Mineral king: Wrapping Up The Story
by, 02-08-2012 at 08:46 PM
On January 21, I was delighted to host a panel discussion and presentation entitled Walt Disney’s Lost Last Project at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. In the last episode of Samland, I began to summarize the event to the best of my knowledge in Part One of this Mineral King series.
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.
Last time, I started with Walt Disney’s early interest in winter sports and ended when he set his sites on the Mineral King valley. Along the way we detoured to Badger Pass, Mammoth Mountain, and the 1960 Winter Olympics. You may also want to check out a piece that MiceChat ran earlier this year on the topic, From Slope to Nope. This was the article that made my participation in the event possible.
Mineral King has a long and storied history. In brief, it began as a silver mining camp in 1873 but by 1882 it had gone bust. An access road was constructed in 1879 and that is generally the same path one uses to visit the valley today. By 1890, the Federal Government established the Sequoia National Park but Mineral King was not included because it had been too disturbed by the industrial use. The United States Forest Service began to manage the area in 1908 and it became a summer camp and recreational area in the 1920s. In 1926 the area was incorporated as part of the Sequoia Game Refuge. Title issues made annexation into the National Park impossible.
The Sierra Club suggested the area might make for a good ski resort in 1947. In 1949, the US Forest Service invited developers to bid on the opportunity to build a ski resort. The requirements included a 150-person hotel, a 2,100-foot T-Bar ski lift, and a minimum investment of $300,000. However, there were no bidders. Access to the valley via the original trail was very difficult. The US Forest Service recommended accessibility improvements in 1953.
Ron Miller recalled one of his most memorable visits to Mineral King. On a sunny, warm day, Ron, Diane, and Willy Schaeffler took a helicopter up to one of the three immense bowls high above the valley. Through a series of personal photos, Ron said, “It was great. There was 18 feet of snow.” From the audience, Diane shouted out, “He kept falling.” Ron defended himself by stating, “There was a crust on the top.” Diane concluded, “He didn’t listen to me!”
David Price’s first impressions of Mineral King came as a teenager. His family, along with a couple of others, purchased a run down cabin. David spent many days one summer trying to fix up the shack and enjoy the pleasures of a remote, pristine valley. Along with his dog Boo-Boo, they hike up one end and down the other. David displayed some of his early drawings that lead to his career as an architect.
In February 1965, the US Forest Service decided to give the ski resort idea another try. This time they were looking for a hotel that could accommodate 100 guests, parking for 1,700 automobiles, a lift capacity of 2,000 people per hour, and a minimum $3,000,000 investment to help justify the cost of a new access road.
In May, the Sierra Club expressed its concern as to the scale of the proposal. Little did they know. By July, the road was added to the State highway system, opening the door to potential funding sources. The US Forest Service received six bids in August. The bidders included Disney, a team with Robert Brandt, actress Janet Leigh, and Lowell Thomas, and a team that ran the Heavenly Valley ski resort.
The October deadline for a decision passed. Then, on December 17, 1965, the announcement came. The Disney team was selected. The terms would be a 30-year lease for 80-acres and an additional year-to-year lease for 300-acres. Disney would be granted a 3-year development agreement while the funding for the road improvements would be pursued.
The Disney proposal was huge compared to the original program proposed by the US Forest Service. The budget was $25 million. What is more remarkable is that they were not the most expensive proposal. One bid came in at over $40 million.
To get to the resort you would drive on an all-new twenty-five mile all-weather road from Three Rivers through the National Forest to Silver City. Once there, you would park your car in a 3,600-stall underground, heated parking structure. Just like Zermatt, you board an electric Cog railroad described as a “colorful excursion train.” The train would descend into the valley pass Dillonwood near Balch Park through the Farewell Gap. At the time, the budget for the train was $19 million.
Once you arrived, you would spot a small, compact village that took up about 20% of the valley floor. Walt wanted to preserve open space and view corridors. There would be two hotels – one deluxe and one moderate – plus a dormitory. The resort could house 7,200 every night with 2,400 permanent beds and 4,800 temporary beds. They expected 14,000 guests per day. It was possible that the resort would be as popular as the Yosemite Valley.
What would be unique is the emphasis on family fun. Mineral King would be a much different experience then Aspen, Vail, and Sun Valley. In fact, the proposal revealed that 60% of the guests would visit in the summer months, unprecedented in the industry. Because Walt would be able to conduct year round operations he could hire a professional workforce. The first guests were expected in 1973 and the complete build out would come in 1976.
The resort would feature ten restaurants ranging from fast food to fine cuisine. No matter what your budget, you would find something to meet your needs. There would be tennis, an equestrian center, swimming pools, a chapel, and an ice skating rink. All of the services would be placed underground with the village on top. This would be similar to the Utilidors at the Magic Kingdom. The Mineral King concept would echo the same urban design initiatives that Walt was exploring for EPCOT.
In an interview with the project architect, John Kelsey of Thornton Ladd & John Kelsey, he stated that Walt did not want to use Disney designers because he felt they would try too hard to copy a Swiss Village. He wanted something both timeless and of this time. Walt used John Kelsey because “he wanted to do something different.” Kelsey based the site plan on a shopping mall. The lower level was just entertainment including shops, cafes, restaurants, and other public uses that would look out onto the river, streams, and the open space. The upper level would be reserved for housing. The benefit of a mixed-use village allowed for the rest of the valley to be preserved as undeveloped open space. He proposed using natural materials from the valley floor. This was in keeping with the historic development pattern of the wood from the cabins being recycled from other structures.
Imagineer Marvin Davis worked with Kelsey and they put together the initial concept in less then 2 1/2 months. Kesley described Walt as a “great thinker.” The US Forest Service loved the concept.
Willy Schaeffler was put in charge of the design of the ski slopes. The three ski bowls would be accessed by 14 ski lifts. One innovation that Walt proposed was the desire to camouflage all but one of the lifts.
The resort would sport a number of additional innovations. At the top of the ski lift to Miner’s Ridge, 1,400-feet above the valley floor, guests would be wined and dined at the exclusive Disney’s Sky Crown Club. Ron said that Walt was very concerned about entertainment for children as there was generally nothing for them to do in the evening. This was the primary motivation for the development of The Country Bear Jamboree by Disney Legend Marc Davis. Another innovation was a very high speed, high capacity ski lift designed by another Disney Legend, Bob Gurr. The concept was so appealing that Disney had the system patented and created a business unit and sent Gurr out to find buyers.
By spring 1966, Disney was hard at work implementing Walt’s vision for Mineral King and wanted to show it off to the rest of the Company. The Disney News featured an article that updated employees on the project and the approvals that it had received from the state and federal governments. They were anxious to get the new all-weather road built so that construction could begin.
Walt Hired John Curry of the Curry Village lodging area in Yosemite as his first hotel employee. Curry was the administer of hotel planning for both Mineral King and Walt Disney World. Many members of the Curry family were in attendance.
In 1966, Walt would receive an American Forestry Association Award for “outstanding service in the conservation of American Resources.” Rare footage from the September 16, 1966 was shown and it is evident that the high altitude and cold weather was affecting Walt’s health. Ron said that the weather was rapidly changing with a cold front moving in. During the press conference, Governor Edmund Brown was asked about the project. Walt lit up and with good humor pressed the Governor for the answer himself.
Within a few months of the press conference, Walt would be gone. However, his dream for Mineral King would live on under the leadership of Ron and others within the company. This was as much of a priority project as EPCOT and CalArts. Ron said the company had the resources to achieve this goal.
The entire project hinged on the construction of the all-weather highway. In October 1967, Caltrans had approved the final route for the roadway. Then in May 1968, Interior Secretary Steward Udall had reluctantly approved the 9.3-mile roadway through the National Forest. The project was picking up steam. Disney had gathered all of the necessary permits by December 1968 and go on to win the Hans Georg Award for “elevating the sport of skiing.” The US Forest Service accepted the master plan in January 1969.
Then came setbacks. The winter of 1968-1969 was the snowiest on record. At one point there was twenty feet of snow on the valley floor. One member of the Disney surveying crew, Randy Kletka, was buried in an avalanche and killed. In June 1969, the Sierra Club successfully sued to stop the project in District Court and Judge William Sweigert imposed an injunction.
I previously covered the court case in some detail in From Slope to Nope –Walt Disney’s Mineral King. After the April, 19, 1972 United States Supreme Court decision, Disney decided it had enough and issued an op-ed piece written by Marty Sklar and signed by Card Walker. In the message, Disney claimed that the project presented a “challenge” and an “obligation.” The challenge was to serve the public need. The obligation was to preserve the natural beauty of the land. Disney pledged to use “better ways” such as the Electric Cog railroad from Oak Grove to the Village. A ticket on the train would have cost about $5 to ride. The op-ed was a call to action to build public support for the project. Disney asked, “Who speaks for Mineral King? And who really speaks for you?”
As noted in the earlier article, a number of factors brought down the project. But Disney was not done with a mountain kingdom quite yet. The Company pursued a project at Independence Lake near Truckee. To make the project happen, Ron said Disney built a $1 million model of the proposed project to show to then current Governor Jerry Brown. The model was very impressive as both Ron and Pam Burns-Clair (daughter of Imagineer and model builder Harriet Burns). The Governor loved the project and said he would give the green light only if Disney could promise one thing; the air quality within the valley would be no worse then at current levels. This was a barrier too high to overcome and that project was also shelved.
During the audience Q&A, Ron was asked what Walt had in store beyond Mineral King. Ron said, “He had a fantastic capacity for work. He was always way ahead of his time.” For example, Diane recalled, “Waste disposal management.” Ron noted, “Well, that’s not very attractive."
Could Mineral King have been built if Walt hadn’t passed away when he did? According to Ron, “Through his sheer force of will he would have found a way.” Upon reflection, Ron felt that the project might have proceeded if they started smaller, proved the concept of a compact village that is accessed by an alternative transportation system first. He noted that the idea of 25,000 skiers at one time made him pause.
Ron said, “There was great enthusiasm for this project.” “It would have been unique. It had the climate and the atmosphere; it would have used tomorrow’s technology. I still have very fond dreams of what it could have been, but it wasn’t.”
If you can imagine, there are even more stories to be told about this project. However, Samland is going to move on to new adventures and leave you with one question – do you wish that Disney would have succeeded and built the Mineral King resort?
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