the artwork and models that were created for this park.  Perhaps some enterprising game programmer can create a digital walkthrough (horizonsresurrected.com?)

  • Disney's America was an awful idea and it died the death it should have. It's shocking it ever got past the spit-balling phase. It does nothing to rehabilitate Eisner's ever-shrinking reputation. How's does a concept like this with a limited operating schedule even pass a cursory financial analysis? The theme was not only cheesy, it was ripe for controversy. There is just no way to treat American history or any other nation's history without including a lot of unflattering material and no degree of reassurance from Disney was going to quiet that controversy. This sort of controversy alone would have eventually halted the project, but that was just the first hurdle.

    It was never going to be built. The opposition was too formidable. The residents were a broad-based coalition of the super-rich, the politically connected and the loud and numerous upper-middle class: doctors, lawyers, engineers, government project managers, R&D types living in $950K McMansions in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Disney wasn't trying to build a project in the middle of a swamp in an economically depressed part of the country, it was trying to build a theme park with all its ancillary sprawl in one of the richest counties in America. They weren't going to be convinced to support the project with the usual economic arguments and in fact had plenty of economic arguments for rejecting it--like decreased property values and additional strain on infrastructure, not to mention additional traffic in a region with some of the worst traffic in the country.

    Disney's decision  to locate the project close to important and sensitive historical areas also guaranteed the project would involve not only a local opposition clustered around residents, but opposition from national, regional and local environmental and conservation groups who promised years of litigation on a whole bench of environmental and zoning issues if Disney had gone ahead. I find it hard to believe Disney would have pulled the plug on a project whose cost rose a mere $40 mil.in a year, if that was the only consideration. The issue of cost was a friendly excuse to terminate a poorly conceived project that was dead on arrival the minute the Disney Company issues its first press release.

  • The concept art makes the potential of this park looks gorgeous but after what they did to DCA and the wrecked budget from DLRP flopping, it's probably a good idea this park never came to be.

  • I'm a true-blue fan of ANY House of Mouse, and love every too-infrequent minute I spend in the parks, but this idea just seems so very wrong to me.

    I don't really know why, since I think Disney did a very good job with their treatment of the Hall of Presidents and also the American Story at EPCOT, I guess it's just a feeling that doing a copy of something right next door to the real thing is tacky.

    I really appreciate Robert Smith's insightful response also, and I agree that there is no way a mere 7% increase in costs would have frightened them away after they'd gone so far into the design phase.

    I think  this is just one more example of how remarkably non-Disney-esque Eisner's vision was. The more I learn about him, the more I am amazed that Disney survived his tenure.

  • How can they call themselves imagineers when they lacked the imagination to find a way to keep it open 365 days a year? Ever heard of electric heaters and snow blowers?

  • Hey Jeffery Contompasis, did you every hear of Hershey Park?  They're an almost scaled down version of what Disney is.   They have a themepark, a zoo, a couple of hotels, a couple of golf courses, a spa.   They're able to make a successful go of it in central Pa.  So why couldn't Disney do it?

    Hey WDWFanboy Brett, did you read the article?  It makes it pretty clear that Disney changed the concept based on those things you mentioned.

    Disney could and should attempt to make a go of something in the Northeast.  It's the most populated region in the U.S. (not to mention Canada's eastern half and a shorter flight from Great Britain where there is a large Disney fan base).   They should try it in mid to upstate New York (is that Catskills or Adirondaks?), or the Pocono region of Pa.   They could do a Spring/Summer/Fall themepark and a resort area with fishing, biking, hiking, etc.  In the winter, they could turn it over to a winter sports resort.   With ESPN, they could even make it part of the Winter X-Games.

  • Yes, I remember this concept.  It was going to be built in Hay Market, Virginia.  Too far from Washington DC, if you ask me.  And there was no "rail" service to that particular area.  The summers are HOT and the winters are COLD.  I just don't see how people would really want to travel there.  It would have required new roadways and a host of other so-called imporvement to make it feasible.

  • Walt Disney Corporation should consider New York State and upstate New York to develop and design and create a New Disney Theme park. The Disney Corporation should take and look at Merlin Entertainment.  Merlin Entertainment will have a New Theme Park.  There theme park LEGOLAND will be in Goshen, New York.  it's going to be just an hour from New York City, and approximately 3 hours from Boston and Philadelphia, the Theme park will be 60 miles northwest of New York City, it will have 50 Rides, shows and attractions it will have a 250 - room Lego themed hotel, it will be open from April to November and it will be seasonally it will bring 10,000 to 20,000 visitors to the area and it will have annually the company says it expects between 1.5 million and 2.5 million visitors a year which is in line with attendance in California and Orlando, Florida and LEGOLAND New York will mirror the LEGOLAND Florida Theme park.  LEGOLAND New York will be 523 acres

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