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- July 18, 1994
- Vol. 42
- No. 3
An Uncivil War
Virginians Join Ranks to Fight a Planned Disney Theme Park
Daniel, who lives too close for comfort to the proposed site of a 3,000-acre, American-history theme park, Disney's America, isn't the only northern Virginian who views the Great American Mouse as something of a pest these days. Disney lost its magic in these parts last fall when it announced plans to build the $650 million park four miles from Manassas National Battlefield Park, the site of Bull Run, one of the Civil War's most famous battlefields. Disney's America, on a site one-tenth the area of Florida's mammoth Disney World, will feature a Civil War fort, a Native American raft ride and a high-speed train through a turn-of-the-century mill town—not to mention 1.9 million square feet of retail shopping space, 1,500 hotel rooms and more than 2,000 homes.
"I believe this theme park has tremendous capacity for inspiring people to want to know more about history," says former White House press secretary Jody Powell, who is now directing the park's public relations.
So far, though, the project has mostly inspired opposition. Critics of the park, which Disney hopes to open in 1998, insist Disney's America will transform the verdant farmland and scenic streams around Haymarket, Va., now a quiet hamlet of 500 people, into a Disneyopolis of foam cups, candy wrappers, gridlock and air pollution. Opponents contend that the 30,000 tourists expected to visit each day will attract honky-tonk motels, fast-food joints and tacky knickknack shops.
Among Disney's most vocal critics are members of Virginia's landed gentry whose fox-hunting estates lie within a cannonball shot of Bull Run. Their roster reads like a Who's Who of America's monied upper crust: banking heir Paul Mellon, candy tycoon Forrest Mars and scions of the Singer and du Pont families. "The idea of overlaying real history with commercial, plastic history breaks my heart," says political talk show host Mary Matalin, who, with her husband, Democratic consultant James Carville, owns a cabin in nearby Front Royal. "This is the raping and pillaging of America's history for a glorified hamburger stand."
Virginia politicians, however, have all but slapped on mouse-ear hats to make Disney feel welcome. All four contenders in the state's scrappy Senate race—Democratic incumbent Charles Robb, Republican Ollie North, as well as independent candidates Marshall Coleman and Douglas Wilder—have announced support for Disney's America. Republican governor George Allen, predicting the park will produce $47 million in new tax revenues annually and 19,000 new jobs—for those who don't own their own horse farms—helped persuade the state legislature to approve $165 million for highway improvements and a visitors' center at the site. "History is not just for historians," Allen says.
It is part of the park's theme, of course, and Disney has also enlisted Columbia University historian Eric Foner as an adviser. "I am not opposed to the presentation of history in a popular manner," Foner has said, "as long as it's good history." Ironically, Disney spokesman Powell, a longtime Civil War buff, helped lead a successful fight six years ago to block a shopping mall near this same Manassas battlefield. This time, "I determined this theme park would not be on hallowed ground," he says, explaining his change of heart.
Not to be outgunned, the anti-Disneyites have marshaled 125 historians and writers of their own, including Civil War historian Shelby Foote, New York Times columnist Russell Baker and Civil War documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. They argue that the Disney extravaganza will only detract from the history already there: 12 Civil War battle sites, 17 historic districts and 13 historic towns and villages. "It would be like building an amusement park on Omaha Beach or at the rim of the Grand Canyon," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough. Foote adds that Disney asked him to be an adviser to the Civil War portion of the theme park, but when he examined the plans, "a warning went off in my mind. They trivialize and sentimentalize every subject they touch."
Disney met similar opposition two years ago to the opening near Paris of its EuroDisney park, which many Frenchmen decried as American cultural imperialism. That venture has proved to be a money-loser for Disney, piling up $928 million in losses in its first year.
In Virginia much of the fight has turned into a personal attack on Disney chairman Michael Eisner, 52, who has made Disney's America a personal crusade. Local landowners arc particularly incensed that Eisner and company have accused them of being rich elitists when Eisner earned $203 million last year (mostly by cashing in slock op-lions). "I've never seen an example of a greedier man," says Foote. Last month about 100 angry protesters picketed the Disney chairman when he came to Washington for the premiere of The Lion King. Their chants and signs declared: "$203 million and no sense!" and "Eisner Don't Rape Virginia!" as he was whisked from his limo into the theater.
The Disney executive says he has difficulty understanding how people could object to a "quality project" that would enable youngsters "to get high on history." "I'm shocked because I thought we were doing good," said Eisner, who argues that the park will make history fun for those left cold by museums and textbooks. "I was dragged to Washington as a kid, and it was the worst weekend of my life."
For now, Disney has reportedly backed off from some of its more controversial plans, including such ambitious history-vérité attractions as what one Disney exec described as "painful, disturbing and agonizing" exhibits on slavery and an Industrial Revolution ride simulating an escape from a fiery vat of molten steel. Bui both sides expect the theme-park war lo continue. Prince William County's board and planning commission are expected to approve the park this fall. But the project faces tough scrutiny from federal regulators, whose environmental and transportation impact studies could take a year. Congress is expected to stay out of the fight, although Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who opposes Disney's America, did recently convene a hearing on the mailer.
Eisner has said that the controversy has made him only more determined, in true Jacksonian fashion, to stonewall the opposition. And opponents have no plans to retreat. This fall they're staging a Stop Mickey March on Washington and a national boycott of Disney products. "This is our land, this is real history," says the grandson of a freed slave, 83-year-old Waller Primas, who lives next to the proposed Disney site. "We'd be forced off the land if they build it next door." Adds Virginian and newspaper heiress Marie Ridder: "We have so little left in America that's real. This is a battle worth fighting."
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