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Mineral King: Disney's project that we never got to see ... or ski

Jim Hill

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Mineral King: Disney's project that we never got to see ... or ski

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You know where I'm headed next week? The San Francisco Bay area. Why for? Because Nancy wants to check out some animation schools up thataway. There's one in Emeryville, CA (home of Pixar!) that we'll be checking out next Tuesday morning. Plus there's some art academy in downtown S.F. that she also wants to take a peek at.

Yeah, that 7-to-8 hour drive up all the way from Anaheim is going to be a bit of a drag. But the upside is -- since we're going to be staying overnight in the Bay area -- that means that, on our way down back to Southern California, we can take a detour ... and visit a place that I've wanted to go to: Mineral King.

Why would I want to go 'way out in the woods (particularly since I already live out in the woods of New Hampshire)? Because I've always wanted to see this section of Sequoia National Park. The place where Walt Disney wanted to build a state-of-the-art ski area back in the mid-1960s.

What? You've never heard about Mineral King and/or Disney's dream to build a ski area up there? Don't tell me that you're one of those folks who thinks that the Walt Disney Company has only gotten interested with the world of sports over the past ten years or so? Truth be told, decades before Eisner opted to have the company create the Anaheim Mighty Ducks franchise for the NFL or buy a controlling interest in the California Angels or okay the construction of WDW's Wide World of Sports complex, Walt himself had a keen interest in getting the company involved in both professional and amateur athletics.

Most folks date Walt's athletic interest back to the 1960 Winter Olympics, which were held in the beautiful Squaw Valley area of Northern California. To make sure that these Olympic Games (tThe first to be held in the western United States, and more importantly, the first time the Winter Games would ever be televised) were particularly memorable, the California Olympic Organizing Committee knew that the Squaw Valley games would have to have some extremely impressive Opening and Closing Ceremonies. So which world-renown showman did they tap to ride herd on the festivities?

You guessed it. Walt Disney.

Walt came through in a big way for the California Organizing Committee, supervising a show that's still talked about today in parts of Placer County. The pageant featured dozens of high school bands and choirs performing in unison, the release of 2000 white doves, fireworks, national flags that were dropped by parachute as well as the launch of thousands of multi-colored helium-filled balloons. This dazzling display featured over 5000 participants. According to accounts of the day, it was an eye-popping, jaw-dropping spectacle that set the standard for all Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies yet to come.

But -- at least according to Disney history fans -- the big thing that came out of Walt's involvement in the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympic Games wasn't that Disney forever raised the stakes for all those poor slobs who have to stage Opening and Closing Ceremonies. But -- rather -- it was that Walt fell in love with Northern California. He really came to appreciate the rough grandeur of this remote region of the Golden State, its lush green forests as well as the numerous seasonal recreational opportunities that this area offered. And Disney longed to find a way to make this beautiful terrain more accessible to the general public.

Much the same as Disneyland had re-invented the American amusement park, Walt now wanted to try his hand at improving how people experienced the great outdoors. So -- five years later -- when the U.S. Forest Service proposed turning the Mineral King Valley of Sequoia National Forest into an outdoor recreation area, Disney quickly made sure that Walt Disney Productions put in a bid on the project.

Most folks scoffed when they heard about this, figured that all that Walt wanted to do was pull down those 300-year old redwoods to make room for yet another theme park. Which was why a lot of people were stunned when they heard details about Walt Disney Productions' plan for the Mineral King area.

Working directly with Willie Schaeffler, an Olympic course designer who had helped create the highly praised facilities for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Walt's plan was nothing if not ambitious. It called for building a $35 million ski resort that would attempt to give visitors the best possible experience while still having the smallest possible impact on the Northern California high country.

Even by today's eco-friendly standards, some of Walt's plans for the Mineral King project seem remarkably forward-thinking. Recognizing the negative impact that cars and their exhaust would have on the delicate woodlands, Disney proposed banning cars entirely from his Northern California resort.

Guests arriving for a fun weekend at the Disney-designed version of Mineral King would first be directed to park their autos inside of the resort's heated subterranean parking garage. After unpacking their cars and checking in at the reception center, guests would have then been directed to the resort's electrically powered cog railway. This environmentally friendly system would have quickly and quietly moved vacationers a mile and a quarter from the valley floor up to Mineral King's main village (providing a breath-taking view of the wilderness in the process).

Here, visitors would have found a full assortment of Disney-run hotels, restaurants and shops done in the Alpine American style. At full build-out, the Mineral King resort would have provided overnight accommodations for just over 3000 guests. These hotel rooms would have been located inside dozens of low-slung, rough-hewn structures that would deliberately never be built any higher than 3 to 4 stories. That's so that the buildings in Mineral King's main village would never upstage the real stars of the show: the majestic mountain peaks that surrounded the ski resort.

With its dozen Olympic-quality ski runs cut carefully into the side of the mountain (to preserve the area's beauty as well as have minimum impact on the forests right next to these ski trails), Mineral King sounds like a great place to spend a winter weekend, right? Well, Walt envisioned this beautiful piece of Northern California as being a year-round resort. A place that would still have plenty of entertainment opportunities for those folks who ventured up into the woods beyond Sequoia National Forest long after the snow was gone.

That's why Walt's plans for the place called for a series of hiking trails to be carved out of the wilderness. Guests could have joined trained staffers on nature walks through the woods, where they'd have learned all about Northern California's flora and fauna. There'd also stables on site for those who wanted to go horseback riding for an afternoon. Plus a restful and refreshing pool complex for those who wanted to take a refreshing swim.

Of course, no matter what the season was, those guests staying in Mineral King's main village complex were still going to be looking for fun things to do once the sun went down. That's why the Imagineers put together a resort master plan that called for construction of a small movie theater (which would have shown only the very latest film from Walt Disney Studios, of course). These plans also carved out a spot for a comfortable bar area that would have featured an enormous fireplace as well as a huge series of picture windows that looked directly out on the ski trails & the beautiful mountains beyond.

Sounds like fun already, doesn't it? Well, Walt felt that the place still needed a little something more. That little bit of Disney magic that would really help put the Mineral King resort on the map.

Walt puzzled at this one for a while. Then it came to him. Some sort of show -- something similar to what Walt was doing at Disneyland. (After all -- whether it was fair or not -- people were still going to compare Disney's new ski area to his world famous Anaheim theme park. So why not give them a little taste of Disneyland magic while they're out here in the wilderness?) Only -- to fit the rustic setting -- the show should be built around ... bears.

Though much has been written over the past 73 years about Walt's affection for a certain mouse, what's not as well known is Disney's huge interest in bears. Putting it bluntly, Walt thought that bears were funny as hell. For example: Disney absolutely loved those "Humphrey the Bear" cartoons that Jack Hannah churned out for the studio back in the 1950s. That's why Walt had the bears from these shorts play such a prominent role in the animated opening for "The Mickey Mouse Club."

Recognizing that the public might also share his interest in the behavior of bruins, Disney insisted that -- while WED was reworking Disneyland's "Rainbow Cavern" ride in late 1959 so that it could become the "Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland" -- that a huge section of the ride be devoted to bears. Many fans of this long-gone Frontierland attraction now consider the "Bear Country" section of the attraction -- where guests rode across a high trestle and looked down at some robotic bears who were trying to catch some plastic fish -- to have been the real high point of the show.

And let's not even get started on Winnie the Pooh and/or Baloo the Bear from "The Jungle Book," the stars of the last two animated projects that Walt personally green-lit ... let's face facts, folks. Walt Disney really liked bears.

Which was why -- after he initially envisioned this bear show for Mineral King -- Walt turned to one of his top Imagineers, Marc Davis, and asked him to personally take a whack at the project. After all, Marc had just finished designing all the characters to be featured in Disneyland's soon-to-be-opened "Pirates of the Caribbean." This was Davis' follow-up to his daring work on Adventureland's "Enchanted Tiki Room." So here was a guy who could clearly build an entertaining attraction out of any sort of subject matter.

Walt handed off this task to Marc in the early fall of 1966, just about the same time that Disney and then-California Governor Edmund G. Brown held a press conference to officially unveil Walt Disney Productions' plans for the Mineral King property. Disney's proposal for the area was generally met with much approval and acclaim. (Though a small faction of the Sierra Club took issue with the proposed widening of the property's access road through Sequoia National Forest, a key component to Disney's Mineral King development. These club members' concerns -- which seemed minor and manageable back in the fall of 1966 -- would eventually grow to the point where the Supreme Court of the United States had to get involved, deciding whether it was even legal for the U.S Forest Service to allow this sort of development to go forward on federally owned land ... But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?) So much so that -- just six weeks after the initial Mineral King announcement -- Walt Disney was awarded the American Forestry Association award for "outstanding service in the conservation of American Resources."

Mineral King -- at this point, anyway -- looked like a done deal. Which is why Marc Davis devoted weeks of his time to doing preliminary design work on the ski area's bear show. Marc covered the walls of his office in Glendale -- floor to ceiling -- with comical pictures of bears. Bears singing in barbershop quartets. Bears performing in Dixieland bands. Bears riding on bicycles built for two. Bears in formal attire -- full length gowns, top hat and tails -- getting ready to sing opera. Davis did some of his very best work on this project.

On the other hand, Walt was going through a particularly rough patch. For years now, Disney had been troubled by what he thought was an old polo injury. Unable to take the pain any longer, Walt went across the street to Burbank's St. Joseph hospital to undergo a battery of tests. The doctor's verdict: cancer. Surgery was performed to remove a portion of Disney's left lung. But overall, the prognosis was grim.

After a short stay at the hospital to recuperate from the surgery, Walt returned to the studio and tried to resume his regular schedule. Understandably, Disney didn't have the energy now that he once had. But Walt still insisted on making his rounds.

Which is how -- one day in December -- Disney found himself in Marc Davis' office. Walt spotted one sketch in particular -- a fat little bear that was playing a tuba -- and just laughed and laughed. He told Marc that "I think you've got a real winner with this bear band idea."

With that, Walt got up and -- as he turned to go -- said "Goodbye, Marc." This kind of took Marc by surprise, because Walt was never one for pleasantries with his staff. Disney usually exited a meeting without saying a word. At best, Walt would say "So long" of "See ya later" as he breezed out the door on his way to his next meeting.

But for Walt Disney to say "Goodbye, Marc" -- and then turn in the hallway as he was exiting WED and wave one final time to Davis -- was all that Marc Davis needed to confirm his growing fears. He went home that night and told his wife, Alice that "I think Walt's dying."

Sure enough, just a few days later, Walt Disney did pass away. And -- as a direct result -- Walt Disney Productions' ambitious plans for the proposed Mineral King ski resort began to falter almost immediately.

Mind you, it's not like this project didn't have its supporters. The Skiing industry -- immediately recognizing the ingenuity of what Walt was proposing for that U.S. Forest Services property outside of Sequoia National Forest -- posthumously awarded Disney the Hans Georg Award, which is annually presented to the individual who has done the most that year to elevate the sport of skiing. That's how strongly these folks believed in the Mineral King project. They honestly believed that -- if the ski area that Walt had proposed had actually gone forward -- it would have changed the skiing industry forever.

There are also those today who say that -- if Walt had lived just a few more years -- Mineral King would have happened. That Disney had the personal charm necessary to win over those environmentalists who were uneasy about the project. More to the point, Walt had the clout to get those government officials who were dragging their heals to move quickly to get the necessary clearances. Which meant that -- if all had gone according to plan -- the very first skiers could have begun shushing down those carefully groomed Disney-designed slopes by the winter of 1973.

But that obviously didn't happen, folks. Thanks to a vocal minority within the Sierra Club which felt that any development of Sequoia National Forest -- no matter how well planned and/or how ecologically friendly it might be -- was just plain wrong. So these people kept the project tied up in court for years, until Walt Disney Productions -- tiring of the endless legal maneuvering as well as all the bad publicity that was now associated with the Mineral King development plan -- abandoned its plans for this site in the early 1970s.

The Walt Disney Company then tried to get a similar state-of-the-art ski resort built on Independence Lake right outside of Truckee, CA. But that project never made it off the drawing board either ...

But Marc's plans for a bear based attraction? Someday soon, I hope to do a full blown series for JimHillMedia.com about the creation of that particular attraction.

For now, I'm just trying to get ready for this week's trip to California. Digging out all of my old Mineral King brochures and press releases. So -- when I'm standing by the road next Wednesday morning, pointing out into the wilderness -- I can tell Nancy "I think that the ski lodge was supposed to be built over there."

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  • PingBack from http://progresscity.michaelcrawford.com/archives/86

  • Wow, July 16-18 was quite a weekend for Disney fans marking the 55th anniversary of Disneyland 's

  • I knew about this but could never find any info on it so people thought I was nuts........Thank you for writting this story

  • That is why the EIS that was done after the passage of NEPA gave the project a terrible rating.  Thankfully, you will have to fantasize about your colossal ski resort while passing by.

  • Very nice reading.

    I was going through some old paperwork and before tossing, I noticed this old Mineral King paket that was ditributed to employees prior to the press conference on 1/27/69. There are several black and white photos and art mockups for the project which are making it difficult to toss the binder.

    Should I sell the stuff?


    [email protected]

  • Thank God the Disney project did not go through. I'd rather take in nature as it is instead of interpreted by people and their resorts.

  • Too bad *** nature and those eco wack jobs

  • My Great Grandfather purchased land in Mineral King and built our cabin in 1929. It is still in our family and used throughout the summer up there. Most of my happiest memories take place in that cabin, with the other owners that have been in our lives for generations. I feel nothing but pure relief that the Disney plans never managed to get completed. If they had, our cabin, along with all the others we have grown up with, would be gone. The history, land, trails.. all of it is absolutely beautiful and how heartbreaking it would be if all of that would have been disregarded and torn down for luxury condos, shopping and money making tourist spots. That is exactly the opposite of what my family and all the others were going for when they chose Mineral King for their cabins and a place to escape the busy, summer heat of Los Angeles.

  • I was a kid growing up in Sequoia Park when this was all happening. I wonder out loud how you might feel as a fellow "living out in the woods of New Hampshire" if Disney showed up at your doorstep with big plans to turn your back yard into a ski resort. I certainly wasnt pleased. I also wonder what you thought when you finally showed up in that tiny little pocket valley. Did you wonder what it would be like to move 250,000 folks a day through there the way it was planned? Did you wonder what it would do to that delicate little valley floor if you dug it up and turned it into a giant underground parking lot? That's the very heart of the Sierra Nevada and the gateway to a very magical, very special place to me. It's like no place else on Earth I've ever seen and I've been around. Too bad you likely missed that, because I am pretty darned sure had you been to Angel Wings, or seen Hamilton Valley. (It's like Yosemite with out people) You just might be as outraged as I at how it would have been absolutely trashed. But you'll be happy to know we "eco wack jobs" lost our fight. Yup Disney won. You know what stopped "progress"? Money, yeah good ol hard cash. California didnt want to pony up the green for the road or tram or whatever godforsaken thing it would have taken to subdue that magnificent canyon,and Disney wouldnt either. End of story!

    You know what Mineral King is to me sir? It's a monument to worthlessness. It has no value to those who lost their fortunes to exploit its mineral wealth. No value to those who seek it out for profit of any kind. It is, and always will be absolutely, simply beautiful.

    To anyone who has witness to the back country High Sierra in mid winter, in the middle of a snow storm I whisper; "Mary in a White Dress".

  • Jim Hill, if you can't appreciate wilderness in its current state, then stay in the city.  Or perhaps you would like to visit Machu Picchu, Peru.  I hear that it is rapidly becoming "Disney-fied...."

  • When this all started, Joe Wollenman told Disney.."This will never work, because of avalanches"...So W.D. brought in "experts" from Europe who said..."Ve can MAKE it work!". better than Mamouth Mtn...However no one seemed notice that that Mamouth is a cone and all of the avalanches go down the cone,where as Mineral King is a bowl and the avalanches have only one place to go.  Why is it that there is never a discussion of the two young people who died  while working f or Disney when the avalanches proved  they can't be controlled in a bowl.

    Has anyone ever found the cannon that  was taken out by avalanches.???/

  • There's a Desert Magazine article from July 1966 at this link, "Mineral King's Hidden Paylode", and reading it, you would certainly think it was a done deal. Lots of pix and drawings of the area and what the resort would have looked like

  • The Article on Mineral King is on page 16. Just flip the pages.

  • I found the article on the proposed building of a year round resort by Walt Disney in the late 60's to be very interesting.  The conflict between those that want to place locations like Mineral King under a glass dome, and only allow a few hardy soles to view it ....and the turn nature into a Las Vegas in the mountains to be viewed by millions is an issue  still filled with conflict.

    I suspect if the groups for protection vs. open to the public groups would have prevented any of the public use of the now famous National Parks.   If you have been to any of the National Parks in the last few years you will see the Park Rangers begging for donations because they don't enough money.

    As a society we must reach an agreement on a balance between locking away our natural treasures and granting the public the ability to have controlled access to  these treasures.  Think about the Hope diamond ...would we be better off to have it locked in a bank vault to be viewed only by a few select people or to be on view for all to see as it is today.

    It is probably best that Mineral King remained undeveloped but society must be careful in its evaluations of what's in the best interest of all of the public and not just a few that have the physical ability to hike in to see the beauty.

    It's clear in these days there will be a need for joint public and private ventures but we will need to be careful of who we partner with.  Walt Disney would have been a great partner.

  • This is way cool! As someone who knows the Sequoia, Kings Canyon area well, there is lots of interesting info here regarding Disney. I actually worked for Disneyland in 1967 as an 18 year old. I was skier and went from absolutely thinking Mineral King was a potential Valhalla to believing it was one of the most vile development abominations ever laid on our extraordinary legacy of public lands.


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