Mineral King - The Rest of the Story Part 1
by, 02-01-2012 at 08:55 PM
When I first started writing about the Disney theme parks I never expected that something like this would happen. On January 21, I was the host for a presentation and panel discussion at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The topic was the rise and fall of Walt’s lost last project - the Mineral King ski resort to be located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. My special guests were Ron Miller and David Price. Ron Miller, former CEO of Walt Disney Productions and one of the founders of the Museum, was in the room with Walt when decisions were being made and brought his firsthand knowledge and insights. David is the son of Harrison “Buzz” Price and a renowned architect of themed environments in his own right. David spent many days in the Mineral King valley when the project was under development and he brought his memories and professional insights into the discussion. The event was sold out.
Before I get too deeply into the program I want to take a moment and thank the museum staff for their help and hospitality. The experience was first rate and I sure hope I can do this again someday. I especially want to thank uber-Disney historian Jeff Kurtti for his invaluable assistance in locating dozens of rare images and films for the project and guidance in the development of the presentation. I bow in his general direction.
I also want to direct you to a recently republished article called From Slope to Nope about Mineral King that ran prior to the event. I will try avoiding duplication.
I began the program with a bold assertion. I stated that Walt Disney changed the public’s expectations when it came to animated films. He did the same thing to the amusement park industry. Toward the end of his life, he wanted to change the public’s expectations once more. This time he wanted to change the urban experience. Whether it was a city (EPCOT), an arts college (CalArts) or a wilderness retreat (Mineral King), he seemed to be working toward a higher calling.
The show begins with a photo of six men. John Kelsey was the architect for the Mineral King project. Walt Disney was the inspiration. Willy Schaeffler was the skiing champion that worked side by side with Walt. Sharon Disney’s husband Robert Brown was there. Harrison “Buzz” Price was looking rough and ready. And standing in the back was Ron Miller. David Price talked about the special working relationship between his father and Walt. It is a remarkable string of achievements. No wonder the lifetime achievement award from the theme park industry is named after Buzz.
Price believed in an analytical process that he developed call the “Yes, if.” Here is how I describe the process in Walt and the Promise of Progress City.
Buzz Price would be called upon frequently to weigh in on the viability of a Disney project, and he developed a research methodology that suited Walt and Roy’s needs. The process that he used when working with Walt was a “Yes, if...” line of attack. Price said, “’Yes, if...’ is the approach of a deal maker. It points to what needs to be done to make the possible plausible. ‘No because…’ is the language of a deal killer. Creative people thrive on ‘Yes, if.” He added that “Walt liked this language.”
It is no wonder why Walt liked this approach. According his wife Lillian, she said, “Enthusiasm and optimism together. Walt was enthusiastic about everything. He never thought anything would turn out badly.” Price found the perfect approach to any problem. As moderator, I asked the audience to keep the “Yes, if…” process in mind as we worked through the history of the Mineral King project.
As in many cases with Walt Disney, a project would start as a reflection of his love for his family and his skills to make things happen that improve the experience of being together. In the late 1930s, Walt took up the sport of skiing. These were the early days of the sport in California but the state featured numerous quality ski areas. The family would drive up to Big Bear, Mammoth and Badger Pass in Yosemite to ski.
The owner of the ski school at Badger Pass was a very colorful character named Hannes Schroll. Schroll was an Austrian skiing champion and Diane Disney Miller had fond memories of Hannes and described him as a bigger then life personality. Her father would become good friends with Hannes and the two would end up doing business together.
By the way, Schroll is more famous then you know. He was well known for zooming down the slopes at top speed and yodeling as he flew. The artists at the studio brought him down to Burbank one day and recorded his yodeling. Much of the material was used in the 1941 Goofy short The Art of Skiing. Schroll was the source of the famous Goofy yell.
In 1939, Schroll convinced Walt to become one of the first investors in the Sugar Bowl resort near Donner’s Summit and Truckee. Walt put $2,500 into the project. Sugar Bowl contain two mountain peaks; Mount Lincoln and Hemlock Peak. As part of the deal, Hemlock Peak become Mount Disney (8,000 ft.) and you can still ski down the slope today. As you move through the slopes look for the Disney Nose, the Disney Meadow, the Disney Return, and something called the Donald Duck. Sugar Bowl was the home to the first chairlift in California. Naturally, the lift would be named the Disney Chair, later to become known as the Disney Express. The lift took skiers 1,000 vertical feet.
There was lodge as Sugar Bowl designed by architect William Wurster that had room for 40 guests. In 1941, the lodge was featured in the Goofy short. It was also rumored that Walt personally tended bar for more then two hours one night. Diane recalls, “My parents were given a lot there for their investment, but never built a home. Someone else built a home on their lot, but Dad never protested. They seem to think it was rather amusing. They were really through with skiing by that time.”
A turning point came in 1958 when Walt visited the set for Third Man on the Mountain. A tremendously entertaining film and something every Disney fan needs to seek out, the movie is based on a true story culled from the book Banner in the Sky. Set in the small town of Zermatt in Switzerland, Rudi Matt (played by James MacArthur) is a kitchen hand who is obsessed by the mountain known in the movie as the Citadel (the Matterhorn). Rudi’s father died trying to scale the mountain. The gripping story also features Michael Rennie and Janet Munro who help him achieve his dream of being the first on top of the iconic mountain. The movie was filmed high up in the mountains and has stunning panoramas. Director Ken Annakin noted that, “Walt loved all things Switzerland.” Imagineer Bob Gurr called it “Matterhorn Poisoning.”
What is not to love about Zermatt? Walt vacationed there annually in the 1950s. The Studio produced a People and Places featurette in 1955. The village was driven by the mountain climbing industry. Everybody would arrive by an electric Cog Railroad that could traverse the steep grades. No automobiles are allowed within the village. It featured both summer and winter activities. During the presentation, I was able to show three very rare short films about the village of Zermatt filmed as part of promotional effort by the studio.
This particular visit was a great inspiration to Walt. Studio publicist Leonard Shannon said that Walt, “Would stand there and literally look at the thing for an hour or so.” One of the opportunities that Walt was trying to work through was a way to hide the unattractive tower for the Skyway gondolas that was placed on top of a dirt pile called Holiday Hill. Walt was a big fan of the idea that “form follows function” and he dreamed up the idea of putting the inside of a scale model of the Matterhorn. He sent two postcards to his team at WED (including Harriet Burns and Fred Joerger) with words “build this” on the back.
I could go on and on about the Matterhorn at Disneyland most recently did in the article 147 Feet of Fun Or: Why I Love the Matterhorn. Let’s just say the audience was treated to the earworm of a theme song called Climb The Mountain.
Another event that would reignite Walt’s passion for winter sports was the 1960 Winter Olympics held in Squaw Valley. Walt was selected to Chair the Pageantry Committee. This would be the first time that the Winter Olympics would be televised and Walt wanted to set the bar high. The event featured dozens of high school bands and choirs, more then 5,000 participants, the release of 2,000 white doves, thousands of balloons, fireworks, and national flags dropped by parachute.
What is little known is that Walt Disney took over all of the operations that were related to the guest experience. It was a team from Disneyland that handle tickets, parking, and everything else. Walt even brought along the cast from the Golden Horseshoe Revue to entertain the athletes. Ron, Diane, and the kids lived in Squaw Valley many months to prepare for the event. It was a huge success and changed the public’s expectations for such spectacles.
At the Winter Olympics, Walt met Willy Schaelffler. Schaelffler was a German-American skiing champion and the Denver University ski coach. He was responsible for designing the ski runs for the Olympics. He was considered the best in the business and another oversized personality cut from the same cloth as Hannes Schroll.
Schaelffler had encouraged Walt to look at potential ski resort sites. Of course this is when Walt brought Buzz Price into the project. Price conducted studies for San Gorgonio and Mineral King in 1960. San Gorgonio had a lot going for it. It had a north facing bowl and close to Walt’s vacation home at the Smoke Tree Ranch. However, issues with the Boy Scouts made the project impossible. Price also took a look at Aspen in 1962.
In 1963, Price took a close look at Mammoth Mountain owned by Dave McCoy. Diane recalls, “Dave McCoy wanted to sell his Mammoth Mountain facility. Dad visited and they talked. Walt bought a chalet and we spent Christmas 1963 at Mammoth. The six children ranged from nine years old to two months.
By 1965, McCoy and Disney had an agreement. The contracts were drafted and the McCoy family traveled to the Burbank Studio. However, according to Diane, McCoy changed his mind due to pressure from his children. They pledged to get more involved. Dad felt this was a good thing and was not angry.” Today, on a good winter’s day, more then 50,000 skiers hit the slopes at Mammoth.
Mineral King was a spectacular location for a ski resort. It was only 271 miles from San Francisco, 228 miles from Los Angeles, and 55 miles from Visalia. The site was over 15,000 acres or about the size of the City of Palm Desert. At the center was a valley, two miles long and about one-quarter mile wide. It rested at the 7,200-foot elevation level and was surrounded by 12,400-foot mountains. The mountains provided wind protection. Skiing could begin in October and excellent conditions would last through June.
Looking at a map you can see why the location was so appealing to Walt. His resort would be surrounded by the ultimate berm on three sides - the Sequoia National Forest. Others were also interested. A team of developers bought land in Hammond with a plan to build a monorail that would take 20,000 skiers each weekend into the valley. According to Bob Gurr, they were crazy and the technology was not well suited for this application. When asked, he said snow piling up on the beam was not an issue. The narrowness and the vibration from the train would make the snow fall from the beamway. It is the potential for ice to form on the roadbed. More importantly, the construction process would destroy much of the forest the technology was meant to save. Just installing the pylons would have done immeasurable damage.
In 1903, William Dudley of the Sierra Club Bulletin said, “There is nothing in the whole Sierra range more beautiful than the valley of Mineral King in June; nothing more like an upper valley in the Swiss Alps.” Willy Schaelffler was also impressed and said, “Mineral King has the largest, finest skiing areas grouped in a compact region that I have ever seen. Nothing in America, Europe, or anywhere else in the world compares with it.” In 1963, Bob Hicks begins buying leaseholder positions of eighteen families to create the twenty-six acres necessary for the base village.
Next time, I'll share more rare photos and take you through the project proposal process and reveal what Walt had in store for this fabulous valley. Would it have been as influential as Disneyland if it were built? What happened?
Our sincere thanks to the Walt Disney Family Museum. If you haven't visited, we suggest you add it to your list of things to do. The spirit of Walt truly lives there.
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