Walt Disney was an innovator. He changed expectations people had for animated films and amusement parks. Earlier this year at The Walt Disney Family Museum, urban planner and Disney historian, Sam Gennaway, hosted a presentation with Walt Disney’s son-in-law Walt Disney Family Museum Co-Founder and former Disney Company CEO, Ron Miller, and Dave Price, son of Disney Legend Buzz Price, on Mineral King. Mineral King was one of three projects Walt Disney was working on when he passed away, the other two were EPCOT and CalArts. If Mineral King had been built, it would have changed people’s expectations for ski resorts.
Walt Disney describing his plans for Mineral King
Walt loved winter sports. With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia to look forward to now that the London Summer Games have concluded, it seems like a good time to talk about Walt Disney’s involvement in the Winter Olympics and his desire to design a ski resort.
Walt Disney met Hannes Schroll, Austrian Ski Champion, at Badger Pass Ski Resort in Yosemite, California, who convinced Walt to invest in Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. Sugar Bowl was advanced for its time and had the first chair lift. If you visit Sugar Bowl, you can still ski down Disney Peak. Sugar Bowl was also featured in the 1941 Disney cartoon “The Art of Skiing” in which Goofy goes to Sugar Bowl to learn how to ski. Schroll is noted for the yodel Goofy makes in the cartoon, which is now known as the “Goofy holler”.
Schroll also appeared in the Disney live-action film “Third Man on the Mountain”. When Walt visited Switzerland during the making of the film, Imagineer and Disney Legend Bob Gurr said Walt got “Matterhorn Poisoning” and sent a postcard of the Matterhorn to WED Imagineering with the note “Build this.” Walt especially loved Zermat and much of the aesthetics of Mineral King were based on Zermat.
Walt, Lillian and Diane Disney with Hannes Schroll
For the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, Walt Disney was asked to be in charge of the ceremonies. It became clear, however, that no one knew anything about Operations. Walt took over most of the Olympic operations using Disneyland staff.
In addition, Walt became responsible for entertainment in the Olympic Village. The 1960 Winter Olympics were the first to be televised and Walt brought showmanship to the Olympics. When the Olympic cauldron went out, the games were declared “the best ever”. Walt had changed the public’s perception of the Olympics and started traditions that continue today. Some artifacts from the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, including the Olympic Torch designed by Disney Artist John Hench, are on display at The Walt Disney Family Museum.
The 1960 Olympics got Walt to start thinking about a ski resort. Walt always wanted his ideas explored. He did not like to hear, “No, because …”. He liked to hear, “Yes, if we did this …”. So Walt asked Buzz Price to look into possible areas for a ski resort. Buzz was Walt’s “numbers guy” for the economies of real estate and park development. Buzz was responsible for selecting the sites of Disneyland and Disney World. Buzz presented Walt with a list of sites, including:
- San Gregorio. This location was turned down by Walt as it was owned by the Boy Scouts of America for camping.
- Mineral King
- Mammoth Mountain. The owner, Dave McCoy, wanted to sell the resort to Walt Disney. Dave McCoy was ready to finalize the sale to Disney until Dave McCoy’s children expressed interest in keeping the resort in the family.
Walt and Buzz settled on Mineral King in Sequoia National Park . The area was surrounded by mountains with three ski bowls on 15,000 acres at an elevation of 7,200 feet. You could ski in Mineral King from October through June. In 1949 the Sierra Club had designated the area for development as a ski resort. On February 27, 1965, the U.S. Forest Service published a proposal for a ski resort at Mineral King. On August 6 the Forest Service received six proposals. Surprisingly, Disney’s proposal was not the largest. Disney was awarded the contract on December 16, 1965, for a 30-year lease on Mineral King.
Walt Disney had designed a family-friendly resort and expected more visitors in the summer than in the winter. There would be 14 high-capacity camouflaged ski lifts designed by Imagineer Bob Gurr called WEDlifts, two hotels to accommodate 7,200 guests, 10 restaurants, a chapel, pool and an ice-skating rink. Disney expected 14,000 visitors per day. The total estimated cost was $35 million. Many of the innovations that made their way into future Disney theme parks were included in Mineral King, including underground facilities and services that would become the Utilidors at the Magic Kingdom.
Concept art for a Disney-designed ski resort
Walt was committed to preserving as much of the natural beauty of Mineral King as possible. As a result, the resort would cover only 40% of the area with the village taking up 20%. The building architecture would complement the scenery with height restrictions so the resort would have minimal visual impact on the natural setting. The plan called for visitors to park their cars in Silver City and take a Cog Railway into the resort, similar to Zermat, Switzerland. The project would require a road being built through the Sequoia National Forest. This road would become controversial as the project progressed.
Walt recognized that guests, especially children, would need entertainment after a day of outdoor activities so he put his Imagineers to work. Imagineer and Disney Legend Marc Davis designed an audio-animatronic show about musical bears singing in a band, which became the Country Bear Jamboree.
Then Walt Disney unexpectedly passed away on December 15, 1966. Despite his passing, Ron Miller said the company continued to be very enthusiastic about building the Mineral King project. Disney hired John Curry, of Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village, to run the hotels at both Mineral King and Walt Disney World. Ron, Diane Disney-Miller and Hannes Schroll took a helicopter to Mineral King in May to ski. Even that late in the season there was still 18 feet of snow in the huge ski bowls.
Concept Art for Mineral King Village
Dave Price shared memories of his family spending summers living in Mineral King. He remembers lots of hiking through majestic trees and meadows of flowers as they explored the terrain.
Mineral King became a priority for both the Disney Company and the state of California. In October 1967, CalTrans approved the final route of the road through Sequoia National Park to Mineral King. By December 1968 Disney had obtained all the necessary permits and entitlements to move forward. It was anticipated the resort would open in 1973 with full build out by 1976.
Concept Art for Mineral King Lodges
In 1969 the Sierra Club became alarmed by the size of the Mineral King project and challenged it in court. The Sierra Club won, but lost on appeal and took it to the State Supreme Court. By this time the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) came into effect requiring Disney to file an Environmental Impact Report. Disney won in the State Supreme Court, but the Sierra Club appealed. Disney released the Mineral King Environmental Impact Report in December 1975.
The Sierra Club continued to tie up the project in court with objections. As time went on Disney was forced to scale back on the project due to the multiple lawsuits. Finally, in 1977 Disney dropped its plans for the Mineral King resort. Disney considered developing a ski resort at Lake Independence outside of Truckee, but a key state politician was against it unless Disney could guarantee the air quality would be improved with the construction of the resort. The Disney Company felt it could not make that promise and ended all plans for a ski resort.
Ron Miller believes if Walt had lived, Mineral King would have been built through the sheer force of Walt’s determination. Should Mineral King Ski Resort have been built? Those who worked closely on the project are confident if everything had fallen into place, especially the road, Mineral King would have set the standard for all ski resorts. Or were the conservationists correct in wanting Mineral King kept pristine for future generations? What are your thoughts?
Logo for Sky Crown which was to be the signature restaurant at Mineral King
So, the next time you visit Country Bear Jamboree, imagine what it would have been like to watch them whilst dining in a ski lodge restaurant surrounded by the beauty of Mineral King and remember Walt’s last lost project.
Images: Courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Foundation