Out of America: Theme park offers a Mickey Mouse history of the US

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The Independent Online
HAYMARKET, Virginia - Drive down Washington Street and the only hint you will see that something is up is an 'I love Mickey' sign adorning the warehouse of the Century Stairs Co - about the nearest thing to big business this community of 500 souls presently boasts. To understand the upheaval that will shortly overtake Haymarket, you must travel a couple of miles further north along Route 15, before turning left along an unpaved private road until it reaches a rise offering a magnificent panorama of the northern Virginia countryside.

Stop and contemplate it while you may. Unless a rearguard action of historians, environmentalists and local landowners can prevent it, by 1998 this vista of woods and fields in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains will have become 'Disney's America'.

This is a country where the real and the unreal tend to be indistinguishable. But the spot Disney has chosen for its third park in the US, its theme the history of America, will stretch confusion to the limit. The world's most successful pedlar of escapist fantasy plans to sell ersatz history on land where real history was made.

Haymarket itself may not be a household name; it is little more than a hamlet. But five miles from where Disney's America wants to stage daily re-enactments of Civil War battles is Manassas national park, where in August 1862 thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died in the struggle that forged the real America. Less than an hour's drive from where Disney wants to create a 'Hall of Presidents' from George Washington to Bill Clinton, is the capital of the real America where 42 occupants of the White House have lived over two centuries.

The company promises to avoid a Pollyanna America, and honestly to depict the sufferings of the country's less fortunate inhabitants. As Bob Weis, a senior Disney executive, puts it, 'We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave. We are going to be authentic and a little controversial.' Disney's chairman, Michael Eisner, struck the same note in an interview with the Washington Post: 'We are going to be sensitive, we will not be showing absolute propaganda.' Well, maybe not. But the provisional titles of the park's nine main attractions are hardly reassuring.

There will be an area dealing with America's military history, to be called 'Victory Field'. The itinerary also includes a 'State Fair', featuring a Ferris Wheel, a roller-coaster and a paean to the glories of baseball, and a 'Family Farm', where up to 30,000 people a day will have the opportunity to take part in barn dances or learn to milk a cow. Tourists would be transported around Disney's America in antique steam trains. As yet, all this exists only on paper. But already the society of northern Virginia has been torn asunder.

As the poster on the Century Stairs Co suggests, ordinary inhabitants of Haymarket and the towns around could not be more delighted at the prospect of a dollars 750m ( pounds 500m) investment and 3,000 permanent new jobs in a region hard hit by the collapse of the 1980s construction boom. But environmentalists warn that Disney's America will extend the sprawl around Washington, creating a new suburban horror show of strip malls, fast-food outlets and clogged highways.

Then there are the landed gentry of these parts, old rich like the Mellons, and newcomers like Jack Kent Cooke, the Canadian-born tycoon who owns the Washington Redskins football team; all fearful that 6 million visitors a year will doom their chosen pursuits of horse-breeding and fox-hunting. But the waitress in Matthew's restaurant, currently Haymarket's closest approximation to fine dining, was sneering: 'Those people? They don't want anything to change. They just want this place to stay a cemetery, where nothing moves.'

As for purist historians, they look to Euro Disney and secretly pray the company will get it wrong again: otherwise, might not the real historical sites in Virginia fade into terminal neglect?

Mr Weis and his colleagues naturally dismiss such fears. Americans are not so crass: sanitised 'virtual reality' history will merely increase interest in real history, and Disney's America will be a boon for all, including the crime-ridden and half-bankrupt city of Washington DC. Who knows, they may be right. In the meantime, Virginia's government seems set to give the scheme speedy approval. Disney's foes may hate it, but within 12 months the first bulldozers could be moving into those pristine fields near Haymarket.