by Zach Cooley
A columnist, novelist, and author, Zach Cooley lives in Wytheville with his wife Emily.
A lifelong citizen of Wythe County born in 1985, I can remember talk around town in the late 1980s that a Disney theme park was possibly coming to the area. As a child, Mickey Mouse was my hero. To the same child that lives within me, Mickey remains my idol. Of course, it was my dream to go to Disney World to see him. I was fourteen,had a broken nose and dreading the 15-hour car ride, but the end result was well worth the pain. So, the idea of having Mickey Mouse coming to my hometown was a dream come true. Needless to say, I was crestfallen when talk of this event ended almost as quickly as it had begun.
Years later, I became interested in answering the questions I had pondered for a lifetime. How did Disney find Wythe County in the first place and why didn’t the plans materialize? In a January 5th telephone interview with entrepreneur J.C. Weaver from Dunedin, FL, I finally got the answers I’d been seeking for years. A longtime owner of more than 4000 acres near the I-81/I-77 corridor in Max Meadows, which includes the historic and wildly popular Haunted Major Graham Mansio. Around 20 years, Weaver was in talks with the late Florida Judge Charlie Phillips of Florida, former longtime local Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher and former late Roanoke-based Senator Bill Hopkins to bring Disney’s America, a $150 million dollar venture to Wythe County.
The park would have included Crossroads USA, a Civil War-era village that would have served as the hub of Disney’s America. Guests would enter under an 1840s train trestle, which would have featured antique steam trains circling the park. A recreation of a Native American village that would have reflected the tribes that were known in our area was also planned. Guests would have also enjoyed interactive experiences, exhibits, and arts and crafts, as well as a whitewater river raft ride that would have traveled throughout the area, based on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Civil War fort would have plunged guests into a more turbulent time of American history; with an adjacent replica battlefield where Civil War re-enactments and water battles between the Monitor and the Merrimac would have once again been fought. We the People, a replica of Ellis Island including live shows, music and restaurants was planned in addition to the 1930s State Fair area, which would have featured a live show about baseball with Coney Island-themed rides. Family Farm would have been a recreation of an authentic farm where guests could have had the opportunity to see different types of industries related to food production, in addition to hands-on experiences. A version of these two attractions as well as the Lewis and Clark raft ride were later added to Disney’s California Adventure Park, not to mention Victory Field, where guests would have experienced what America’s soldiers faced in the defense of freedom during the world wars. It would have been themed to resemble an air field with a series of hangars containing attractions based on America’s military fight using virtual reality technology. The air field would have also served as an exhibit of airplanes from different periods, as well as for major flying exhibitions.
Other scrapped ideas for the Virginia park included Enterprise, a mock factory town, it would have highlighted American ingenuity where guests could have ridden a major attraction called Industrial Revolution, traveling on a roller coaster-type ride through a 19th-century landscape with heavy industry and blast furnaces. On either side of the ride would have been exhibits of technology that defined America’s industry and developments that would have defined future industries. President’s Square, a highlight of my visits to Disney World in Florida, sadly was a part of our never-realized park as well. A celebration of the birth of democracy and those who fought to preserve it, the Hall of Presidents from Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, would have been moved to this section of Disney’s America.
Originally, Disney was interested in Wythe County due to its being within a day’s drive of many U.S. States. After surveying the land with helicopters, Disney executives met with Weaver and the aforementioned local governmental officials for dinner at the Major Graham Mansion. Eventually, politics got in the way and Disney’s America was scrapped. When Disney attempted to build the project in 1993 in Haymarket, Virginia, they met with the same roadblocks and cancelled the project for good.
Weaver and I agree. Wythe County has the potential to host a great theme park or large tourist attraction that could showcase its natural beauty to the world. Though he knows of nothing in the works in the near future, Weaver says he is still very much open to the eventual opening of a theme park equivalent to the quality and class of Disney, as it will inevitably become our biggest local draw and turn us into an overnight global resort. According to him, companies like Gatorade and Pepsi had the similarly correct forethought to establish branches in the area.
He also noted that even as far back as the 19th century, you could ride a stagecoach to Fort Chiswell, where the I-81/I-77 junction is now located, where you could proceed west on either foot or horseback. At any rate, Weaver says that Wythe County holds the key to a huge future if it reaches its full potential and has the makings of a showpiece to the rest of the world. That is thanks, in no small part, to its heritage. “We have to take a look at where we’ve been,” Weaver stated in closing. “It helps us know where we are going.”