Our destination this week isn't exactly a theme park attraction, but it was one of the final themed entertainment projects of Walt Disney's life. The Mineral King Ski Resort was to have been the Walt Disney Company's entry into the recreation business, and could have reshaped the ski industry as much as Disneyland changed the way that people think about amusement parks.
In my Orange County Register column this week, I invite you to join me in asking "what if..." Walt Disney had survived long enough to see the Mineral King project to completion. Disney management dropped the project after Walt's death, in the face of some opposition but mostly because they wanted to focus on delivering the Florida project, a.k.a. Walt Disney World.
Full disclosure here: I'm terrible at skiing. The one time I tried it, I blew out my knee on the ski school bunny slope within an hour of starting. I soldiered on and tried a run down the "real" mountain the next day... and three hours later, I made it to the bottom, returned my skis to the rental counter and declared my winter sports career over.
But I think I would have liked Mineral King. Because, just as Walt realized that Disneyland needed to appeal to visitors who didn't want to go on carnival rides and walk a midway, he knew that a Disney ski resort needed to accommodate visitors who weren't just there to ski. Mineral King was to be the Disneyland of ski resorts, a Swiss-style mountain valley village also filled with Disney-style entertainment and service, to make ever the ski-averse feel comfortable.
One element of Mineral King that did survive was its planned musical animatronic show, which became Walt Disney World's Country Bear Jamboree. (See? Some attractions manage to escape Neverland.) But that's not the only element that made it to reality.
In researching my column, I discovered that the colors-and-shapes system that U.S. ski resorts use to describe the difficulty of their runs was in large part based on the system that Disney had developed for Mineral King. The early coding systems that American resorts were using before then were inconsistent and too-often confusing. But Disney knew how to use imagery to communicate information instantly to a broad audience, and put that experience to use in crafting a better code for ski runs.
People can debate whether Disney or anyone else should have developed a ski resort in the Mineral King Valley. (Walt originally tried to buy Mammoth Mountain, before turning to Mineral King.) But I would love a glimpse at the alternate reality where the Walt Disney Company got into the winter recreation business. Would it have encouraged more people to trying skiing (and later, maybe snowboarding)? Or would a ski resort kept Disney from fully developing its theme park business?
Who knows? But imagination is the heart of the entertainment business, so I'm going to enjoy imagining "what if...?"
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