Disney and Battlefields: A Tale of Two Continents

Disney and Battlefields: A Tale of Two Continents

In the United States, significant portions of land have been set aside for battlefield parks to commemorate the actions of past generations and interpreted these spaces with regard to how they have shaped the present. In turn, as Edward Linenthal has argued, they became sacred ground.[1] As a result, some historians and members of the public have viewed infringements on those battlefields as a violation of that sacred ground.

In the 1990s, the Disney Corporation twice invaded such sacred places, first in France’s Marne-la-Vallee and second in Northern Virginia. The results could not have been more different. In France attention focused on the damage done to French culture by a U.S. conglomerate and in Virginia the outcry was over Disney doing “to American history what they have already done to the animal kingdom—sentimentalize it out of recognition,” to use Shelby Foote’s words.[2] By studying the two episodes, the different cultures of battlefield preservation and war remembrance in Europe and the United States illustrate that not preserving a battlefield does not mean forgetting nor does it mean ignoring the sacrifices of soldiers in the past.

On December 19, 1985, Michael Eisner, the CEO of the Disney Corporation stepped in front of the camera to announce that Disney had decided to build a new theme park and resort area just to the east of Paris. Eisner stated: “We are hopeful that our current negotiations will result in a definitive agreement to bring Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney to France and the European Community . . . Walt Disney would certainly feel at home here because European literature inspired so many of his fantasies and characters.” The article indicates that the selected location near Marne-la-Vallee, was located on the western edge of a World War I battlefield.[3] This was one of the very few mentions of the proposed park’s proximity to a battlefield.

Seven years after Eisner’s Paris press conference, on April 12, 1992, Euro Disney Resort opened its gates. Only two years later, on September 28, 1994, the Disney Corporation announced the abandoning of a very different theme park project in the vicinity of another battlefield of a different war, Disney’s America in northern Virginia near Manassas/Bull Run. While it was the uncontrollably spiraling costs of, what had by then become, Disneyland Paris that brought down Disney’s America, some in the historical community assumed they had tamed the mouse with their protests.

The locations of these planned theme park projects near battlefields of great national importance are surprisingly similar. In the course of the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, the 9th German Cavalry Division advanced as far as the village of Crecy along the Grand Morin.[4] This placed the troops just north of the British Army and within 10km (a little over 6 miles) of modern day Disneyland Paris. In contrast, the distance between Disney’s America and the Manassas National Battlefield Park was about 8 miles. Therefore, both parks were located in similar close vicinity to the opening engagements of their respective wars. Paris and Washington, D.C. also have an extensive cultural scene of museums and on their own accord attract a vast number of tourists. Disney even had plans to offer packages that would include day-trips into Washington.

The close proximity of the new theme park in France to the early battlefields of the Great War was a topic of discussion, but never a prominent one. The New York Times reported that “Mickey and Pluto will frolic near the edge of history” when the talks between Disney and the French government came to a successful conclusion.[5] References to World War I or the Great War, dissipated quickly, but so did Eisner’s smile.

When Eisner visited the Paris Bourse for the stock launch in 1989 eggs literally flew in his face. Chants of “Mickey, Go Home!” were not even the worst word choice as French movie director Ariane Mnouchkine suggested that the arrival of Disney in France represented “a cultural Chernobyl.”[6] The notion of a cultural conflict was widespread as even Le Figaro noted decades later, “Deux cultures, deux imaginaires s’affrontent.”[7] France has historically jealously guarded against any form of anglicization of its language and made efforts to promote French culture. At the same time, the battlefield near the new park did not hold the same gruesome reminders as those farther afield at Verdun or along the Somme. It was the arrival of a cultural icon from the United States and its possible impact on French culture that drew attention not the proximity to Great War battlefields.

Hoping for a better reception, on November 11, 1993, Eisner made another trip in front of the press to announce yet another theme park. Located in Virginia, the proposed park centered on history, telling aspects of the history of the United States until 1945, but also near history with its close proximity to the Bull Run/Manassas Battlefield. The 1,200-acre park would in the words of Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development Co., “make this [history] real but also make it fun. An intelligent story, properly told, shouldn’t offend anybody. . . . But we won’t worry about being politically correct.” The Los Angeles Times wondered if making historical events such as slavery, the Depression, and the Civil War “fun and exciting for the whole family” was an invitation for problems.[8] As expected the eggs, this time figuratively, quickly started flying in Disney’s direction as the Disney Corporation had miscalculated the public opposition.

Haymarket, Virginia, where the park was supposed to rise, was “in an uproar. Neighbors are lining up against neighbors. Families are split. For the history-soaked region 40 miles from the nation’s capital, the fight is shaping up as a second Civil War: for or against Disney.”[9] The proximity to Manassas National Battlefield Park brought opposition from individuals who had already successfully derailed plans for a shopping center near the park in the late 1980s and did not want commercialization near these sacred grounds. With regard to the Civil War, concerns centered on how a Fort Sumter-like replica and a naval engagement between Monitor and Virginia would tell the complicated story of the rebellion. In the words of Democratic Representative Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), “Americans should learn about the Civil War from historians, . . . ‘not Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.’”[10] David McCullough was far more outspoke when he called the plans, “This is the creation of a new city, a new edge city, sprawl at its worst. And this is the panzer division of developers moving in.”[11] Ironically, even the French did not seem to have used such harsh language to oppose their park.

Two years after his enthusiastic statements and promises of resilience in the face of “political correctness,” Rummell beat retreat. He explained the cancelation of the park: “We recognize that there are those who have been concerned about the possible impact of our park on historic sites in this unique area, and we have always tried to be sensitive to the issue.”[12]While money was a significant factor in the cancelation, historians and community leaders celebrate what they perceived as their success.[13]

Beyond the failure and success of building theme parks near battlefields, these Disney projects illustrate the very different attitudes taken towards these areas of death and destruction. Both the Great War, in which France lost around 1.7 million soldiers and civilians, and the American Civil War, were defining as well as traumatic moments in each country’s past. In the United States, national cemeteries and battlefield parks dot the landscape. In France, massive cemeteries and battlefield monuments are a reminder of the carnage. There are still trenches and bunkers all around the northern parts of the country; yet, there is no massive battlefield park. Arguably it would be impractical to create a park that stretches from Channel to Switzerland, eliminating millions of acres of farm land. However, the French have created small parks, like at Verdun.[14] A vastly different memorial landscape from that which exist in the United States, where it is increasingly popular to preserve entire battlefield park, at least try to, and to treat these field as sacred beyond development.

In the end, France and the United States remember their pasts in very different ways. The United States is somewhat unique in that it created massive battlefield parks, something impracticable in most of Europe. With the parks anchored so deeply in the public memory of the American Civil War, a theme park infringing on such a sacred space was unthinkable as was the cultural impact Disney would have on the telling of history. The French worried about the impact of Disney and U.S. culture on France; however, the proximity of the park to the early battlefields of the Great War was not a major topic of disagreement. Maybe, there is something the United States can learn from France’s attitude that not all battlefields need to be preserved to remember those who fought and died in major wars of the past.

[1] Edward T. Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

[2] Charles Krauthammer, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Mouse?” Time, June 6, 1994. Available at http://wesclark.com/jw/krauthmr.html.

[3] New York Times, December 19, 1985.

[4] “Battle of the Marne, and Advance to the Aisne, http://www.lightbobs.com/1914-battle-of-the-marne.html

[5] Frank J. Prial, “The Talk of Paris,“ New York Times, August 13, 1985.

[6] Jeff Chu, “Happily Ever After?” Time Europe Magazine, March 18, 2002.

[7] Camille Lestienne, “Disneyland Paris: L’Inquiétude des Riverains en 1989 face à la ‘Bétonisation,’” Le Figaro (Paris), February, 24, 2017. Special thanks to Andrew Houck for helping me with some French newspaper research.

[8] Jube Shiver, Jr, “With Liberty and Justice for Mickey,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1993.

[9] Deborah Sharp, “Disney Plans worry Locals / Rural Virginia again is a Battlefield,” USA Today, December 7, 1993.

[10] Stephen C. Fehr and Michael D. Shear, “For Disney, Fight Takes New Twist,” Washington Post, June 17, 1994.

[11] “Historians Oppose Disney America in Virginia,” CNN NEWS 8:10 pm ET, May 11, 1994.

[12] “Disney Cancels N. Va. History Park,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 29, 1994.

[13] Michael Wiebner, “The Battle of Bull Run: How Insurgent Grassroots Lobbying Defeated Disney’s Proposed Virginia, Theme Park,” Campaigns and Elections (December 1994 / January 1995).

[14] Thank you to Chip Fulcher, Craig Bruce Smith, Jen Murray, Brooks Simpson, Caitlin G. DeAngelis for their helpful comments on Twitter and Sabrina Mittermeier (Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks Middle Class Kingdoms (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020)) who kindly visited one of my classes to talk about her book.






Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

3 Replies to “Disney and Battlefields: A Tale of Two Continents”

  1. The preservation movement in the United States has never advocated or attempted to preserve all battlefields (There is a long history of developers using that line to discredit preservationists in the U.S.as fanatically opposed to property rights). Moreover, organizations like the Battlefield Trust have spent enormous sums of money to on education and interpretation (conferences, teacher workshops and digital history) The conclusion to this piece is murky. I am not certain what preservationists in the states are supposed to learn from France. Saving ground is not just about honoring the fallen as the author suggests, but it is about creating public space for people to learn about the past for generations to come–and let’s not forget the dire need to save green space in a country that devours nature with impunity. Despite the author’s claim that France does things differently than the United States, Verdun has a brand new visitor center, a driving tour, and a walking tour. It resembles a National battlefield park in the states. Of course the preservationists should learn from each other, but I am not sure what can be deduced from the so-called French model that the author describes.

  2. France and other European do things differently, to be sure. Motives vary. De Gaulle had standing orders that he was never to be taken within 10 km of Agincourt. Belgium did not exist when the Battle of Waterloo occurred; it took diplomatic pressure and money from the UK to convince the Belgians to locate a new superhighway adjacent to, rather than directly through, the battlefield. But Britain’s National Battlefield Trust has had limited success preserving battlefields of its own Civil War; Naseby lacks interpretation and a visitor’s center. Greece has nicely preserved Marathon and Thermopylae but not Plataea. France has done very well at Normandy and Verdun, and allowed other nations to build memorials and cemeteries across its land, to the discomfort of many farmers (and France has a vibrant agricultural economy). Poitiers is not as well marked as Crecy. Comparing these situations — and the history they represent to the peoples on who land the battlefields sit — with the US is apples to automobiles.

    NOr is it fair to say that Americans are trying to preserve every spot where a shot was fired in anger on US soil. Of the 10,500 such spots in the American Civil War, the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission in 1992 recommended preservation of 384 sites as historically significant. These are the only sites where the American Battlefield Trust or the National Park Service will preserve land. Similar limits apply to Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites. We have chosen to remember these wars and battles because they were critical to defining America.

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