Disney's Camden Yards Park

September 10, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

When Michael D. Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney Co., needed moral support after months of getting battered over his plan to build an American history theme park in Virginia, who'd he call?

Don Schaefer.

It was a few weeks before Mr. Eisner had emergency bypass surgery. The governor had written to the Disney executive months earlier, offering Maryland's assistance with the Disney's America project in the event that the company's chosen site didn't pan out in the state next door. Mr. Eisner, in turn, phoned the governor in search of some Washington-area business support to counter the media barrage against his project from environmentalists and several prominent historians.

The Disney people were caught cold by the animus that rained down on their announcement of a plan to build a 100-acre, $650 million park in Northern Virginia. Mr. Eisner recalled his childhood recollections of borrr-ing trips to the nation's capital and thought that Disney's magic might be able to inspire visitors to the D.C. area, not to mention make a few bucks for his company.

Instead, Mr. Eisner found himself derided as some historical Dr. Kevorkian who would inflict a choking sprawl on nearby Civil War sites.

Actually, Mr. Schaefer would be a good role model for Mr. Eisner in his current battle. Six years ago, the governor also announced a major project, theretofore untried, that also sought to re-create history and attract visitors. Many Marylanders scoffed that the proposed location was a disaster; that traffic would be abominable; that this new facility was a waste of good money.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Camden Yards stadium turned out to be a smashing success, probably beyond even the governor's wildest dreams. It expanded the reach of Baltimore's Inner Harbor renaissance, pumped millions of dollars into the region's hospitality industry, and made the Orioles the envy of baseball. And, as Mr. Eisner intends for Disney's America, the nostalgia-themed facility rejuvenated a national appreciation for baseball's roots.

Like baseball at Camden Yards, Disney's America would build on a product for which Americans have already demonstrated great zeal. Disney's magnetism also would dramatically boost domestic and international tourism in this region.

Strangely, some critics of Disney's plan seem oblivious to the firm's allure. They dismiss Disney as simply juvenile; how could this Mickey Mouse gang ever portray history?

As a baby boomlet helps usher out the 20th century, however, no purveyor of culture bridges the generations like the company Walt built. The corporation has the biggest movie hit in ''The Lion King,'' the hottest Broadway show in ''Beauty and the Beast,'' the most popular TV sit-com in ''Home Improvement.'' It owns the home video market because it somehow speaks to adults as well as children. That's why weddings and honeymoons have become boom business at Disney World. And why the company's animated blockbusters feature flatulent wart hogs and genies with borscht-belt shtick and other little jokes that bypass the kids en route to adult funny bones.

To be sure, Disney's America's proposed location, about five miles from the Civil War battlefield at Manassas, is provocative. Disney has vowed to Congress that no visitor to the historic site will be able to see or hear anything from the theme park. That's important, although fans of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, know that even a collar of motels and tacky souvenir stands around the sprawling battlefield wouldn't lessen the sanctity of the experience there.

The opposition to Disney's America has been magnified by historians and pundits, some from across the country with no economic stake in what a Disney park could mean to the Washington-Baltimore market. We're not just talking jobs at the park; the ripple effect will be felt throughout the hospitality industry and the related service businesses. This isn't a NIMBY issue, but EWSIMBY -- everyone wants a say in my backyard. If some academician in Raleigh-Durham helps kill this project, what's his area got to lose? Where were all these watchdogs when Prince William County adopted a master plan that called for at least this much development?

The planning commission in Prince William holds its public hearing today; its recommendation goes to the county supervisors, who'll make the final decision late this fall. Maybe the commission should summon Governor Schaefer: He'd have a telling story for them.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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