A group of prominent American historians and writers has formed to oppose the Walt Disney Co.'s planned theme park in Northern Virginia, criticizing what one of them called the park's potential for the "commercialization and vulgarization" of the nation's past. The group, led by Yale University professor emeritus C. Vann Woodward and Duke University scholar John Hope Franklin, has about 20 members and includes biographer and essayist Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; historians James McPherson, Barbara Fields, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote and David McCullough; novelist William Styron; journalist Tom Wicker; and Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Building Disney's America 35 miles west of Washington "would be an appalling commercialization and vulgarization of the scene of our most tragic history, and I would deplore it," said Woodward, author of "Origins of the New South" and a dean of Southern history.
Many historians have said the park's construction near Haymarket would amount to putting a small city on farmland surrounded by more than two dozen sites from the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Disney officials also learned yesterday of another hurdle in their quest to build the $ 650 million park: Virginia Transportation Secretary Robert E. Martinez announced that the state will seek a full federal review of more than $ 100 million in freeway improvements planned to serve the park. Environmentalists opposed to the park have pushed for such a review as a way to delay the project, which is to be completed in 1998. The review could take at least 18 months and will examine how the park would affect traffic, the environment and historic places in the area. The group of historians and writers has scheduled a public announcement today to try to focus national attention on how a Disney park would affect historic rural areas nearby. Disney officials yesterday announced support for the project from several historians, and they pledged to work with a leading Civil War preservation group in building the theme park. Mark Pacala, general manager of Disney's America, said the entertainment conglomerate has pledged $ 100,000 to the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. The company also agreed to promote historic sites in the region at its proposed park and to encourage historic preservation, make annual donations to historic preservation groups and pay for improvements to the nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park. The prominent historians and writers opposing the project have become an advisory panel to a group called Protect Historic America. Their opposition to the park follows a similar announcement recently by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which buys and restores historic properties across the country. "I just think it's tremendously important to protect American history from developers," Schlesinger said. "Developers have destroyed too much American history as it is." Styron, a native of Tidewater Virginia and a historical novelist, said he feared that a Disney theme park would trivialize history and create pressures damaging to historic sites such as the Manassas battlefield, four miles east of Haymarket along Interstate 66. But Jody Powell, a Disney public relations consultant and a leading figure in the 1988 fight against a shopping mall that was proposed next to the battlefield, said predictions of Disney-induced suburban sprawl are "grossly in error." "A park like this ... can make a tremendous contribution to history and to historical education ... by inspiring interest and a desire to learn more," said Powell, who was press secretary to President Carter.