Disney's Mickey Mouse Reasoning


Haymarket, Virginia. -- To this quiet Virginia land along Little Bull Run, between Manassas battlefield and Thoroughfare Gap, Walt Disney insists on bringing American history. The fact that history precious to all Americans already abounds in this green Piedmont, and would be destroyed if Disney's scheme goes through, is shrugged off in the billionaire company's hurry to seal the deal.

The creators of Mickey Mouse say their "Disney's America" theme park here would cover only 400 of the 3,000 acres the company wants rezoned. It also wants to build 2 million square feet of commercial space, 2,280 housing units, 1,300 hotel rooms, two golf courses, a 283-acre camp site and a water park.

But that is just the beginning. Inevitably, every kind of roadside claptrap will follow, spreading miles up and down the countryside west of Washington, just as it has around Disney World at Orlando and Disneyland at Anaheim.

Disney has impressed local officials with the promise of perhaps 19,000 jobs, most of them close to the minimum wage. But unemployment in the area is a fraction of the national rate. Thus most of the project's employees will be unskilled workers from elsewhere, who will need housing, schools, roads and all the other requisites of urban life.

Playing hardball, Disney's lobbyists in Richmond bullied the state legislature into appropriating $163 million of taxpayers' money for infrastructure -- this to benefit a company whose chairman's personal income last year was $203 million.

Disney's public-relations campaign has sold two false premises: that only pink-coated fox hunters and rich estate owners care about what happens to this Virginia land, and that the fundamental issue is whether Disney has the right to popularize American history its way.

The ultra-rich Disney chairman, of course, could buy and sell any number of fox hunters and country estates. The opposition to his project is economically broad-based, from the poor people who live in the historically black hamlet of Thoroughfare to the few wealthy among the many who help support the Piedmont Environmental Council.

And the opposition is nationwide: the 250,000-member National Trust for Historic Preservation leads a coalition including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Izaak Walton League, the Sierra Club and 20 other such groups. Sen. Dale Bumpers plans a congressional hearing on the project later this month.

Project publicists have said that if Stephen Spielberg was allowed to make "Schindler's List" and Ken Burns to make his Civil War series for public television, then Disney should be allowed to build its theme park. This is Mickey Mouse reasoning, comparing a movie to an immense real-estate development.

A growing list of U.S. historians, led by C. Vann Woodward of Yale, John Hope Franklin of Duke, James M. McPherson of Princeton, David McCullough and Shelby Foote, has organized against Disney's plans. Some do argue that Disney should leave history alone, but none denies that the company has the right to popularize it. That is not the issue; the opinion makers who use their space to defend Disney's right to do history are jousting with a straw man built by the company.

The real issue is whether Disney should do it here -- whether Disney should blight hundreds of square miles of genuine history with the stated purpose of popularizing the nation's past, but the bottom-line purpose of enriching the company's future.

In the 1860s, soldiers with Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart marched and fought across the very land that Disney wants to build on. The two great battles of Manassas took place just to the east. Within an hour's drive, along the rural roads that Disney would turn into a traffic nightmare of motels and pizza parlors, are 13 historic towns, 16 Civil War battlefields and 17 officially designated historic districts, not to mention the Skyline Drive and Shenandoah Valley.

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, said that "Disney's America, sadly, will become yet another example of sprawl. . . . By leaping into a pristine region, Disney joins the company of others who profit at the expense of open space and history, leaving behind a long trail of ruination."

But Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman, minimizes the historical value of what is already here. He said last week that Virginians "should be so lucky as to have Orlando in Virginia."

Pro-development Prince William County officials and Gov. George Allen (who grew up in Southern California) voiced public dismay at Mr. Eisner's suggestion. For those who have been to both Haymarket and Orlando, it's easy to see why.

Ernest B. Furgurson is a retired Baltimore Sun columnist.

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