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Disney rewriting history for park

Walt Disney Co. is moving away from organizing its proposed park in Prince William County, Va., around nine history-themed "territories," such as the Civil War and slavery, prompted in part by historians' concern that the familiar Disney theme park concept could oversimplify the past.

Instead of building the amusement park around topics including the family farm and Ellis Island immigrants, for example, company officials say the park could instead stress a handful of American values or cultural themes, which might include diversity, how conflicts have united the country or how Americans have responded to technological change.

The shift underscores the complexity and risk involved as the company prepares to invest at least $650-million in Disney's America, intended to package fun with education for families.

Since November, when the project was unveiled, Disney officials from chairman Michael Eisner down have stressed that its content remains undecided and that they expected debate over Disney's handling of American history. Critics earlier attacked the company's plans for portraying slavery, after one official said the park would make vistitors feel what it was like to be a slave. Eisner later labeled that statement presumptuous.

Robert Weis, head of the park design team and senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, would not give specific examples of potential changes to the park concept Tuesday. However, he said Disney is studying how Americans face the same issues repeatedly.

"One of the things I've started to gravitate to is that no American story has a beginning or an end," he said. "They have roots in an early period, they have dynamic points and . . . a lot of themes run through our history."

While saying that he does not believe the company is abandoning its original concept of the park, Weis said, "I'm not sure we have a certain direction yet. . . . Our thoughts are evolving."

A Disney consultant said his intent is to avoid letting the company's talent for popularizing fantasy stories simplify or compartmentalize the American past, which might lead to stereotyping.

"One of the things I've been concerned with is that the history they tell is a serious history. I'm not interested in a fantasy history," said James Oliver Horton, a professor of history at George Washington University hired as an adviser by Disney.

In its first promotional materials last fall, Disney outlined a 185-acre park that would bring up to 30,000 visitors a day to "recall the past, live the present, dream the future."

Conceptually, it included nine areas, from "Victory Field, 1930-1945," based on the nation's reponse to World War II, to "Native America, 1600-1800" that would describe earlier American Indian civilizations.

Company executives had described possible rides such as a "virtual reality" World War II fighter pilot flight and a Lewis and Clark river expedition.

Now, Disney company designers are considering exhibits in which visitors can see the process of history being made, said Robin Reardon, a show producer for Disney's America.

"What if we had graduate students doing research on some aspects of American history" who would become part of the display? Reardon asked.

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