Can history be made thrilling? Va. attraction will sure try

A DISNEY PARK WITH A TWIST

November 12, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

The Walt Disney Co., which has built an empire on fantasy, is going to tackle something much harder -- it plans to take history, the bane of millions of students, and turn it into fun.

At a news conference yesterday in Prince William County, the company that has made billions on bulbous mice and enchanted forests announced that it would create a theme park that would bring American history to life and make it fascinating to Mickey Mouse's followers.

"It has to be fun, it has to be entertaining and it has to be exciting," said Bob Weis, senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, who is in charge of the attractions. The company may also do something Disney has sought to avoid in the past -- be controversial.

"This is not a Pollyanna view of America," Mr. Weis said, adding that the park will reflect America's racial, ethnic and political diversity. "These are the real conflicts that made our country."

Judging from the initial reaction of one of Mickey's friends, the venture is headed for success. Seven-year-old Jason Whetzel, sporting a pair of Mickey Mouse ears and clutching a doll of the famous character, had one word for the proposed 100-acre theme park: "good."

Jason, who lives on a 22-acre farm across from the proposed site in western Prince William County, came to the news conference with his grandmother, Denise Bettinger, who said she was "thrilled" and hoped that the road in front of her house would be fixed.

Virginia officials, from the governor to the chairwoman of the local board of supervisors, praised the project. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said the park would pump about $50 million a year in taxes into state and local coffers.

The park will have traditional roller coasters and Ferris wheels, but they will be dressed up in historical themes. For instance, a roller coaster called the Industrial Revolution will hurtle passengers through a fantasy steel mill, with a narrow escape from a spilling vat of simulated molten steel.

In the American Indian section, a water rapid ride has been christened the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

There will be "virtual reality" attractions, giving people the thrill ofpiloting a plane or parachuting over enemy territory during World War II. There will also be nearly lifelike robots of all the presidents. "For the first time, you will think President Lincoln is speaking to you, that he is a real person," Mr. Weis said.

The film-and-theme-park company has been working on the project, dubbed Disney's America, for two years, having amassed 3,000 acres on U.S. 15 near Interstate 66, near the Manassas battlefield, the site of two Civil War battles.

Barring trouble getting zoning and other approvals, Disney hopes to start construction in the summer of 1995 and open the park in the spring of 1998, according to Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development Co. The complex will employ about 3,000 workers, he said.

About 100 acres will be used for the park. The rest of the property will be used as a "green belt" around the park and for a golf course, residential development, hotels and mixed uses.

The company has not decided when those other projects will be built, Mr. Rummell said. He said the plans did not include a shopping mall, which had been rumored to be part of the complex.

The theme park will be smaller than Disney World in Orlando, Fla., which has 27,442 acres and includes three theme parks, two water parks, six golf courses, 10 resort hotels and a shopping village. It will be about the size of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., which has 95 acres.

The park will also be smaller than two other Virginia theme parks -- Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond, which has 400 acres, and Busch Gardens near Williamsburg, with 360 acres.

Mr. Rummell said admission would be less than at Disney World and Disneyland.

Admission to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World is $35 for adults and $28 for children. At Disneyland, admission is $30 for children and $27.50 for children, a Disney spokesman said.

Mr. Rummell was vague about how many people the company expects to come to Disney's America. Nor did he say how much the company will invest, allowing only that it would be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Other sources say the investment will reach $1 billion.

But despite the new theme, Mickey Mouse and his friends will be around somewhere, he said. "We will use the characters on some level," he said.

Although local and state officials welcomed Disney, there are hurdles remaining, ranging from zoning changes to revamping roads to dealing with the deluge of vacationers.

Besides revamping the interchange of Interstate 66 and U.S. 15, the state will have to deal with the increase in traffic on Interstate 66 from the Washington beltway and Manassas.

"I think the transportation issues can be worked out," said John G. Milliken, Virginia's secretary of transportation.

The four-lane interstate is already being expanded by two lanes in each direction from the beltway to Route 234, Mr. Milliken said. It could be expanded seven to eight miles to U.S. 15, he said.

He also said he expected the state and Disney to consider modifying a commuter rail service from Manassas Airport to Washington to help ferry tourists.

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