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

June 19, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

HAYMARKET, VA — 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.

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