Daily Archives: October 12, 2008

The Hap-Hap-Happiest Preservation Victory of All

The story of Disney’s America is probably familiar to most of you.  Back in the early nineties, Disney planned to build an American history-themed amusement park in Prince William County, VA.  The notion of a plastic interpretation of our nation’s heritage in an area rich with actual history and undeveloped landscapes sparked quite an uproar, and ultimately the preservationists sent Mickey scurrying back to corporate headquarters with his skinny black tail between his legs. 

Although the proposed park went the way of the Wicked Queen and her poisoned apple, some of the publicity and planning materials made their way onto the World Wide Web.  I won’t actually post them here, since we’re talking about the same company that once sued a day care center for painting Mickey and friends on their walls.  Instead, I’ll offer a few links where you can see them for yourself.

Wikipedia offers a map and a description of some of the proposed attractions, including a family farm with hands-on learning experiences, a recreation of the Monitor-Virginia battle, and an Ellis Island area with “a great live show presentation.”  I’m not sure what constitutes a live show presentation at Ellis Island, but I’m envisioning lines of Eastern Europeans in drab clothing who suddenly break out into song and dance–sort of like the immigration scene from the Broadway musical Ragtime, only more upbeat.  As for the others, a petting zoo seems kind of low-key for a Disney park, and as much as I’d like to see some ironclads in action, I don’t know if I could stand in the sun that long.

Here’s a website with conceptual artwork by Disney planners.  The Industrial Revolution seems like an unlikely basis for a roller coaster, but the image here looks pretty impressive.  Who says the Progressive Era can’t be fun?

Like most history buffs, I look back on the defeat of Disney’s America with tremendous relief.  Northern Virginia isn’t the place for a theme park.  Furthermore, Disney’s post-Walt efforts at historical interpretation leave quite a bit to be desired.  I want to stress that I’m not opposed to theme parks on principle.  Quite the opposite; Orlando was an annual pilgrimage destination for my family, and I used to devour the guidebooks to learn about the new rides every year.  I still head down to Disney World and Universal when I’m able, and it’s an experience I enjoy.  You may not appreciate the unceasing bombardment of zip-a-dee-doo-dah optimism, but the degree to which the park designers immerse their visitors in a three-dimensional world of enormous scope and intricate detail is an impressive achievement.

My problem with Disney history is based on the content of their presentations.  Take the American Adventure at Epcot, seen here in a photo from Wikimedia Commons (and therefore most assuredly in the public domain, thank you very much).  It’s a theater presentation that combines animatronic figures, moving sets, and film to tell a slapdash version of American history from the Pilgrims to the present day.  It combines the cliches of cherished myths with the banalities of politically-correct inclusiveness.  It comes across as superficial and rather thoughtless. 

We get the troops huddled around the campfire at Valley Forge and the can-do attitude of Rosie the Riveter, juxtaposed with the pessimistic lamentations of Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, and Susan B. Anthony.  The show is neither hot nor cold; the generally rosy approach trivializes the somber moments, while these somber moments in turn dampen the inspirational qualities of the positive scenes.  Our triumphs and our failures are all mixed up together, and there’s no effort to make sense of it. 

I’m certainly not trying to say that any presentation of American history must choose between the positive and the negative.  I do think, however, that a production of this scale should give us something more than a pageant of America’s Greatest Hits with occasional tragic interludes.  The American Adventure gives me the impression that the planners really wanted to wave the flag, but felt obligated to deal with our national sins, and so they threw in all the pieces without trying to fit them together.

I’ll continue to visit both historic sites and theme parks, but for different reasons and in proper proportion.  A little junk food in moderation won’t kill you, as long as you can distinguish real food from empty calories.  Disney’s America struck me as an attempt to give us a huge slice of birthday cake while telling us it was a good, square meal.  Its downfall wasn’t just a victory of preserving one historic region’s physical integrity.  It was a victory over the entertainment industry’s attempts to redefine and package truth and authenticity.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory