Disney’s America – the ultimate experiment gone-wrong

Concept Art of port at Disney's America
Image: Disney

Most of the examples presented so far have mostly had to do with culture issues, with some history controversy thrown in the mix. One of Disney’s greatest flops, however, specifically failed due to the issue of trying to navigate controversial history…

In November 1993, Disney announced an ambitious plan to launch the company’s 3rd US theme park resort—Disney’s America. This was during the time when edutainment was still a major focus for Disney parks, and Disney’s America was to be a destination like no other, bringing America’s rich history to life in similar fashion to Epcot’s World Showcase. You can read about the project in depth in our Possibilityland entry on the park, but in summary, Disney’s America was set to include themed lands focused on the different eras of US history, starting with a pre-colonial Native America, continuing through the War for Independence, the eras surrounding the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, all the way to the World Wars.

As a kid who loved history, I really had hoped Disney would pull it off—the park sounded like an amazing idea to young ears. Alas, it would never be…

Disney originally planned to place the park in Haymarket, Virginia—a region known for a long heritage of American history. Almost immediately, the project was met with devastating bad press. Both locals and state residents lambasted the project as a mockery of real American history and a desecration of historic grounds. Opponents argued that the park would oversimplify the complexities of American history in favor of a polished, commercialized fraud. In particular, critics questioned how Disney would handle the history of the Civil War, slavery, and portrayal of other complex historic events. The park's potential location was particularly problematic due to its proximity to Civil War battlegrounds. Disney tried to relocate the project to California by bidding to buy Knott’s Berry Farm, but that project also ultimately fell through.

Ultimately, Disney’s America was abandoned as too controversial and expensive to risk a flop… and it’s hard not to argue that the complexities of navigating history had a great deal to do with that choice.

The dilemma– Idealization vs. Edutainment

Harambe at Night
Image: Disney

A full exploration of the reasons why this subject remains so tricky would be difficult, but we can dive into one primary issue: the potential conflict between the values of idealization and education. While this subject isn’t as pronounced at parks with a unique focus on spectacle and amusement, it does become a prominent issue in hybrid parks like Walt Disney World.

On one hand, a core element of Walt Disney World is magic—there’s a hint of the fantastical in everything at Disney parks. Even in the resort’s most education-focused park, Epcot, a sense of idealization still reigns. World Showcase, for example, is not meant to be a precise replica of each country and its history—rather, World Showcase is something like an idealized world’s fair, representing the brightest and most inspiring elements from each nation. Disney’s Animal Kingdom does the same thing with its versions of Africa and Asia.

Sometimes this idealized approach lands well, as is the case with most of the World Showcase pavilions and especially with Harambe and Anandapur in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Harambe captures enough of the real quirks of Africa to feel enriching, entrancing, and real. Anandapur does the same with Nepali and other Himalayan cultures—as someone who spent five years hanging out with people from Bhutan and Nepal, I appreciate many of the charming nuances of that land, particularly in the queue for Expedition Everest.

Video: YouTube, DLP Welcome

On rare occasion, the idealization approach goes a little too far, over-polishing representation of history and culture. A good example of this is the map of Mexico at the end of the Gran Fiesta Tour in the Mexico pavilion. Most guests wouldn’t give it a second glance, but visitors from the US / Mexico border or from Northern Mexico may take exception to the fact that Disney’s map eliminates the entire top half of the country, even warping the map to emphasize Mexico’s more idealized destinations like Acapulco, Cancun, and Mexico City. It’s not a devastating mistake, but it has left many guests scratching their heads wondering why Disney has tried to pretend that the massive northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua don’t exist. Overall, it smacks of an over-scrubbing of complex history to the point of ignoring the rich culture of those regions (you can see the map at around 6:38 of the video above).

While idealization and education can often coincide, there are times when these two values come into conflict—should theme parks just stick to idealized portrayals, avoiding overly complex subjects, or should Disney take some risks, being willing to shine some light on potentially controversial subjects for the sake of education? The latter is something Disney has actually done throughout their history, particularly in regards to conservation and care for the environment.

If the primary goal of a park is specifically to provide an escape from reality, then the idealization point of view wins. This is an easier call to make in parks like Disney’s Magic Kingdom or Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where the subject matter is specifically fanciful. However, even these parks haven’t been immune to this question—just look at Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents, which incurs some level of blowback almost every time a new president is added to the lineup.

Hall of Presidents Stage at Disney
Image: Flickr, Loren Javier (license)

From the idealization point of view, controversial subjects are best largely avoided in theme parks—when real world subjects are approached, the goal becomes to present a version of the world where the best of humanity is put forth, where we all learn how to get along despite our differences and where good always triumphs. This makes sense as theme parks are places of escape to a large degree…

There is value to the education viewpoint, however, even though Disney has seemingly leaned away from this priority in recent years. An “edutainment” approach may be careful not to make light of controversial subjects, but it doesn’t shrink back from them either—it takes the opportunity to examine the mistakes of humanity’s past to spark meaningful conversations.

It’s the moment in Spaceship Earth where Rome burns, where humanity faces roadblocks. It’s the dramatic inclusions of US history in the American Adventure or the conversations about conservation one finds throughout The Land or Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We may not all agree how the world should approach these matters, and some of these subjects may not be all sunshine and magic, but the goal is that we walk away thoughtful, with fuel to have rich conversations with each other, and especially with our kids. With careful tools, such an approach can be very beneficial.

A shift away from controversy

Epcot lands concept art
Image: Disney

In previous years, it seems like Disney has leaned fairly hard towards the idealization side of the spectrum—the parks have shifted towards a strong focus on attractions centered on intellectual properties, and by and large, these sorts of projects lend themselves more to representing an idealized world. Disney runs into enough controversy naturally that taking risks simply for the sake of education-entertainment seems like a more and more unlikely proposal.

However, there are signs Disney hasn’t given up on the edutainment approach entirely, and that may mean more situations in the future where the company has to weigh how close they are willing to step towards controversy for the sake of education...

Epcot’s upcoming overhaul, at first glance, looks like a hard turn towards the safe approach, but Disney has continued to express hints in maintaining educational elements in the park. Future World will be divided into lands focused on Nature, Discovery, and Celebration of culture—while some new elements will be purely educational in nature (such as an eventual refurbishment of Spaceship Earth to make its history more timeless) , other attractions like the Disney Play pavilion and Moana’s water garden have potential to go either way. Disney could use these attractions purely to push their IP’s, avoiding controversial subjects altogether, or they could take the opportunity to find new ways to make education enjoyable for guests for years to come.

Spaceship Earth and New Pylons
Image: Disney

I respect both values represented in Disney parks, but I personally hope they don’t forsake the education component entirely just for the sake of avoiding controversy… even if I respect some of the adjustments the company has had to make in response to shifts in culture.

Over my years visiting Disney parks as a child, I enjoyed many conversations with my family stoked by questions raised on Disney attractions—even some that bordered on courting controversy. The parks provided a safe environment to start these discussions, particularly when Disney found ways to hold controversial subjects and histories in careful balance.

The greatest danger, perhaps, would be for theme parks like Walt Disney World hoping to maintain an edutainment element to lean too far into either extreme—scrubbing stories until they lose all conflict and sense of growth, painting a utopia with no cost or triumph—or making the mistake of ignoring the ways our society shifts, painting a picture too bleak or inadvertently downplaying matters of historical significance. It’s a subject that will require a great deal of thought for Disney imagineers and executives in the years to come--what are your thoughts on the subject?

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In the case of Splash Mountain, I'd say the ride has the best storytelling and music of any Disney attraction and it's a shame to change it. It has none of the problematic features of the film it's derived from, and The Princess and the Frog doesn't contain any music that can replace How Do You Do or Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

A better (and likely cheaper) solution would have been for Disney to make a new Brer Rabbit feature, one free of Uncle Remus and the plantation, and featuring a mostly black cast. I'm a little surprised this hasn't been considered.

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