Did you know that Disney almost built a park in Virginia? That’s right! The commonwealth came very close to being home to one of the most magical places on earth. But the effort ultimately failed.
Let’s take a look back at how the idea to locate a Disney park in Virginia came about, what it was supposed to be, and how the effort fell through.
The proposed Disney park in Virginia likely isn’t what you’re envisioning.
The idea of locating a Disney park in the commonwealth traces its roots to a trip company executives took to Colonial Williamsburg. The thought was to tap into the nation’s history. Given that concept, it makes perfect sense why Virginia would be an enticing home for such a venue. It was envisioned to be a one-day park experience that would make history come alive. The name that was put forward was “Disney’s America,” with the idea of “celebrating America’s diversity, spirit and innovation.”
In November 1993, Disney announced its plans to build the 3,000-acre park, which it estimated would draw in 30,000 visitors daily. The announcement was warmly welcomed by both the outgoing and incoming governors at the time, Gov. Douglas Wilder and Gov. George Allen, respectively. It’s easy to see why they were both giddy at the idea, given it was to be an economic boon for the commonwealth, creating 3,000 new jobs and generating $50 million in annual tax revenue.
It was slated to open in 1998.
The small northern Virginia town of Haymarket in Prince William County was selected as the home of what was to be the Disney Company’s third U.S. park. The town has been called the “Crossroads” since the 1700s for a reason, namely its central location. Disney likely found the town to be an attractive place to locate a park because it isn’t too far from Washington, D.C., sites of historical significance, and other theme parks, like Kings Dominion in Doswell.
At the same time, there was speculation that Disney was considering a site in Wythe County, as reported by The Roanoke Times.
The concept for “Disney’s America” included nine theme parks, similar to Main Street, U.S.A. and New Orleans Square at Disneyland Park. The parks were said to “recall the past, live the present, dream the future” by covering a specific time in the nation’s history, according to a conceptual brochure put forward by the company. They included “Native America” from 1600-1810, “Presidents’ Square” from 1750-1800, “Crossroad USA” from 1800-1850, “Civil War Fort” from 1850-1870, “Enterprise” from 1870-1930, “We The People” from 1870-1930, “Family Farm” from 1930-1945, “State Fair” from 1930-1945, and “Victory Field” from 1930-1945.
Notable concepts included a recreated Native American village for the “Native America” park; The Hall of Presidents—based after the one located at the Magic Kingdom—for the “Presidents’ Square” park; a replica Civil War-era fort and a replica battlefield for the “Civil War Fort” park; and a replica of the Ellis Island immigration building for the “We The People” park.
Opposition to the proposal came from many sides, including historians, locals, and elected officials. Some criticized certain conceptual ideas, including an attraction that would have allowed visitors to experience slavery, an idea that was scrapped rather quickly.
The plan to locate the park in Haymarket was also a point of contention, with historians troubled by the possible desecration of nearby Civil War sites.
According to reporting from the Los Angeles Times from 1994, “What Disney foes fear most is sprawl. In an impassioned day of testimony in June before the Senate subcommittee on public lands, Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, painted a grim prospect of a landscape despoiled by T-shirt shops and fast-food havens. ‘Road rash’ is just one of the evocative phrases he used.”
Disney officials refuted these critiques, claiming the park wouldn’t lead to sprawl. Disney’s CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, insisted the land was private and that “We have a right” to build on it.
Scrapping of Project
In 1994, Disney announced it was abandoning its plans for the Haymarket location. Despite the pushback the project received, the announcement seemed unlikely given the incentives Disney had been promised by the commonwealth earlier in the year and the momentum it was making on clearing zoning hurdles.
As part of the announcement, Peter S. Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development Co., explained that, although the company was still convinced that such a park was a good idea, it would be pulling back from the project due to sustained opposition. Although the company understood concerns regarding the proposed park’s impact on nearby historic sites, it didn’t necessarily agree, he said.
“The controversy over building in Prince William County has diverted attention and resources from the creative development of the park,” he added. “Implicit in our vision for the park is the hope that it will be a source of pride and unity for all Americans. We certainly cannot let a particular site undermine that goal by becoming a source of divisiveness.”
Disney said at the time that it would continue to pursue “Disney’s America” but at a less controversial location, which obviously never happened.
Although the proposed park didn’t come to fruition, it is said that certain elements of “Disney’s America” were repurposed and incorporated into Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001.
Reporting from entertainment journalist Jim Hill also indicates that another location in California was considered for Disney’s America. The idea of turning the longtime Southern California theme park Knott’s Berry Farm into Disney’s patriotic park seemed to have many practical benefits, but the notion later fell to the wayside.
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