Latest Disney theme: history park in Va. $1 billion complex planned near D.C.

November 11, 1993|By Michael Dresser and Ross Hetrick | Michael Dresser and Ross Hetrick,Staff Writers Staff writers Ian Johnson and David Conn contributed to this article.

The Walt Disney Co. will announce plans today to build a $1 billion, 2,000-acre American history theme park about 90 minutes from Baltimore in Northern Virginia.

The company confirmed late yesterday that it is planning a theme park in Prince William County, in the Washington suburbs. Disney officials would not discuss details, but scheduled an announcement for 11 a.m. today in Manassas, the county seat.

Claude "Brad" Bradshaw, an aide to Prince William Supervisor Bobby E. McManus, said the site apparently chosen for the project is near Haymarket, in the rural western part of the county. The site is about five miles from the Bull Run battlefield, where Union and Confederate forces clashed in two battles during the Civil War.

Virginia members of Congress, who have been briefed on Disney's plans, said the proposed park would not be a copy of Walt Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California. Rather, it would blend historic themes and technology in a park that will be far smaller than the resort complex in Orlando, Fla.

U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat, said Disney will invest about $1 billion in the theme park and create more than 1,000 jobs. "It will draw millions of people to the area," said Mr. Moran, whose district is near the Disney site.

Mr. Moran said the company is considering a hall of robotic presidents that could be the site of a simulated debate between Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton.

Another member of Congress said the park might offer a nightly re-enactment of the Civil War naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac and a virtual-reality exhibit simulating the training of a World War II flight crew. That source, who asked not to be identified, said that the Disney park would include only about 150 hotel rooms and that the retail component would be relatively small. The source said the park, which Disney expects to complete by 1998, is projected to generate about $150 million in state and local taxes annually.

The apparent park site, known as the Waverly tract, is now zoned primarily for residential development, said county Planning Director Douglas James.

That means Disney will have to win a rezoning of the property in an area where several vocal community groups have fought bitterly to control development. But Disney will have advantages in seeking the rezoning.

The county's Board of Supervisors is generally pro-growth, and five of the seven supervisors represent the populous eastern part of the county, which will benefit from the new tax revenues and jobs while feeling little inconvenience from the development.

Unlike one major Prince William development proposal that was rejected in Congress during the 1980s, Disney's park would be a comfortable distance from any battlefield sites, Mr. Bradshaw said.

In addition, Disney's reputation for high-quality, family-oriented development could defuse opposition that might otherwise develop.

"I would consider this what I call a clean project," said Elizabeth Nickens, a Gainesville resident who is fighting a plan to build a racetrack a few miles away from the Waverly tract.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle Disney could face will be the park's ** impact on traffic. The site lies just off Interstate 66 at U.S. 15, and Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. James speculated that the county might require the company to pay for road improvements.

Paris park loses money

Disney is moving ahead with plans to build a park in Virginia despite disastrous results at Euro Disney, its theme park outside Paris. The company reported yesterday that its European affiliate had lost $900 million and left its parent with a $77.8 million loss during the fourth quarter.

Analysts praised Disney's project in Virginia as a logical extension of its business.

"This is a company that's trying to grow by 20 percent a year, so they are always looking for ways to expand their business. This kind of investment makes sense," said Keith Benjamin, an analyst with Robertson Stephens & Co. Inc.

The company has tried to expand Disneyland, located in Anaheim, Calif., but has been stymied by the local government's hesitancy to build a bus terminal that Disney wanted.

A Northern Virginia location makes sense, Mr. Benjamin said, because the park would gain tourists heading to and from Washington.

Md. land prices higher

According to the member of Congress who declined to be identified, there was little Maryland could have done to attract the Disney park because the company simply decided on the site without playing one state against the other. Land prices are far higher in the Maryland outskirts of Washington than they are in Prince William County.

But Glen Stevens, a Los Angeles-based analyst for Kemper Securities Inc., said the communities near the park might not gain as much as they expect, because most Disney jobs are low-paying positions with few career opportunities.

Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Development, said the park could have a positive effect on tourism in Maryland if it draws more people to the region.

"I prefer to look at it in the 'bigger pie' context," he said yesterday, noting that Disney World has boosted development throughout the region around Orlando.

Further, Mr. Wasserman said, the history theme park could lure other entertainment companies. "It just may be that we should pursue others who could be drawn by the imprimatur of Disney," he said.

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