Walt was frequently inspired by his trips abroad and brought back ideas that would be integrated into Disneyland and his other projects.
Walt took advantage of visiting the sets of his live action films when the production was on location. He seemed to enjoy his visits and it gave him a chance to travel, to observe, and to think. His imagination would be sparked on these trips and sometimes he would return with projects in mind. On one such trip, Walt was so inspired that he would bring back two incredible concepts for his Imagineers.
One idea would become a scale model of the famous Matterhorn Mountain and the other was a concept to reinvent the mountain tourist retreat.
In 1958, Walt went to Switzerland to see the progress on the film Third Man on the Mountain. The film crew was working in Zermatt, a ski town where automobiles were banned and you entered via a train. The resort had both winter and summer activities, a feat for most ski resorts at that time.
The operation folks at Disneyland thought a thrill ride would be a smart addition to the park and they tried to convince Walt that it was a good idea. Originally, the Casey Jr. Circus Train was going to be the first rollercoaster at Disneyland but that did not work out.
When the park opened, there was a big mountain of dirt next to Sleeping Beauty Castle called Holiday Hill. The hill was created by fill when they dug out the moat in front of the castle. By 1956, the tower for the Skyway gondola attraction would be built on this location. After his trip to Switzerland, he thought about how to use the space and wondered if he could reproduce a scale model version of the famous mountain and install a bobsled ride inside.
So his team went to work and built a 1/100th
of Pageantry for the 1960 VIII Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. He would be responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies. The ceremonies where a huge hit and Walt got to experience how to present the best entertainment experience in a winter weather conditions.He decided he wanted to build a mountain village that had all of the positive qualities of Zermatt but even better. As always, he turned to Buzz Price to look for possible locations.
The search for the perfect location for an all season mountain village began.
Walt was very close to a deal with the owners of the ski resort at Mammoth Mountain. Negotiations started with the Andrew Hurley who owned the resort and the McCoy family who managed the ski slopes. All of the parties were close to signing a deal when, at the last minute, the Mammoth Mountain people pulled out due to a lack of equity in the project.
Deep with the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California is a sliver of land surrounded on threes sides by the Sequoia National Park. That area is known as Mineral King. It began as a mining area in 1873 but went bust by 1882.
Over time, with the lack of activity, nature took its course and started to reclaim the valley. Mineral King was not included in the boundaries for Sequoia National Park in 1890. In 1908, the area was put under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service.The Sequoia National Park boundaries were expanded in 1926 but Mineral King was left out due to the previous development activities. Instead, it became part of the Sequoia Game Refuge. Becoming part of the refuge would become an important detail later in this story.
The Mineral King area is about 15,000 acres. The resort area is located in an alpine terrain and at high altitude. The Sierra Club was the first organization to recommend the area as suitable for a ski resort. The conditions were ideal. It had three huge bowls, five-mile runs, and a five-thousand-foot drop.
The area provided the State of California an opportunity to partner with the Federal Government to create a new winter recreational area. When Walt heard about this, he recognized that this was the type of challenge that he was looking for. He could apply what he had learned at Disneyland with his experiences at Zermatt and create a new type of mountain retreat. He saw this as a way to redefine our relationship to the wilderness and the project was very near to his heart.
Once again, Walt asked Buzz Price to study the opportunities presented by the Mineral King site.
Walt Disney Productions was determined to design the Mineral King Resort as a family friendly destination with ice-skating, tobogganing, sleigh and dogsled rides. By targeting families, the resort would be set apart from other ski areas in California. The goals was to become a ski resort where skiing was not necessarily the primary activity for many visitors.
Attracting overnight family visitors was a high priority. One study showed that Mineral King was expected to have higher spending per capita than other ski resorts because of this orientation. Many years later, the Walt Disney Company would use this same strategy to enter the cruise line business. That arm of Disney has proven to be very successful.
Forecasters expected the population growth would remain incredibly high in the Southern California region and the demand for locally accessible recreational areas would be also remain high. Camping and skiing were recognized as growing recreational activities and since California had a lot of forests that held snow, this was considered a good thing for the State.
Mineral King was located in an area that would be very attractive to residents of Southern California. Although there are ski resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angeles, Mineral King would really be a magnet for Southern California skiers since it had more reliable snowfall.
Initial projections claimed that the Disney resort would become as popular as Yosemite. Just like the theme parks, the resort could be closed to visitors if it got overcrowded.
Ladd & Kelsey were selected as architects with Marvin Davis providing direction. The designer for the ski facilities was Willie Schaeffler who worked on the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics. He had proposed a trail system that used fourteen ski lifts.
The approach was to design a summer resort that had winter uses. For example, the ski lifts would operate in the summer and take people to trails and fishing lakes. Activities would be at all price points and would include cave exploring and wilderness lectures by Donald Duck.
There would be a showcase restaurant at the top of the lift where dances and entertainment would be held. Other attractions would include a conference center as well as Disneyland type attractions such as the Country Bear Jamboree, which was originally designed for the resort.
The proposed resort would have two hotels, one deluxe and the other a moderate plus a dormitory. The original plans called for accommodations for 7,200 people, which would include Cast Member housing. There would be 2,400 beds within permanent structures with an additional 4,800 beds in temporary structures.
To support all of these guests, the resort would feature up to ten restaurants that covered the entire price spectrum. There would be a wide variety of activities including horseback riding, tennis, and swimming. Other facilities included a hospital, a gas station, a chapel, a power station, and an ice skating rink.
Access to the resort would become an attraction in itself.
The proposal featured a unique way to access the resort as well. Automobile access would be limited and most guests would take a train from a large parking structure down in the valley. The train would crawl around the side of the mountain to a central station at the heart of the Mineral King resort. Once again, Walt was heavily influenced by his trip to Zermatt, Switzerland and how they dealt with automobile traffic.
Access to the resort was a big concern and ultimately one of the things that made the project unravel. Walt had ERA study the viability of a train. The methodology meant looking at attendance patterns at other National Parks. They considered a fee to enter the park by automobile as well as paying for a ticket to ride a train. Ideally, Walt preferred the train, which limited automobile access. The train would provide the highest revenues and have the least impact on the resort facilities. The train had other benefits. It would enhance the goal of more overnight visitors, as they tend to spend more money. Something like an old-fashioned Cog stream train would become an attraction in its own right. There was even talk about installing a Monorail system.
Much of the analysis regarding access was driven by the low capacity of the existing all season highway. The study looked at keeping the highway as an alternative way to enter the resort but it was determined that this would threaten the viability of the fixed rail system and cause other problems for the project.
The Sierra Club first identified Mineral King as a potential location for a ski resort but they would come out strongly against the Disney project.
Although it was the Sierra Club who first suggested that Mineral King would be an excellent place to put a ski resort, they did not favor the Disney project. They decided to come out against the project and sue the federal government. The Sierra Club attorneys argued that United States Forest Service did not follow its own rules with regards to lease terms. They reminded the court that roadways within National Parks and Forests were meant to be limited in size and not meant to be access roads from one destination to another. Since the access road had to cross through the National Park property before entering Mineral King, it technically did not fit within the rules.
The Sierra Club argued that the size and scope of the Disney proposal was not compatible with the goals of a national game refuge. Remember; back in 1926 the United States Forest Service annexed the Mineral King area into the Sequoia Game Refuge instead of the National Park.
The Supreme Court determined that the Sierra Club did not have standing before the court on this issue but the ruling also kept the door open to amend the lawsuit. So that is what the Sierra Club did. As the case dragged on, additional environmental studies were required and the project was scaled back by half.
As the two sides prepared to go to court, Disney claimed it would not pay for the roadway improvements and the state decided they would not pay for it either. After all of this effort, it was determined that the economics for Disney did not pencil out and Mineral King was annexed into the National Park in 1978.
Others we also critical of the Mineral King project and pleased to see its demise.
In The Animated Mannot
EDITOR'S NOTE: We can't help but dream about a project such as this. Would the Mineral King concept have been a success if allowed to go forward? Should Disney have continued to look for alternate locations? Would you like to see Disney resurrect the Ski Resort project?