COLUMN ONE : An Uncivil War Over Disney Plan : Families, friends and even venerable historians feud over proposed history park near a Virginia battlefield. What lies beneath all the sound and fury?
There are no cannons exploding this time, no thundering hoofbeats or trumpeted calls-to-arms. But in the quiet country that lies between Washington and the Blue Ridge Mountains, a full-scale battle has been joined. And as was often said about an earlier conflict in these hills and valleys: there ain’t nothing civil about it.
Today’s troops are fighting for economic truth and justice. They are battling about building. Hovering over the whole dispute is this question: Whose history is it, anyway?
These contemporary combatants are crossing swords over a plan by the Walt Disney Co. to build a 3,000-acre history theme park and mixed-use development four miles from the Civil War battlefield at Manassas--Bull Run to Northerners. Cost estimates range from $650 million to $1 billion. In an eerie echo of the past, the conflict is dividing friends, neighbors and families. Both sides in what is sometimes called the Third Battle of Bull Run routinely trade lethal-impact verbal volleys.
“This is serious,” said Robert Singletary, a Haymarket business consultant who heads a group called Welcome Disney. “It’s just as serious as war.”
The dispute over Disney’s America, as the proposed entertainment center is called, has galvanized factions from across the social and political spectrum.
Former White House Press Secretary Jody Powell--who boasts that nine ancestors wore the gray uniforms of Johnny Reb--serves as a public relations consultant to Disney. Opposite him is another ex-White House employee, presidential speech writer and onetime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who fulminates that the land on which Disney intends to build “belongs to all Americans, past, present and generations to come, and we have a duty to posterity to preserve it.”
Environmentalists--who fear traffic, urban sprawl and potential damage to the Shenandoah National Forest 35 miles away--are met head-on by growth proponents who argue that because development is inevitable, why not turn it over to a friendly, responsible steward like the Walt Disney Co.?
Families who protest that they will lose the small-town serenity that seems remarkable just one hour from downtown Washington are labeled not-in-my-backyard-ists by groups with names such as Friends of the Mouse and Patriots for Disney. Accusing their adversaries of elitism, NIMBYism and “economic no-growthism,” these forces contend that tax revenues will soar, and the project will infuse this sparsely settled region with commercial vitality.
Those who welcome Disney’s America insist the opposition’s behind-the-scenes strategists are a handful of wealthy landowners whose estates and horse farms lie close to the development site.
Detractors counter that Disney’s America will only fatten the coffers of an already-rich corporate kingdom.
But the fiercest fusillades have been saved for an unusual coalition of historians. Although they assert that they simply question the wisdom of locating a theme park in a region damp with what Civil War scholar C. Vann Woodward has labeled “the blood, sweat and tears of American history,” they have been depicted as trying to control the very field of American history itself.
Champions of “the Mouse” say these turf-conscious intellectuals are effete, narrow-minded and possessive about their subject. Further, they charge that these writers and academics are pawns of the horsy set, who have marched the historians out to serve as their front lines.
“Now you take someone like David McCullough,” Singletary said. “He’s a fine author, but he’s out of his field on this one. He doesn’t have an exclusive right on who writes history. He’s just being used.”
Nonsense, retorted McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who narrated public television’s 1990 “Civil War” series. He was among the first of more than 200 historians who last spring formed Protect Historic America, which exists solely to oppose Disney’s America.
Disney supporters--who include Virginia Gov. George Allen as well as the state’s two U.S. senators--portrayed the organization as a bunch of stuffy eggheads who hadn’t spent enough time outside their ivory towers to understand what real Americans want to know about their country’s past. Upbraiding Disney for planning to “plasticize” history, Protect Historic America’s forces retaliated by defending existing historical resources, such as the museums that abound in nearby Washington.
For good measure, the group has circulated Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner’s own recollection that being “dragged” to the nation’s capital as a boy “was the worst weekend of my life.”
But rather than engaging in a historical shouting match, McCullough said, his compatriots’ goal is to preserve “some of the most scenic and historic land in America,” gentle land that was home to four of the first five presidents. McCullough said his group’s real objections come down to the simplest, most sacred canon of American real estate: location, location, location. “We are not against Disney’s aspirations to do American history,” he said. “What we are against, adamantly, is where they want to put it.”
Eisner has responded to these arguments by noting that the 3,000-acre tract is private, and “we have a right” to build on it.
The site served as a campground for Union and Confederate troops alike, said Protect Historic America President James McPherson, a Princeton professor of history and author of 11 Civil War books.
During the war, skirmishing took place in Haymarket itself. These days, many of its 431 inhabitants can be found at Kris and Karen’s Subs and Salads, debating what is referred to only as “Disney.”
“It’s all anybody talks about,” said Ziba Dearden, who shoes horses in the affluent hunt country.
The talk bypasses the historians--"They have no influence, anyway,” Dearden said--and goes well beyond the proposed park. Disney officials said its content has not been finalized, but a Lewis and Clark raft ride is often mentioned, as is a virtual-reality display in which visitors can join Civil War battles. A high-speed ride through the Industrial Revolution, concluding with a narrow escape from a vat of molten metal, has also been discussed. After some criticism, an attraction that would have allowed visitors to “experience” slavery apparently has been shelved.
Along with Disney’s America would come a subdivision of more than 2,000 homes. A comprehensive plan approved by the supervisors of Prince William County would permit up to 2 million square feet of commercial development. Eighteen-story office buildings would be allowed to rise from grassy hills. A water park is among the features of a 2-foot-thick development plan, as are 1,300 hotel rooms, two golf courses and a 283-acre campsite.
Unrelated to Disney, a 21,000-seat concert amphitheater is in the works. Tim Thompson, owner of a general store in the nearby hamlet of Thoroughfare, is enthusiastic about plans to build a thoroughbred track and a Formula One automobile racetrack. Thompson said the attractions could be an economic bonanza.
“Business-wise, I’d have to be out of my mind not to want these things,” he said.
But foes of the Disney project think it’s crazy to permit large-scale development on land they consider hallowed not only historically, but also environmentally. The area’s historic towns and Civil War sites have retained their charm and authenticity in large part because of assiduous conservation efforts, said Tim Lindstrom of the nonprofit Piedmont Environmental Council.
Far from worrying about what kind of history might be portrayed in a theme park, Lindstrom, an attorney and zoning law specialist at the University of Virginia, said the group is concerned about the impact on the land.
The Disney development, he said, “is like a double-barreled shotgun aimed directly at the heart of the land we are trying to protect.”
But 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.
In his headquarters in Gainesville, a few miles from the Haymarket site, Mark Pacala, the senior vice president and general manager of Disney’s America, said arguments about sprawl have been “spectacularly sensationalized.” He said discussions about gridlock and garish T-shirt shops are linchpins of a “scare tactic campaign.” Fears about “millions and millions of square feet of commercial space, about new towns--it’s ridiculous,” he said. Because Disney’s America is intended to be a “one-day destination” for visitors who are already in the Washington area, “it’s just not logical. It’s not going to be the economic locomotive to generate all that stuff.”
Such reassurance offers scant comfort to Pat Blackwell, a Haymarket resident who launched a grass-roots group called Protect within days of last November’s announcement that “the Mouse” was coming to town. Blackwell said Protect is most concerned about “the sprawl and the pollution that a Disney would bring in.”
With Disney’s own projections calling for up to 35,000 automobile visits per day, Blackwell said she worries that her view of the mountains will all but disappear. Pollution frightens her, she said, adding, “Air’s a necessity, that’s a fact.”
Initially, said fellow Haymarket resident Linda Budreika, the park sounded “sort of interesting.” But after watching Disney’s presentations, “movies about Walt Disney and the Imagineers,” Budreika said, doubts set in. Soon this suburban mother of four was among protesters at the Washington opening of the Disney movie “The Lion King,” loudly chanting, “Hey, ho, Eisner’s got to go.”
Budreika dismissed the Disney suggestion that the park would provide jobs for residents. Prince William County’s unemployment rate is less than 3%, “and when you’re talking about the low-paying jobs, places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, the ‘Help Wanted’ signs are all over,” she said.
“The infrastructure isn’t there,” Budreika said. “The need for low-income housing and social services is going to be greater than the benefits.” Charging that Disney has evaded such objections, she said, “they’re masters of illusions, they say everything will be fine. Can Dumbo fly?”
That kind of criticism only supports Disney Vice President John Dreyer’s belief that much of the project’s opposition reduces to plain old NIMBYism:
“I think it’s very similar to the arguments you’ve heard about a dozen projects around the country--which is, ‘I’m here, I don’t want anyone else to come.’ ”
While he is not entirely happy to admit it, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Ketchum of Dorset, Vt., one of the founders of Protect Historic America, said there may be some truth to this assertion. “I’m afraid that the ‘location’ business is a bit of NIMBY,” he said.
But Disney has been swift to employ “the so-called ‘wise-use’ attitude--meaning, ‘This is my land and nobody’s going to tell me what to do with it,’ ” Ketchum said. “Disney has been on that particular tack ever since anybody raised a voice against them.”
But with its “very well-recognized” profile, Dreyer said, Disney makes a handy target, for “a kind of fraternity and sorority of people who live out there and who are well-connected to the media and the politicians.”
The implication that he and his fellow historians might be lumped in along with “elitists and fox hunters” also irked Ketchum. “Eisner’s not exactly a beer-drinker, you know,” he pointed out. “If you want to talk about elitism, last year he earned $203 million.”
(Eisner declined to be interviewed because “he’s said all he needs to” about the project, Dreyer said.)
To bolster its share of the historical debate, Disney has brought in its own experts. Civil War authority Shelby Foote has said he was approached, but joined up with Protect Historic America. Two prominent historians who are consulting on the Disney project are Eric Foner of Columbia University and James Oliver Horton of George Washington University. Both were on leave and were unavailable for comment.
But A. Wilson Greene, head of the Assn. for the Preservation of Civil War Sites in Fredericksburg, Va., said his 200-member organization had agreed to provide “historical advice and research” in exchange for consulting fees and a $100,000 donation from Disney.
“I have to make it very clear, we are not shills for Disney,” Greene said. “We are not proponents for Disney’s America; neither are we opponents. Unlike some of the critics of Disney, we have met them and dealt with them.”
From the standpoint of battlefield preservation, his own specialty, Greene said, Disney’s America does not represent the sole threat” to the 15 or so Civil War engagement sites in the Haymarket area. “There are battlegrounds all across this area that are teetering on the brink of destruction that has nothing to do with Disney,” he said.
Still, Greene admitted that he was not entirely comfortable with every aspect of Disney’s plan to “tell and teach history” through entertainment and virtual reality. “The image that you may be trivializing the Civil War, involving the deaths of more than 600,000 people--that is offensive,” he said.
Washington transportation planner Courtney Gallop-Johnson, founder and chair of a group called the Black History Action Coalition, said that possibility was the crux of her organization’s opposition to the project. She said the coalition is made up of “African Americans who share a grave concern with Disney’s plan to portray slavery as part of a theme park. We don’t think that it is a historically dignified or accurate portrayal, or suitable fare for an amusement park.”
Worrying, for example, that “little souvenir slave ships” may be on sale, Gallop-Johnson said it would also be insulting for slavery to be overlooked.
But in his own testimony on Capitol Hill, Disney Design and Development Corp. President Peter Rummell rebuffed the suggestion that his project was in any way vulgarizing history or plundering sacred ground. “Those are harsh words for a production that not only hasn’t opened, but hasn’t even been fully written,” Rummell said.
Disney vice president Dreyer observed that movies and novels have helped spark interest in the Civil War. Participants in modern-day re-enactments regularly pretend to be Union or Confederate soldiers, he noted. And “living history” sites such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts might also be seen as theme parks, Dreyer said.
Weary of their depiction as elitists, the historians said those arguments would get no disagreement from them because much of their discipline is interpretive anyway. Shifting the discussion that way is “a red herring,” Protect Historic America’s McPherson said, adding, “you don’t need a license to practice history.”
Before its scheduled opening in 1998, the park must hopscotch through more than 70 stages of approval from three dozen local, state and federal agencies. Disney officials say they will hold firm.
Arranging tomatoes at his family’s stand six miles from the proposed park, William Coffey said he was prepared for the traffic, and even for the possibility that the Manassas battlefield might have a neighbor with roller coasters.
“But what I hate to see,” Coffey said, “is all this arguing.”
Details of the Disney Development
Disney’s America is projected to be the centerpiece of 3,000-acre site on rolling farmland near the junction of Interstate 66 and U.S. Route 15 in Haymarket, Va., 35 miles from Washington. A history theme park will occupy approximately 100 acres, with the remainder used for houses, commercial space and recreational facilities.
Projected opening: 1998
Completion costs: $650 million to $1 billion.
Visitors per day: Up to 30,000
Content: Disney officials remain vague about what the theme park will offer. An Industrial Revolution-themed thrill ride has been discussed; an exhibit that would allow visitors to “experience” slavery apparently has been tabled.
Eisner’s view: Disney Chairman Michael Eisner has stressed that objections to the park’s content are premature, like “reviewing a movie before the script is written.” To charges that his project may be plasticizing history, Eisner replies: “The First Amendment gives you the right to be plastic.”
Previous plan: Prince William County officials originally approved plans to build more than 4,000 houses on the same land parcel. That project fell into financial trouble before the Disney project was undertaken.
State help: The Virginia General Assembly approved a $163-million bond measure to improve the area’s roads to accommodate Disney, with the expectation that tax revenues would more than make up for that figure.
The location: Four miles from the perimeter and seven miles to the entrance of the Manassas battlefield--where the first and second Battles of Bull Run took place during the Civil War.
Surrounded by History
There is no need to manufacture historical displays in an area full of actual Civil War battlefields, critics say.
Researched by ELIZABETH MEHREN / Los Angeles Times