Walt Disney Co. plans to build a new American history theme park and shopping complex on a rural site near Haymarket in Prince William County, about 30 miles outside Washington, congressional and business sources said yesterday.
The proposed site, known as the Waverley tract, encompasses about 2,000 acres set amid rolling hills. It is located less than a mile north of Interstate 66 on Route 15 in western Prince William County, northwest of Manassas.
Disney spokesmen, adhering to the company's tradition of extreme secrecy regarding new projects, declined to comment to reporters on their plans. A formal announcement is believed to be imminent.
It appeared that Disney's new project would differ significantly from the famous Disney theme parks in Anaheim, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. According to several sources, the Northern Virginia complex would feature an American history and culture theme rather than a Mickey-and-Minnie focus, and would combine features of an amusement park and a shopping mall. The goal would be to minimize competition with the sprawling DisneyWorld complex in Orlando.
Prince William residents responded with euphoria and enthusiasm, but some dismay, to sketchy initial reports about the proposed project. Business leaders were thrilled about the prospect of a major new tourist attraction in the county. But some residents expressed concern about the threat posed to the rural community by increased traffic and congestion.
In briefings yesterday with legislators, Disney officials said the project would take four to five years to complete and could create 1,000 jobs. They said they had investigated possible obstacles to the project based on environmental or historic preservation concerns and that they believed there were no serious problems.
However, the Waverley tract was recently the focus of a zoning battle, and some real estate executives and other observers predicted Disney would face local opposition.
"There's a zillion hurdles to overcome," said Northern Virginia real estate broker Dan Bishopp.
Disney officials briefed the Northern Virginia congressional delegation on the project on Capitol Hill, according to legislative sources familiar with the briefings. The legislators, including both Virginia senators, in general responded enthusiastically but raised questions about potential traffic problems on I-66.
In the briefings, Disney officials identified the site as being located in the Haymarket/Gainesville area. The exact size of the planned complex is uncertain. The Waverley site, with 2,070 acres, is much larger than Disneyland in California (185 acres), but much smaller than DisneyWorld in Florida (about 30,000 acres).
Disney officials said they hope to capitalize on the District's bustling tourism business with a theme park that would be only a day-trip away, according to the legislative sources. It also would be close to another prominent historic landmark, the Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of two major Civil War battles.
Disney officials said they planned to ask the Virginia General Assembly to expand the highway interchange at the intersection of Route 15 and I-66. They said they had studied traffic patterns on I-66, and believed traffic generated by the planned complex would not exacerbate rush-hour congestion.
The prospective site for the park is owned by Fairfax-based Friends-wood Development Co., a subsidiary of Irving, Tex.-based Exxon Corp. An Exxon spokeswoman declined to comment. It was unclear whether Disney has purchased the land or just obtained an option to buy it.
Prince William County officials also have declined to comment on Disney's plans.
Local real estate industry executives, who typically are aware of major transactions, could not comment specifically on the land acquisition because Disney representatives have dealt directly with landowners in the area.
"They are keeping it under very tight wraps," Bishopp said.
Bishopp and other real estate experts noted that the site, which has two miles of highway frontage on Route 15, is easily accessible to I-66 and by rail, and is close to Dulles International Airport.
This is not the first time that a large entertainment complex has been proposed for western Prince William County. In the 1970s, Marriott Corp. proposed a theme park similar to Disneyland, with Warner Bros. cartoon characters as guides, but the plan faltered because of zoning problems.
More recently, the Waverley tract itself has been the subject of controversy. Exxon sought to rezone the site in 1989 for a large, mixed-use housing development but encountered substantial opposition from residents. The rezoning was approved in May 1991, but the project was delayed by the region's economic downturn.
Staff writers Paul Farhi, Stephen C. Fehr, Spencer S. Hsu, Marianne Kyriakos, Maria E. Odum, William F. Powers, Ron Shaffer, Michael D. Shear and Frank Swoboda contributed to this report.