From Slope to Nope - Walt Disney's Mineral King
by, 01-04-2012 at 08:38 PM
Walt was frequently inspired by his trips abroad and brought back ideas that would be integrated into Disneyland and his other projects.
A few months ago I submitted this column about Walt Disney’s proposed Mineral King resort. This innovative mountain retreat would have been as important as Disneyland on urban design. Since the publication of that column I have been asked to host a presentation called Mineral King: Walt’s Lost Last Project at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco on January 21. Here is how the Museum has pitched it:
Urban Planner and Community Engagement Specialist Sam Gennawey (that’s me) hosts past Disney CEO and Museum Founder Ron Miller and architect David Price to discuss the innovative (and now-forgotten) year-round mountain resort that was one of Walt’s last major projects. This fascinating program gives context and detail to a remarkable and imaginative destination resort project that Walt assumed was a fait accompli upon his passing, and explains the forces and opposition that led to its ultimate abandonment. Illustrated with rare images, art, photos, archival documents, and film clips; this program offers insight into Walt’s vision at the height of his final career phase.Mineral King is an amazing story, as you will see in this reprint. Werner Weiss at Yesterland also touched on the story just before the holidays and I recommend you read his report. What will be new at the presentation is quite a bit. The story will start way back to Walt’s initial love for skiing. Along the way we will meet some wonderful characters such as Hannes Schroll and Willy Schaeffler who got Walt interested in the sport. We will also learn about Walt’s first investment in a ski resort, Sugar Bowl near Truckee, and his growing interest in doing something even grander.The real red meat for Disney design junkies will be never seen before drawings of the proposed resort. We will learn from David Price AIA how the architecture and landscape were going to be integrated. This would not have been like any other resort. David is the son of Disney Legend Buzz Price.I will also dive into the landmark court case that was a result of this project. From an urban planning historian’s view, this may be one of the most important aspects of the entire event. Most importantly we will get to hear first hand accounts from Ron Miller. He worked with Walt on the 1960 Olympics and this was a project that was near and dear to his heart. I look forward to hearing those stories. So without further ado, here is the rise and fall of the Mineral King resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
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 scale model of the Matterhorn right next to Sleeping Beauty Castle. At the time of construction, the mountain was the largest structure in Orange County at 147 feet. Winding inside was the world’s first steel tube rollercoaster. This technology would change the amusement park business forever.
Walt’s trip to Switzerland reignited an interest in winter sports and he began to wonder how to make this activity more accessible.
Walt’s interest in winter sports lead to his role as Chairman 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.
One of the first areas to get a serious look was on the north slope of Mt. San Gorgonio in Southern California. The mountain topped out at over 11,000 feet. It had a gigantic north face bowl. It was near Palm Springs and Walt’s vacation home at the Smoke Tree Ranch. However, the mountain was also a prime hiking location for the Boy Scouts of America.It would be a struggle so Walt decided to look elsewhere.
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.In 1965, Economic Research Associates (ERA), Buzz Price’s firm, was tasked with multiple studies to determine the Mineral King project’s viability. The project would have been a joint project between Disney and the United States Forest Service. The Federal government planned on leasing the land to Walt Disney Productions. The government’s expectation was development something along the lines of nearby Mammoth Mountain, Aspen, Colorado, Vail, Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho.
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.Forecasters also thought the property would be attractive to out-of-state guests. Research has shown that a principal draw to California for out-of-state visitors is the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which are described as “a topographic feature not duplicated in mountain ranges east of the Rockies.” That is one reason why so many visitors are drawn to Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Walt’s vision for the Mineral King resort would have created a unique development that would be unlike anything else that came before.
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.
Although the development of Mineral King was originally meant to address winter recreational needs, Walt’s vision would also have a full plate of activities to attract summer visitors. In fact, it was anticipated that 60 percent of visitors would come during the summer months and the resort would make more money during the summer than winter, which was unusual for a skiing destination.
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.
In a brochure, Walt said, “When we go into a new project, we believe in it all the way. That’s the way we feel about Mineral King. We have every faith that our plans will provide recreational opportunities for everyone. All of us promise that our effort now and in the future will be dedicated to making Mineral King grow to meet the ever-increasing public need. I guess you might say that it won’t ever be finished.
”All of these activities would be contained in a high density, compact, pedestrian oriented village. The site plan was designed to minimize the impact on the surrounding valley. The three to four story buildings would be heavily themed and integrated into the environment. Guests would have felt like they have stepped into an Alpine village. The building would have been arranged to form a “Main Street” with protected plazas between the buildings.
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.
Throughout the village, the architecture would resemble Swiss chalets. There would be lots of pitched roofs, buildings with wide balconies, and all of the structures would be facing the “Main Street” at the zero lot line. This would have created a very intimate and welcoming space similar to Main Street USA at Disneyland.
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 highway was annexed into Caltrans system, the state’s transportation agency, and a $30 million upgrade program was approved by the state legislature in 1965. The next step in the process would be to widen and straighten the access road. Approvals for the project and the roadway were in place by December 1967.
As the project moved along, Disney hoped to have the first phase of the resort open by 1973 and fully up to speed by 1976. The initial estimate for the project was $35 million. Beyond the transportation network and the construction of the village, other infrastructure costs included the construction of dams on the mountainside to prevent debris from washing down into the valley as well as a ten-story underground garage capable of holding 3,600 cars. The design for the project was considered so innovative that Walt and his team won an American Forestry Association award for “Outstanding Service in Conservation of American Resources” award in 1966.
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.
When challenged, the Sierra Club argued it had standing before the court and asked, “then who speaks for the future generations for whose benefit Congress intended the fragile Sierra bowls and valleys to be preserved?” At first, that argument did not work and the Sierra Club lost on appeal. However, the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
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 Man, Michael Barrier was also critical of the Mineral King project. He called it “a highly dubious use of a fragile valley.” Barrier cites comments from Peter Browning who felt that the project’s fatal flaw would be visitors who, “will make the trip simply because it is there to be made; it will be a nice-day jaunt.” Browning adds, “Many would not make the drive if there was nothing at the end of the road. He suggests that the major attraction was not the Mineral King Valley but that it was a Disney resort and that resort “could just as well be located in the Mojave Desert or Los Angeles.
”Buzz Price would disagree with Barrier and Browning’s assessment. Price said, “Like everyone who had worked on this stunning project, we believed that Mineral King would have been the greatest winter resort in the world bar none.”Some key concepts from the Mineral King project would resurface many years later in an update to the National Park Service’s draft Yosemite Valley master plan released in November 2000. Walt wanted to reduce automobile traffic, encourage walking and bicycling opportunities, and minimize the impacts on sensitive natural habitats. The Yosemite Valley plan called for the construction of three new parking lots outside the Valley and a system of shuttle buses to bring in day guests. Overnight guests would still be able to drive to their accommodations but the amount of land dedicated to parking would be reduced from 1,600 parking stalls to 550. The plans also proposed the removal of a 3.2-mile section of Northside Drive, a major thoroughfare through the valley floor and replace it with a paved foot and bike trail. All in all, more than 180 acres would be restored to a natural state. Much of the 2000 plan has yet to be implemented due to significant reductions in the National Park’s operating budget.
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?
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