The Battle to Stop Disney's America

By Nick Kotz and Rudy Abramson

"Are you now or have you ever been an employee of the Walt Disney Company?"

We posed that question to Peter Hannaford after the 1994 Cosmos Club dinner at which he was greeted as a new member of the club.

"No," replied the bemused public relations executive who had helped Ronald Reagan become President of the United States. "Why do you want to know?"

We had good reason. Several weeks earlier the Walt Disney Company had announced plans to build a history theme park and a huge real estate development near the Manassas Battlefield at the eastern end of the historic northern Virginia piedmont, just 35 miles from the White House. The project, we were convinced, would be disastrous for a region of extraordinary beauty and priceless history. People with Peter Hannaford's skills were needed to help communicate the threat posed by the much-publicized Disney development.

Not long afterward, Protect Historic America, an ad hoc citizen's committee led by historians and writers, launched a national campaign to oppose the construction of Disney's America. As it happened, PHA's coming-out press conference was organized by Peter Hannaford, who at the Cosmos dinner had readily volunteered to direct the fledgling organization's public relations effort.

By then, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Save the Battlefield Coalition, and other organizations dedicated to preserving the Piedmont and its historical sites had already come out in angry opposition to Disney's project. But local government officials, developers and many Prince William County residents looked at the coming of the entertainment colossus as Prince William County's salvation. The proposed development at Haymarket had become a blistering local and regional issue.

As outlined by Disney and its ardent supporters, the project had powerful appeal, especially in Prince William, a fast-growing county that badly needed to broaden its tax base. On 3,000 acres, four miles west of the Manassas Battlefield, the company proposed to invest more than $650 million to build a 400-acre history theme park, as many as 6,000 housing units, 1,300 hotel rooms, 2 million square feet of commercial space, a water park, a campground, and golf courses. Disney officials estimated that 6 million tourists would come every year, bringing wallets laden with cash and credit cards. The complex was supposed eventually to generate 19,000 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.

With powerful state legislators and Gov. George Allen's administration immediately and enthusiastically in Disney's corner, it seemed that little Haymarket, population 483, was on its way to becoming another Orlando.

But less than a year after Disney's stunning announcement, and barely more than four months after Protect Historic America undertook its campaign, Disney scuttled the project without ever breaking ground. The company remained committed to the idea of a history theme park, said a formal statement from Peter S. Rummell, president of the Disney Design and Development Company, but it would not be in the Piedmont. "We recognize that there are those who have been concerned about the possible impact of our park on historic sites in this unique area," he added, "and we have always tried to be sensitive to the issue."

Translation: The project had become too controversial. The opposition was still growing, and Disney's image was taking a shellacking that company officials were unwilling to accept. The Piedmont continues to be gravely threatened by urban sprawl, but with Disney's withdrawal it was spared a tidal wave of development.

Sensible regional planning still has a chance to preserve the natural and real historic assets that make the area special. Within half an hour's drive of the open fields where Disney's America was to be built there are 64 sites listed on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places. In rolling country east of the Blue Ridge between Harper's Ferry and Charlottesville there are no less than 22 Civil War battlefields, 13 officially designated historic towns, and 17 historic districts.

On one point Disney supporters and opponents agreed. Disney's America would have changed the Piedmont of northern Virginia forever. The issue was really about sustainable growth, compatible development and preservation of heritage and culture. Cancellation of the theme park was a victory for air and water quality, for open spaces, for communities, and for a grassroots coalition of Virginians, old and new, across the political and economic spectrum.

Within hours of the November 1993 announcement of the planned park, leaders of the Piedmont Environmental Council began searching for a strategy to prevent it. Having worked a quarter century on behalf of the rural landscape, communities, and natural resources, PEC saw the Disney project as an unprecedented threat-because of its size and because it would set off an avalanche of helter-skelter development. Disney's America seemed a fait accompli-the site had been acquired and the plans laid without so much as a rumor. The notion that Disney could be thwarted appeared far-fetched indeed.

But at the first session of PEC strategists-just five days after the announcement-William Backer of Middleburg, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, put his finger on Disney's problem. If theme park opponents could somehow generate national criticism of the project, he told his colleagues, Disney executives might take a second look. Within days, the first visible opposition appeared in the form of PEC bumper stickers exhorting Disney to "take a second look."

The company's response to local opposition was not surprising. It hired an army of lobbyists and public relations operatives who stressed jobs, tourist spending, new business opportunities, increased property values, and robust new tax receipts for Prince William County. Traffic gridlock, inadequate sewer and water treatment facilities, and increased air pollution were ignored. The opposition was characterized as nothing more than fox hunters and Piedmont gentry, oblivious to the interests of ordinary people, jealously protecting their estates and privileged lifestyle.

The strategy was effective. Disney had momentum, stupendous resources, and a message easily packaged in sound bites and headlines. To the company's further advantage, the issue received little critical examination by the region's most influential newspaper-the Washington Post.

With most of its reporting done by its Prince William County bureau, the Post treated the issue as a local zoning fight, an unavoidable land-use squabble. Editorially (unlike the New york Times, which adamantly opposed Disney) it remained staunchly ambivalent. If Disney had been able to limit the debate to zoning and land use, undoubtedly it would have prevailed, for a majority of the Prince William County supervisors never looked beyond the promises of jobs and new prosperity. Local news coverage focused on the message and the efforts of activists who supported the project without reservation. The Piedmont Environmental Council was dismissed as little more than a tool of the gentry rather than as the effective organization it is-3,000 members in seven Piedmont counties-which had defended this historic region for decades.

Hardly anyone realized it at the time, but the tide turned in mid-May 1994 when the fledgling Protect Historic America entered the battle. PHA would soon make Disney's America a national issue-much larger than a local zoning quarrel pitting environmentalists against developers. The ad hoc citizens' committee had been quietly organized by a handful of historians and journalists who saw the opportunity to put the conflict on a larger screen. Its founders included W. Brown Morton III of Waterford, a college professor, preservationist and minister; Julian Scheer of Catlett, a former public affairs chief at NASA; Ernest B. (Pat) Furgurson, a journalist and Civil War historian who has written for years at his hideaway on Cobbler Mountain; John Rolfe Gardiner of Middleburg, a novelist; and Nick Kotz of Broad Run, a veteran journalist.

By the time PHA introduced itself to the public, some of the country's most revered and best known historians had agreed to lead it in defending "the cradle of democracy." Among them were renowned academic leaders C. Vann Woodward of Yale University, John Hope Franklin of Duke, and James McPherson of Princeton, plus nationally prominent writers David McCullough, Shelby Foote, William Styron, Roger Wilkins, and Tom Wicker.

The venerable National Trust for Historic Preservation became a third powerful force. Richard Moe, its politically savvy president, had long before set out to intensify the Trust's commitment to preserving landscapes and fighting sprawl. He had written one of the first op-ed pieces challenging the Disney project, and days before Protect Historic America's inaugural press conference he gave the issue national visibility with a full-page newspaper advertisement addressed to Disney chairman Michael Eisner.

In the late spring and early summer of 1994, 200 historians from across the country joined PHA's advisory committee, volunteering to write, speak, and work against Disney's America. Some of them had been involved in another Piedmont crisis in the eighties when a developer had proposed a shopping mall on the very doorstep of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Led by Annie Snyder of Gainesville, Va., the Save the Battlefield Coalition, comprising historians and history lovers, prevented stores and parking lots from sprawling along the perimeter of the battlefield.

The PHA's historians and writers were joined by a host of others offended at the thought of the same battlefield and other historic sites being jeopardized by sprawl from Disney's development. The new volunteers included Don Henley, the rock musician; Harry McPherson and Neil Proto, Washington lawyers; William Dunlap, a Washington artist and Disney stockholder; John Moyers of the Schumann Foundation; and Herbert Gunther of the Public Media Center.

But the roll of prominent names, organizations and professions arrayed against the theme park only hints at the real depth and breadth of the coalition. It included the very young and the very old. It included rich and poor. It included people who have never set foot in Virginia and perhaps never will. It included families new to America, and it included many whose ancestors lie in Revolutionary period churchyards and in both Union and Confederate burial grounds.

Organizations lined up with PEC, PHA, and the National Trust included local chapters of national organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. They included other regional environmental organizations, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and grass-roots community groups, such as Protect Prince William.

Together, they not only made Disney's America a national issue, they transformed it into a metaphor for the whole problem of urban sprawl-a subject which may well be the unifying environmental issue of the next decade.

A study conducted for Protect Historic America concluded that the Disney development would become the core of a new "edge city" equivalent to 17 others in the Washington area combined. An additional population surge of 230,000 residents in the area, the study predicted, would overwhelm the planned transportation system, overtax water supplies, and contribute to the Washington area's already serious air pollution.

In short, Haymarket would have become the core of a new urban center outstripping Capital Beltway complexes such as Tyson's Corner, where-in only a decade-a country crossroads had been transformed into a prototypical edge city of malls, traffic jams, high-rise offices and apartments, car dealerships, and fast-food outlets.

It was because of the region's extraordinary concentration of historic sites that so many Americans found this prospect so appalling. They were disturbed by the very thought of battlefields, old homes, churches, country stores, stone fences, and scenic byways being obscured and overrun by neon and franchises.

Vann Woodward, dean of American historians and co-chairman of Protect Historic America, reduced the image of the Piedmont and its heritage to its essence. "This part of northern Virginia has soaked up more of the blood, sweat, and tears of American history than any other area of the country," he wrote in the New Republic. "It has bred more of the founding fathers, inspired more soaring hopes and ideals, and witnessed more triumphs and failures, victories, and lost causes than any other place in the country."

Professor Woodward's words were a huge step toward creation of a regional identity for the Piedmont. They gave PHA's message national resonance. Obviously Americans knew that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were Virginians. And they knew about Civil War battles at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse. But there had not been a wide appreciation that so much important American history had unfolded in this small region between the river falls and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Fortunately the Disney fight took place not long after the PBS broadcast of Ken Burns' riveting and hugely popular series on the Civil War. The program had educated a whole new generation of Americans about the bloodshed in northern Virginia, and it had turned a number of historians, most notably Shelby Foote, into television personalities.

As the debate escalated, Foote received a steady stream of interviewers anxious to hear him expound on The War in his inimitable fashion. "A lot of us think we know a great deal about the Civil War," joked one of Foote's colleagues, "but Shelby thinks he actually fought in it."

With Woodward, McCullough, Foote, McPherson, Styron, Wilkins, Wicker, and scores of other historians and writers working against the development at Haymarket, columnists, cartoonists, and editorial writers joined the Piedmont cause. In four months the files of Protect Historic America accumulated 10,000 news articles, editorials, and cartoons.

Clearly Disney had not anticipated any such backlash. At a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, company chairman Michael Eisner conceded that he should have taken more time to work on public relations before announcing plans for the development. Still, in the summer of 1994 it appeared that Disney would overcome every obstacle. The Virginia legislature had approved an outlay of $163 million in public funds for access roads, a new interchange on Interstate 66, and worker training. Local officials remained steadfast in their support. Disney representatives marched ahead with their plans. But at PEC headquarters in Warrenton and at the Protect Historic America office in Washington plans were being laid for a prolonged struggle. The search for new ways to bring pressure on Disney continued day after day.

Then in early August Richard Moe had a private conversation with Disney executive John F. Cooke, a long-time acquaintance in a Democratic party think tank. In an earnest and friendly fashion Moe reviewed the basic argument that all of the opposition groups had been making-that the Piedmont was manifestly the wrong location for the project Disney had in mind. Cooke was non-committal, but he got in touch with Moe again in early September; and for the first time Moe sensed that Disney was looking for a way out.

On September 28, 1994, the shoe finally dropped. Eisner telephoned Moe to say that Disney was pulling out of the Piedmont. The company would look elsewhere for a site.

For a day the decision was known only to top Disney officials, to Moe, to David McCullough, and to James McPherson. The news leaked only when a shaken Governor Allen emerged from a meeting where he had been formally notified of the company's decision.

Undoubtedly Disney had internal reasons for the decision to strike its tent on the Piedmont battlefield. But it had also faced the danger of a Pyrrhic victory. In all probability, it could have prevailed and built its theme park, but it would have suffered serious and perhaps permanent damage to its reputation.

Bill Backer had been right from the beginning. Enjoying the status of a cultural icon, the company could not afford criticism raining down from every corner of the country. Ever since the memorable September evening when Disney announced that it was abandoning Haymarket, those of us involved in the episode have been asked over and over how the opposition succeeded against seemingly impossible odds.

The simplest answer is that our coalition was put together for one purpose and it stuck to one message-that the rural, historically rich Piedmont Virginia was the wrong place for another Disneyland. But that is too simple. If that were the whole story, environmentalists and preservationists would win more of the battles against urban sprawl.

The Disney fight was a special case. Its imagery was compelling. Cartoonists lampooned Mickey Mouse with glee. In a thousand different ways they showed Disney desecrating history.

A few editorial writers argued for Disney's America, but cartoonists were unanimously on the side of history.

Only a year after Disney unveiled its plan to cash in on history and heavy tourist traffic in Washington, Protect Historic America put itself into mothballs. It distributed most of its funds among the PEC and other groups that continue working for the protection of the Piedmont's landscape and historic sites.

More than two years have passed since the Disney crisis ended. The relentless pressure of urban sprawl continues, more insidious but no less ruinous. Preservationists, led by the Brandy Station Foundation and the Association for the Protection of Civil War Sites, have beaten back a planned automobile race track on the Brandy Station battlefield near Culpeper. In Fredericksburg preservationists and historians prevented construction of a giant Wal-Mart store on the farm where George Washington lived as a boy, but another Wal-Mart battle is being waged at Warrenton.

Hundreds of the same Piedmont residents who stood against Disney are working to head off construction of a major new thoroughfare running through the Piedmont countryside from Stafford County to the area of Dulles Airport. They are fighting a proposed Middleburg bypass and the long-debated and resisted western bypass around Washington.

In hindsight, we have a much clearer understanding of what happened in the fight over Disney's America. While it was a memorable victory for preservationists, environmentalists, history lovers, rural culture, families, and common sense, it wasn't the end of anything. It was one battle in a struggle that will go on.

Aside from heading off a huge explosion of new development in a rural area, the anti-Disney coalition accomplished two important things: it enhanced public appreciation of the Piedmont region, and it made clear the imperative for regional planning. In dramatic fashion it reminded us that we have to have regional strategies for fighting urban sprawl, that we must steadily build and rebuild coalitions to fight for regional interests.

We must understand that the future of rural life is linked to the quality of urban life. We have to find ways for compatible development. We have to resolve that farms are not suburbs-in-waiting, and we have to resolve that not all of Virginia is for paving.

Rudy AbramsonRUDY ABRAMSON, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent, was executive director of Project Historic America and author of Hallowed Ground--a regional best-selling book on the Piedmont and the battle to protect it.

Nick Kotz ('86)NICK KOTZ, ('86), an author, freelance writer, and Pulitzer Prize winner, lives at Broad Run, Va.


[back]Return to COSMOS 1997 Table of Contents
[back]Return to COSMOS Journals
[back]Return to COSMOS Home Page