'Disney's America' brings synthetic history to Virginia


MICKEY Mouse didn't make his fame and fortune by mocking all that Americans hold dear. But his adoptive parent, Walt Disney Co., is increasingly finding itself cast as the bad guy as it tries to build a historical theme park, "Disney's America," near hallowed Civil War ground in Virginia.

A controversy that began last fall as a standard debate about the perils of development -- Disney's America would radically transform a pastoral county 35 miles west of Washington -- is now escalating into a cultural civil war.

It's getting bloody, and far more than a single business enterprise is at stake. The battle over Disney's America is part of a much larger struggle between theme-park America and authentic America: Will this country preserve its real history, which requires education and reflection to be understood, or simply turn it over to the Imagineers of Disney, to be repackaged as socko virtual reality?

Last week more than 30 intellectual big guns calling themselves Project Historic America attacked Disney's America.

Noting that the park was adjacent to 13 historic towns, 16 Civil War battle sites and 17 historic districts, David McCullough, author of "Truman," accused Disney of creating "synthetic history by destroying real history."

His fellow critics include Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Styron, James McPherson and, fittingly, Shelby Foote, the historian who became a star on the PBS documentary "The Civil War."

They were belatedly joined by Ken Burns, the producer of "The Civil War," who lent qualified support to the protest even though he is developing a movie with the Disney studio.

The unbuilt Disney's America has outstripped even Euro Disney as a public-relations headache. Last fall, Disney chairman Michael Eisner had to disavow an executive's announcement that a park attraction would "make you feel what it was like to be a slave."

Since then, Disney's America has been challenged by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society.

Once Disney revealed that Eisner's compensation for 1993 was $203 million, Virginia taxpayers took a harsher look at why their governor, George Allen, pushed them so hard to subsidize $163 million in road construction on Disney's behalf.

Still, the issues of money, urban sprawl and environmental disruption that attend the park are between the Virginia voters and their consciences. The esthetic issues dramatized by Disney's America concern everyone.

As the Economist recently reported, theme parks are growing so rapidly that their revenues have passed those of movie box offices in the United States.

New virtual-reality technology -- as championed by Iwerks, a company formed by Disney alumni -- will spread "downsized" theme parks in suburban malls. At what point do these simulations of experience cease being mere escapist fun, like old-fashioned amusement parks, and replace authentic experience of our own environment and heritage?

This question has always been inherent in the Disney parks. Frontierland and Main Street in Disneyland, or "France" and "Italy" in Epcot Center, are ideologically loaded fantasies of the real things.

But Disney's America raises the ante, not only by simulating history on a larger scale but by doing so in such close proximity to our bona fide historic trusts.

Disney's America will not merely affect its neighboring battlefields but the nation's capital and beyond. Will the Smithsonian, or the Lincoln Memorial, or Mount Vernon soon have to add new electronic gimmickry to compete for kids' attention with Disney's oxymoronic promise of "an authentic re-enactment" of a Civil War battle?

Will Colonial Williamsburg, itself a doctored imitation of history and a precursor of Disneyland, add Audio-Animatronic colonials to its cast of actors?

When Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic, sounded the alarm about the new "unreal America" in a remarkably prescient 1992 essay in the New York Review of Books, Disney's plan for a historical theme park had yet to be revealed.

But even then Mrs. Huxtable saw an America in which "themed entertainment" was driving out not just "the actual deposits of history and humanity" but "our sense of reality or interest in it."

With the advent of Disney's America, the big bad wolf is standing right outside the door, poised to devour our past.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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