Disney's America

THE attempt by Walt Disney Company to plop a theme park next door to a Civil War battlefield and amid other hallowed historic sites in Virginia is, pardon us, no Mickey Mouse affair.

Disney and its supporters are attempting to frame the issue as one of state and local rights vs. federal, big-government interference. ``Disney's America'' will be built on private land, they say, and will adhere to all relevant regulations - local, state, or federal. It's an issue between Virginians and Disney, and everyone else should just butt out, they say.

We disagree. First, it's troubling that Disney wants to move beyond entertainment into interpreting American history. Although the exact plans for the park are being reworked, early versions demonstrated the trouble it would have in dealing with the complex and wrenching issues - slavery and civil rights, for example - that thread through our history.

The existing historic sites in the area already speak volumes to the Americans who go and listen. They represent places of deep interest and importance to all Americans. The hallowed battlefields and other historical sites help form our national memory and conscience.

There are precedents for the federal government, on behalf of all Americans, to step in when sites of particular value to our national heritage are endangered. The argument that the area inevitably will be developed anyway is specious. Any significant development in this sensitive area, not just Disney's plan, deserves the same close scrutiny.

Disney's success under Michael Eisner has been built on the philosophy of do it big, do it bold, and do it right. As presented, this project contains only the first two conditions. As a business decision, it's hard to see why Mr. Eisner wishes to antagonize the thousands, if not millions, of Americans who have a deep interest in conservation and historic preservation. They are beginning to speak up and their voices are only going to rise if the current plan proceeds.

Disney has been homogenizing, pasteurizing, and some would say trivializing history on film and television for decades. (Remember Davy Crockett, the Alamo, Johnny Tremain, and the Swamp Fox?) In that sense, this development is nothing new. The company certainly has the same First Amendment right to talk about America's past as has anyone else.

But Disney doesn't need to do it on sacred ground. If it does, it risks alienating valued customers.

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