'Disney America': fighting words in the hills of northern Virginia


HAYMARKET, Va. -- It's been years, maybe about 132 of them, since there's been so much cross-fire in the rolling hills and cornfields of the Northern Virginia countryside.

But this is not another battle between the Blue and the Gray. This battle has been raging in hot, Fantasia-like Technicolor, ever since last winter, when the Walt Disney Co whisked the veil off its plans to build its fifth theme park near this quiet town.

Josie Gough, a retired nurse, half-jokes that she's afraid her neighbors are liable to pull a gun on her if she admits she likes the idea of Disney coming to town.

Bob Geris, a retired government worker who has lived in the area for all of his 66 years, is buying lottery tickets, hoping luck will help him escape before the area turns into another Orlando, Fla. "First chance I get, I'm gone," he grumbles into his beer at Matthew's Lounge.

And Tim Everett, owner of Gossom's Hardware store, who wears a Mickey Mouse watch as a political, rather than fashion, statement, sneers at neighbors who complain that they moved out this way for peace and quiet and don't want their tranquil lives disturbed. "I say, 'You didn't move far enough,' " he growls. " 'You made a mistake.' "

The heated, at times vicious, debate that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, business owner against business owner in this rural town -- 35 miles west of Washington and five miles from the Manassas Battlefield -- is just the tip of a controversy that is resonating, not only throughout the commonwealth but throughout the nation.

The Third Battle of Manassas some are calling this conflict over Disney's America, a history theme park that the Hollywood company wants to develop on what opponents argue is a landscape of real American history.

Opposition formidable

And while Disney has encountered protests to its projects in the past, never before has its opposition been so well-financed, so savvy and sophisticated, so formidable.

Never before has Disney's carefully guarded reputation -- meticulously honed over years of happy, peppy Mouseketeers, golden-tressed fairy godmothers and wide-eyed fauna -- been so at risk of damage.

Theme-park opponents make no secret of their plan to scratch away the warm, fuzzy, cotton-candy patina of Disney to reveal what they say is a not-so-magical kingdom of greed.

At the premiere of Disney's "The Lion King" in Washington on Thursday, a bus load of Prince William County activists, some dressed as cartoon characters to mock the enterprise, picketed with signs calling Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner "The Lyin' King."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has taken out full-page newspaper ads warning Mr. Eisner not to "sully the landscape as well as the prestige of an American corporate and entertainment legend . . ." Last week, the trust put "Virginia's historic northern Piedmont" atop its annual list of America's most endangered historic places.

Also last week, Rep. Michael A. Andrews of Texas raised the volume of the debate, introducing a resolution in Congress to denounce the placement of the Disney project. Mr. Andrews called on the Interior Department and other agencies and congressional committees to scrutinize Disney's plans.

Land held dear

The Senate, too, has stepped in, and, at hearings set for Tuesday, will hear Disney officials defend their decision to build a theme park on land that Civil War buffs, including some lawmakers, hold dear.

"What is unique about this is that Disney, for one of the fe times, is having to, if not pay the piper, at least face up to the piper," says Rick Foglesong, a professor of politics at Rollins College in Florida who is writing a book about Disney.

Disney officials, bolstered by lobbyists and public relations executives, have dug in their heels, insisting that the unexpected furor over their proposed park only heightens their resolve. Mr. Eisner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said that Virginians should be grateful for the benefits Disney's America will bring to the region, and says he will not consider other sites.

He and other Disney supporters believe the opposition is more potentthan usual because it consists of wealthy and influential Northern Virginia landowners -- many of whom are close to Washington's power base -- trying to protect the exclusiveness of their turf.

For its part, the company says the project -- which includes a 100-acre theme park surrounded by hotels, homes, office space, golf courses, campgrounds and a water park -- will generate 19,000 jobs by 2007 and $1.86 billion in state and local tax revenue over 30 years.

Armed with such a promise, and the support of local groups such as "Welcome Disney" and "Friends of the Mouse," the state's new Republican governor, George Allen, made the $650 million project the centerpiece of his agenda and persuaded the Virginia Legislature to ante up a $163 million subsidy for road improvements that would service the theme park. (Some legislators got personal invitations from Mr. Eisner to attend Disney movie screenings).

Mr. Eisner has conceded that, had he foreseen the resistance t the project or the financial power of the opposition, he would have delayed the project a year to lay a better public relations foundation. Lacking that, the company is trying to ingratiate itself with the community and proceed as if all systems were go.

Disney's America officials have talked with about 300 groups and businesses in the area. Last weekend, they held a workshop, attended by a crowd of about 600, to tell vendors how they can sell their goods to Disney as it builds its park, projected to open in 1998.

The company has put up billboards in the Prince William County area. And its "imagineers" are dreaming up ways to tell America's story -- they have not decided whether Mickey and Minnie will be a part of the scene, for instance -- to the 5 million to 6 million visitors they expect each year (roughly the same number the Smithsonian's Natural History and American History museums attract each year.)

But those hoping to persuade the corporate giant to sprinkle it fairy dust somewhere else -- fearing traffic nightmares, pollution to the air and water, the uncontrollable sprawl of Pizza Huts and Best Westerns, strip malls and T-shirt shops in a region known as home to America's founding fathers and the site of Civil War battles -- have been equally effective in pressing their case.

William Styron opposed

Joining citizen groups and environmental groups are dozens of prominent authors and historians -- such as James M. McPherson, David McCullough, William Styron and Shelby Foote who have helped elevate what could have been just another local development fight to a national level, attracting attention from TV talk show hosts to Congress. "This is a national issue," said Mr. McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. "We have so little left that's authentic and real. To replace it with plastic history, contrived history, mechanical history is a sacrilege."

Ken Burns, producer of the popular PBS documentary on the Civil War, who is working with Disney on an unrelated history project, has joined the protest, saying: "This park is simply not needed here. It is in the wrong place. It will distract visitors from the real places of history, and it will damage the beauty and character of the area."

Disney responds that the project, for which it optioned 3,000 acres, will not intrude on historic sites.

"Busch Gardens is closer to Colonial Williamsburg than this is to the Manassas Battlefield," says Jody Powell, a Washington public relations executive and former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter who is working for Disney.

What's more, says Disney spokeswoman Mary Ann Reynolds, the theme park's colorful version of history may inspire families to visit the nearby battlefields and "understand what they're seeing."

"It might even be able to inspire the Nintendo generation," she says.

Mellon, Firestone, duPont

But if this project has spawned high-profile opposition, it ha also provoked well-financed resistance from Virginians -- with names like Mellon, Firestone, duPont, Mars -- who have spreads in the neighboring horse country.

The Piedmont Environmental Council, a Northern Virginia group dedicated to preserving rural land use, has amassed more than $1 million, much of it from these wealthy neighbors. The council has financed polls and economic impact studies that dispute some of Disney's figures, and has produced ads.

"This is one of the few times an organization has the capacity ttake on what is a pretty powerful multinational organization," says Chris Miller, staff lawyer for the PEC. But such a pedigreed opponent has provided Disney with one of its chief arguments: that the enemy is a small but powerful group of millionaire landowners who don't want hordes of tourists overrunning their bucolic weekend getaways.

"This isn't just NIMBY," says Disney supporter Robert Singletary, referring to the Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome. "This is 'Not in .. My Estate.' People can speak very philosophically about the preservation of this area, but they don't live here. We need jobs."

Likewise, Governor Allen, who was recently booed at Virginia's prestigious Gold Cup horse race, has labeled the Disney opponents "elitists" and talked of class warfare.

"The governor's populist argument has been very effective," says Mark Rozell, a political science professor at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. "Especially since a lot of the opposition is from out of state."

But the Piedmont council's Mr. Miller claims the culture-clash matter is purely a public relations ploy. "The most active volunteers we have are common folk," he says.

One active volunteer, 72-year-old Annie Snyder, who lives by the Manassas battlefield and has decided to have her ashes sprinkled on the historic site when she dies, notes that Mr. Eisner made $203 million last year. That is more than any other chief executive of a public corporation has ever made in a single year, according to Business Week.

'No greater elitist'

"There's no greater elitist in the U.S. than Mr. Eisner," says Ms. Snyder, who helped thwart the development of a shopping mall near the battlefield five years ago.

Ms. Snyder, who counts this fight as her seventh "Third Battle of Manassas," sees this as the toughest.

Although there are many more hurdles, Disney has already succeeded in winning over the state lawmakers. The pro-development Prince William board of supervisors, which is to vote on the project in September after hearings, is nearly a sure thing.

In fact, if Disney's America is to be stopped, strategists say, it most likely will be by the federal government, which is conducting environmental impact studies to examine proposed road improvements.

Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency have threatened to derail the project by blocking all road improvements in Northern Virginia, including the Disney-related additions, unless Governor Allen agrees to stricter air-pollution controls for the state. Virginia does not now meet standards dictated by the federal Clean Air Act.

There has been a legal challenge from a local preservationist group, and others are expected. But it is the challenge to the friendly, mouse-eared image that could prove the toughest test for Disney.

The Disney mystique may be the source of the company's power, says Mr. Foglesong, the professor who is writing a book about Disney. "But it is also their Achilles' heel. They live and die by that public image. If that favorable image is called into question -- if they are shown to be a greedy corporate monster -- then the opponent has a wedge."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad