In the early 1990s, executives at Disney started toying with the idea of creating a brand new theme park dedicated to the history of the United States. Its proposed location was Haymarket, Virginia just a few miles away from the site of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. With a planned budget of $650,000,00 and an opening date scheduled for 1998, Disney’s America was officially announced in 1993.
By the time of the formal announcement, Disney had already purchased 3,000 acres of land for the new park. Bob Weis, the Senior Vice President at the time, explained the concept by saying “This is not a Pollyanna view of America. We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the underground railroad.” Disney’s America was designed with the intention of being a one-day park that made history “real but fun”.
Plans for Disney’s America
Much like the rest of the theme parks created by the Disney company, Disney’s America would have been organized by themed areas, each land depicting a specific place and time in the history of America.
- Crossroads U.S.A. (1800 – 1850): A pre-Civil War era village that would have been the hub of the park. Guests would have entered under a 1840s train trestle that featured antique steam trains circling the park
- Native America (1600 – 1810): This recreation of a Native American village would have reflected the tribes that were from that region of the country. In addition to exhibits, arts and crafts, and interactive experiences, there was a whitewater raft ride planned for this area based on the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
- Presidents’ Square (1750 – 1800): Celebrated the birth of democracy and the people who fought to preserve it. A replica of the Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents would have been found here.
- Civil War Fort (1850 – 1870): This area was planned to expose guests to a more “turbulent” time in American history with a replica battlefield that would have hosted Civil War reenactments as well as a man-made Freedom Bay with staged water battles between The Monitor and The Merrimac as a nighttime spectacular.
- Enterprise (1870 – 1930): A mock factory town that was designed to highlight ingenuity in America with a major attraction based on the industrial revolution. The roller coaster style ride through the 19th century would have featured blast furnaces and other heavy industry elements. There were also plans for exhibits of technology that displayed the developments of America’s industry during the Industrial Revolution and how they influenced future industries.
- We the People (1870 – 1930): Would have been home to a replica of the Ellis Island building, which served as the gateway to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Plans for this area included music, restaurants and a live show.
- Family Farm (1930 – 1945): This area would have featured a recreation of an authentic farm that showcased different types of industries that were related to food production during that time. There were several other hands-on activities planned for this land as well.
- State Fair (1930 – 1945): Based on Brooklyn in the 1930s, the State Fair was supposed to have Coney Island-themed rides including a 60 foot Ferris Wheel and a wooden roller coaster in addition to a live show about baseball.
- Victory Field (1930 – 1945): At Victory Field, guests would have stepped into the experience of American Soldiers during the World Wars. The area’s design resembles an airfield with several hangars housing different attractions based on America’s military, including an exhibit of airplanes from different periods. Plans for Victory Field included what would have been the world’s first dueling inverted coaster, called Dogfighter. The ride would have feature two tracks, one with a German biplane themed car and the other with an American biplane themed car. Both tracks would have featured inversions and several near-misses between the two cars, and at one point the German car would appear to almost crash.
Other proposed developments for Disney’s America Park included a resort hotel with 1,340 guest rooms, an RV park with 300 campsites, a 27-hole golf course, and nearly 45 acres for retail/commercial development.
The public reaction to Disney’s America was largely negative, especially from one particular group called Protect Historic America. The overall worry was that Disney would trivialize the seriousness of certain elements of history like the Civil War and slavery by telling the stories through entertainment. Some historians even described the park as a “commercial blitzkrieg”. In September of 1994, Ralph Nader and 3,000 other protesters marched in Washington D.C. in opposition of the park.
Operators of other attractions in the area, like Colonial Williamsburg, also feared that Disney’s America would deter lots of tourists away from the established historical attractions in favor of a day at Disney.
In an effort to offer a positive response to the backlash that followed Disney’s announcement of the America Project, a conceptual park study was put together in the hopes of winning the public over. However, the study was discontinued a few weeks after it started. There were 8 pavilions planned for the study:
- Democracy: The Democracy pavilion would have served as the entrance area with attractions such as America: A User’s Guide, The Free Speech Forum, and the American Hall of Fame.
- Family/Generations: Included a multimedia show called Americana Families that followed four generations of a family from 1929 – 1999.
- The Land: Based on The Land pavilion at Epcot.
- Creativity and Fun: Similar to the concept for State Fair, this pavilion’s plans included a full scale recreation of Ebbets Field and Coney Island themed attractions.
- Work: Offered factory tours of iconic American companies like Apple, Crayola and Ben & Jerry’s.
- Service & Sacrifice: Similar to victory field concept; soldier’s story attraction took guests through memorable moments of American war and other interactive military areas
- American People: Told the immigration story with a ride and film featuring the muppets, had a movie called the dream of freedom that discussed the struggle for freedom and equality
- Streets of America: A dining district offering cuisine from different cities including deep dish pizza from Chicago, Hispanic and Fast Food from Los Angeles, Cajun meals from New Orleans, a traditional New York City deli, St. Louis BBQ ribs and Chinese food from San Francisco.
- Disney’s America Live: Live entertainment venue with outdoor stages and the state farm arena, where guests could try hog calling and calf roping
Abandonment of the Project
After several failed attempts to gain public support of the project, Disney publicly gave up on the park on September 28, 1994. The idea was revived briefly in 1997 when Knott’s Berry Farm went up for sale in California but fell through again when the Knott Family refused to sell the property to Disney because they were concerned about what would be done with the park.
Several planned attractions for Disney’s American ended up at Disney’s California Adventure when it opened in 2001. The Family Farm land concept was reworked into the Bountiful Valley Farm and the Victory Field idea was repurposed into Condor Flats. California Adventure’s Grizzly River Run was inspired by the Lewis and Clark Expedition plans, and the concept for Calfornia Screamin’ came from the roller coaster ride that would have been located in the State Fair at Disney’ America. Soarin’, which can be found at both Epcot and California Adventure, developed from rides planned for Victory Field.