“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Disney’s got to go.”
Those were the chants of about 3000 protestors who were marching on the streets of Washington, D.C. in September 1994 against a proposed history-themed park that would have a section portraying slavery.
Named Disney’s America, the 3,000-acre park would have been located near Manassas Civil War battlefields in Haymarket, Virginia, but the project failed after 13 months of the announcement due to the backlash it received.
All was well in November 1993 when Disney announced the idea.
The company mentioned that the park would celebrate “the nation’s richness of diversity, spirit and innovation” and be “an ideal complement to visiting Washington’s museums, monuments and national treasures.”
“Set to open in 1998, Disney’s America was to have nine sections loosely based on important periods of American history. There would be a colonial President’s Square, a Native American village, a recreation of Ellis Island, an industrial revolution factory town, a Civil War fort, a small-town USA county fair, an early 19th-century port of commerce, World War II-inspired Victory Field, and a Great Depression-era family farm,” a report by dcist.com said. “Attractions would include a roller coaster ride through a turn-of-the-century steel mill, a virtual reality-aided parachute jump from a World War II fighter jet, and a 3-D immigration-themed movie inside of the Statue of Liberty hosted by the Muppets. At night, in lieu of fireworks, there was to be a nighttime show recreating the Civil War naval battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia,” the report added.
Estimated to have about 6 million visitors a year, many felt that Disney’s America will come with lots of jobs and revenue thus boosting the economy in the area.
But what soon got almost everyone furious was the mention that the park would also include a slavery experience.
As Disney’s Bob Weis asked at the time during a press conference: “How can you do a park on America and not talk about slavery?”
“This park will deal with the highs and lows . . . We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave, and what it was like to escape through the Underground Railroad,” the Disney senior vice president at the time said.
Suddenly, people started speaking out against the project. Reports say historians and authors criticized the project through articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, among others.
They argued that the project was an “appalling commercialization and vulgarization of the scene of our most tragic history.”
Michael Eisner, then CEO of Disney, tried to explain the company’s position. “We are going to be sensitive, but we will not be showing the absolute propaganda of the country,” he said.
But people didn’t buy that such that in 1994, a group was formed in response to the theme park.
Called Protect Historic America, it had about 30 historians and writers as members. James McPherson, the group’s president wrote: “We anticipated that the development and traffic associated with the opening of the park….would have severely impaired people’s ability to come visit, understand, and appreciate the battlefields.”
By September, the backlash had intensified, resulting in the massive protest of September 28, 1994, on the streets of D.C.
At that moment, Disney was compelled to abandon the project. Reports said it tried to find another site for the park, but that too failed.