The day my father defeated Disney's theme park plans - Spear's Magazine

The day my father defeated Disney's theme park plans

When Disney admitted defeat, faced with mounting local opposition, they could place the blame at my father’s feet

IT'S FINALLY GLORIOUSweather in New York: seventies with a light breeze, which makes it hard to sit in an office all day. I’ve been taking advantage as much as I can by rollerblading up and down the new Westside Highway Bike Path.

I take the subway up to 190th Street, rollerblade across a narrow, hilly stretch and then plunge down the path. It’s always a little dicey in the beginning as you have to avoid bunches of pollen and leaves that fall in your way, as well as the occasional crack pipe, but after about ten minutes you are zooming along right under the George Washington Bridge.

It’s glorious up there, and I found a tiny, almost unknown spot called Fort Tryon Park, which looks over the river and is so verdant and overgrown that it makes you forget you live in the largest concrete jungle in the world.

(The name comes from a battle fought during the American Revolutionary War on 16 November 1776 between 2,900 American soldiers and 8,000 invading Hessian troops hired by Great Britain. After the British victory, the outpost was named after Sir William Tryon, the last British governor of the Province of New York.)

The lane stretches past the boat basin to the Pier i Caf’, where I can stop and get a Brooklyn IPA or, even better, blueberry lemonade, before continuing on my trek. Sometimes I stop on the pier and read a book and watch the sail boats on the Hudson whipping past, fuelled by the wind created by the tall buildings on either side.

I continue my race to Battery Park City, avoiding tourists ambling on the path, enormous baby strollers and slow-moving cyclists, to reach the Statue of Liberty. I know it’s naff, but I salute her each time I see her and then make my way up the crowded path back to my apartment.

It’s a very empowering feeling to know you’ve skated most of the length of Manhattan. I have to say that it’s all due to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Since he’s been elected, a number of incredible parks have been created and everywhere you look, it seems like a bit of nature is being restored.

When you see the effect every day of what he’s done, it makes you realise how much one person can do to change their surroundings. I learnt that lesson from someone much closer to me than the mayor of New York: my father.

I’m not sure quite when I came to understand that my father was committed to helping the environment. He has always loved the beauty of nature. Growing up, we constantly had to stop the car to get out and look at some view or other.

He worked in real estate and was perturbed by other developers who put up buildings with no attention to their effect on local life. But if I were to pin his love for the environment down to just one thing, I’d say it was when he defeated Disney.

Taking on the mickey

About twenty years ago, a small group of concerned landowners got together after they’d heard that the Disney Corporation was going to put up a Civil War theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, located minutes from some of the most unspoilt and attractive countryside in America.

While Haymarket itself was not particularly attractive, the worry was that the urban sprawl that the Disney theme parks spawn (anyone who has been even briefly to Orlando can attest to its hideousness) would soon take over. The campaign was called FTM for ’Fight the Mouse’ ’ or something else starting with ’F’.

My father helped to hire political consultants and a team of lawyers and to fund a burgeoning organisation called the Piedmont Environmental Council. His help was instrumental. When Disney finally admitted defeat, faced with mounting local opposition, they could place the blame squarely at my father’s feet. I remember asking him about it after the news came out that the park had been stopped and he just smiled and said: ’That was a good fight.’’

Since then my father has continued his work for the environment. Our charitable trust (set up by my great-great-grandfather to keep his legacy intact for generations) has supported clean-water initiatives, farm-to-table movements and local businesses and farms.

I love going to Virginia ’ people come up to me all the time and say how wonderful my father has been for the community down there.

Preserving the environment is it’s about leaving a legacy, and the more I can learn from my father about that, the better. He won’t be leaving his name on buildings, but he will have saved a part of the world that is important to him, which is a tremendous gift to his children and grandchildren.

If you are lucky enough to have the means to change the world for the better, then you should ’ or at least leave it unchanged, as my father hopes to do.’

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