“The Third Battle of Bull Run: The Disney’s America Theme Park (B)”
The purpose of this assignment is to read a case study and identify the most significant business problem
the company faced while assessing the various types of organizational communications used to manage
Your task is to read the case study, and after careful analysis, formulate a succinct response that is no
longer than two double-spaced typed pages. You must also include a title page and separate reference
Your response must include a clear identification of the most significant business problem facing Disney,
prompting the public statement. Remember this is your educated opinion which must be supported with
evidence. You may find the evidence needed in the case study, but you may also use credible external
sources. In addition, your response must assess the various types of organizational communication
Disney used to manage the problem. Examine the different audiences/constituencies and determine how
the message differed or would have differed. It is important that your paper has the three sections—
introduction with a thesis, body with support for the thesis, and a conclusion.
Statement on graduate-level writing requirements
Your writing reflects your ideas and communicates your understanding of the topic to the instructor. This
assignment will be graded on the composition elements listed below, as well as your understanding of the
Successful graduate-level writing should demonstrate
Correct grammar and punctuation
Proper content presentation (introduction, body, conclusion)
Correct formatting for citations, references, and headings
Correct and consistent use of APA style and formatting
This case was written by Sarah Stover, MBA ’97 and Elizabeth Powell, Assistant Professor of Business
Administration. It written as a basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate effective or ineffective handling of
an administrative situation. Copyright © 2001 by the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation,
Charlottesville, VA. All rights reserved. To order copies, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. No part of
this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form
or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of the
Darden School Foundation.
THE THIRD BATTLE OF BULL RUN
THE DISNEY’S AMERICA THEME PARK (B)
On September 28, 1994, Disney officials announced the end of the Disney’s America
project in Prince William County, Virginia. Two representatives from Disney’s America flew to
Richmond to brief Virginia’s Governor George Allen on the decision. The same day, Prince
William County officials were notified as well.
Peter S. Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development Company, issued a
public statement, saying in part:
We remain convinced that a park that celebrates America and an exploration of
our heritage is a great idea, and we will continue to work to make it a reality.
However, 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.
While we do not agree with all their concerns, we are seeking a new location so
that we can move the process forward. . . .
Despite our confidence that we would eventually win the necessary approvals, it
has become clear that we could not say when the park would be able to open—or
even when we could break ground.
The controversy over building in Prince William County has diverted attention
and resources from the creative development of the park. Implicit in our vision
for the park is the hope that it will be a source of pride and unity for all
Americans. We certainly cannot let a particular site undermine that goal by
becoming a source of divisiveness.1
Peter S. Baker and Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post, “Mickey’s Tactical Retreat; Worried about Its Image,
Disney Co. Stunned State Officials by Giving Up Its Park Site,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, 29 September 1994, A1.
Rummell stated that Disney would try to build an American history theme park elsewhere in
Virginia, but that a site had not yet been selected.
Many Virginia politicians were disappointed, but some tried to remain optimistic.
Governor George Allen’s office issued a statement: “I’m committed to a Disney theme park in
Virginia and the jobs that will be created thereby. I’m pleased that the Walt Disney Company
shares that commitment.”2
Robert S. Skunda, Allen’s Secretary of Commerce and Trade, commented to reporters, “I
think they see the likelihood of long-term damage to their image. No company likes to be
publicly bashed when they feel as though they are doing something that is worthwhile. . . . The
thing that a company values most is its reputation. It has to. Without a reputation a company
cannot continue to exist. I think those things drove Disney away from the Haymarket site.”3
Prince William County executive James Mullen said the county would be forced to go
through a time of self-examination following Disney’s exit. He stated, “Mainly I’m disappointed
for the people in the community who supported the project and for our staff, who put so much
time in on this. Disney certainly hasn’t helped our marketing effort. They’ve made it very
difficult for us to overcome the perception that this is a place (where) you can’t do a big project
without a hassle.”4
Other local politicians were not as generous in their remarks about Disney. State Senator
Joseph Benedetti of Richmond stated, “Promises were made that they’d stay, come hell or high
water. Whatever they do is going to have to be written in blood next time.”5 State Senator
Charles Colgan of Prince William County stated, “I think they broke faith with us.”6
James McPherson, the Princeton history professor and one of Disney’s most vocal
opponents, stated, “I’m very happy. It’s good news.”7 McPherson said that he would be happy
to help Disney find another location in Virginia that would be less significant historically. He
stated, “Some of us would be quite happy to advise them. This has never been an attempt to
Over the next few weeks, scores of municipalities wrote newspaper articles and
petitioned Disney directly, stating that they would welcome a Disney park in their areas.
Alec Klein and Margaret Edds, “Disney Lost Will To Fight; Bad Press, Internal Woes Cited,” Roanoke Times
and World News, 30 September 1994, A1.
Michael D. Shear and Martha Hamilton, “Disney Packs Up Muskets at Civil War Battlefield,” International
Herald Tribune, 30 September 1994.
Since the decision to halt plans for Disney’s America in Virginia, observers have tried to
make sense in retrospect of the park’s failure. In 1998, Eisner issued a memoir, Work in
Progress. In a chapter devoted to the Disney’s America project,9 Eisner freely and openly
admits that Disney made many missteps, while still arguing for the vision he had for the theme
park. Among the missteps Eisner identified were
• Naming the project “Disney’s America,” which implied the company’s
ownership of U.S. history. He said, “That was unfortunate because we were
never interested in a park that merely reflected a Disneyesque view of
• Failing to “recognized how deeply people often feel about maintaining their
communities just as they are. . . . There may have been no collection of people
[the Piedmont Environmental Council] in America better equipped to lobby a
cause, whether with Congress or government agencies or through the media.”
• Being “blindsided” by the issue of proximity to the Manassas Battlefield Park.
Jody Powell’s advice had been that the distance of three miles would be great
enough to avoid controversy.
• Believing Disney “could announce the project on [its] own timetable. Our
focus on secrecy in land acquisition had prevented us from even briefing,
much less lobbying, the leading politicians in the state about our plans as they
evolved. The consequence was that we lost the opportunity to develop crucial
allies and nurture goodwill.”
• Revealing to the public “a plan that looked relatively complete [which]
opened ourselves up to every critic with different ideas about what a park
based on American history should and should not include.”
• Making emotional statements that critics latched on to, including being
shocked about not being taken around on people’s shoulders and complaining
that history in school was boring. Eisner reflects: “My comments made me
sound not just smug and arrogant but like something of a Philistine. . . .
Looking back, I realize how much my brief moment of intemperance
undermined our cause.”
To balance his story, Eisner also recollects his well-meaning intentions for the theme
park, describing his motives as the patriotic and socially responsible vision of a son of
immigrants. He wanted visiting Disney’s America to be as multimedia intensive and deeply
moving an experience as the U.S. Holocaust Museum. In retrospect, Eisner explained “We saw
ourselves as storytellers first and foremost,” who needed advice from historical experts to portray
American history “knowledgeably and responsibly.” Working with the advisory group of “openminded” historians who critiqued comparable
exhibits in Orlando was particularly eye-opening:
“In our original plan, for example, we’d envisioned recreating a classic twentieth-century steel
Michael B. Eisner, Chapter 12, “Disney’s America,” Work in Progress (New York: Random House, 1998)
mill and then putting a roller-coaster through it. To do that, we began to understand, could
trivialize and even demean the attempt to portray the steel mill realistically.”
Of his critics, Eisner complains, “By any reasonable measure, this attack on Disney’s
America was dramatically overstated. . . . Much like negative advertising in a political campaign,
[their] incendiary claims were effective in influencing public opinion and putting us further on
the defensive. I was suddenly the captain of Exxon’s Valdez. . . . By the summer of 1994,
opposing Disney’s America had become a fashionable cause célèbre in the media centers of New
York City and Washington, D.C. . . . Fairness seemed to have given way to polemics.”
In the end, Eisner explains that financial projections made in late August 1994 “showed
that rather than the profit we’d previously projected for Disney’s America, we were now facing
the prospect of substantial losses.” On the cost side, Eisner attributed the losses to the current
and future expense of dealing with opponents’ legal challenges, to the carrying costs caused by a
projected two-year delay before breaking ground, and to the modifications to the original plans
that increased costs by almost 40 percent. On the revenue side, the Disney’s America team now
projected a lower price point for tickets and a shorter season at eight months down from nine.
According to Eisner, “Now that a dozen members of our team had spent a year living in the
towns adjacent to our site, they had a different view. An eight-month season for the park seemed
The revised figures, coupled with the psychic impact of Wells’ death, Eisner’s by-pass
surgery, and Katzenburg’s departure led to the decision to abandon plans for Disney’s America.
As Eisner concludes,
I still believed that it was possible to get Disney’s America built, but the
question now was at what cost. . . . [A]fter two weeks of soul-searching, we
finally agreed that it wasn’t fair to subject the company to more trauma. The
issue was no longer who was right or wrong. We had lost the perception game.
Largely through our own missteps, the Walt Disney Company had been
effectively portrayed as an enemy of American history and a plunderer of sacred
ground. The revised economic projections took the last bit of wind out of our
sails. The cost of moving forward on Disney’s America, we reluctantly
concluded, finally outweighed the potential gain.
Others interpreted the situation as one in which Eisner himself needed better handling. In
The Keys to the Kingdom, former Washington Post reporter Kim Masters says Eisner’s dealings
with the media had suffered since late 1992 when he lost his chief of corporate communications,
Erwin Okun, to cancer. “Okun had a shrewd yet avuncular style that worked well with the
press,” wrote Masters. Journalist Peter Boyer said of Okun “‘He somehow pushed that button in
all of us that said Disney is an honest, good company that meant well. . . . He packaged [Eisner]
well without seeming to do so.’” “Eisner said he relied on Okun ‘to counsel, review, berate,
encourage, and protect me,’” Masters writes. Okun’s successor, John Dreyer, however, “came
from the theme parks. He lacked Okun’s cordiality and treated the press with suspicion
bordering on hostility. At the Washington Post, he quickly alienated the very reporters whose
coverage of Disney’s America would prove most influential.”10 Pat Scanlon, formerly an
Imagineer, speculated that Wells might have salvaged the Disney’s America project.
“There wasn’t anybody at a high enough level to keep Michael in his box,
[Scanlon] says. “Michael was making public remarks that weren’t helpful.
Michael sounded a bit like an abrasive Hollywood producer coming to town.
Frank would have shaped public relations because he would have made Michael
more aware. Frank was the consummate diplomat.”11
Whatever the cause, Nick Kotz, a member of the Piedmont Environmental Council and
author of the editorial in the Los Angeles Times, observed this about the effects of the Disney’s
America theme park controversy: “Undoubtedly Disney had internal reasons for the decision to
strike its tent on the Piedmont battlefield. But it had also faced the danger of a Pyrrhic victory.
In all probability, it could have prevailed and built its theme park, but it would have suffered
serious and perhaps permanent value to its reputation.”12
Despite claims by Eisner and Disney officials to the contrary, as of the writing of this
case, no further plans have been announced for a Disney’s America theme park.
Kim Masters, The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip (New York: William Morrow,
Nick Kotz and Rudy Abramson, “The Battle to Stop Disney’s America,” COSMOS, (on-line journal) 1997,
<http://www.cosmos-club.org/journals/1997/disney.html> (accessed on 20 May 2002).
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