What if... Walt Disney had built his skiing 'theme park'?

November 4, 2009, 12:38 PM · What if Walt Disney had done for ski resorts what he did for the amusement park business with Disneyland?

Walt DisneyIt almost happened. At the same time in the 1960s that Walt secretly was buying land for a new theme park resort in Florida, his associates were scouting locations for an ambitious new Disney ski resort in California. One of them, Harrison "Buzz" Price tells the story in his remarkable book, Walt's Revolution! By the Numbers.

Buzz Price, for those who have not heard the name, is to the theme park industry what Forrest Gump was to Baby Boomers' idealized vision of their childhood - he was everywhere. Price worked for Walt Disney in selecting the site for Disneyland, with Lew Wasserman on the development of Universal City, and with George Millay on the feasibility of SeaWorld Orlando and Magic Mountain as well as on theme park feasibility studies for Six Flags and Marriott. If you're a theme park fan, you've almost certainly visited a park that Price played some role in developing.

Price writes that Walt was taken with the Swiss village of Zermatt (home to Walt's favorite mountain), and wanted to build a resort like it in America. He sent Price and other associates to look for potential locations throughout California.

They strongly considered Mt. Gorgonio, east of Los Angeles, and even cut a deal for Walt to buy Mammoth Mountain. But Mammoth Mountain's family owner backed out in a Burbank meeting with Walt which would have closed that deal.

Upon the advice of the U.S. Forest Service's west coast director, Price turned his attention to a large parcel located near Sequoia National Park, known as Mineral King.

Mineral King Valley

Late in 1964, under Walt's instruction, we began the assembly of private acreage holdings on the floor of the Mineral King valley, a 26-acre site essential for the project base village. One of our group, Robert Hicks, who later was hired by Walt to manage ski resort project development, succeeded in buying out the Forest Service leaseholder positions of 18 families. It was something of a miracle, but Bob had grown up in Visalia and he talked the local language in a polite, quiet non-threatening way. I paid for the property rights and the Disney Company reimbursed me. The Forest Service then asked us to submit work plans, which would be dealt with on a negotiated basis.

As we began preparing the work plans, a well-known actress, Janet Leigh, and her husband, Robert Brandt prevailed on the Forest Service to open the process for competitive bidding. Disney prepared a stunning presentation and won the competition hand down.

The WED plans for the site envisioned six ski areas, with a combined daily capacity of 20,000 skiers, set around a Swiss-style base village. Disney had a deal with California Governor Pat Brown for $35 million in road improvements leading to the site.

So what happened? After Walt's death in 1966, Disney management decided that it couldn't handle two major projects in Walt's absence. So instead of building Mineral King, it chose to develop the other grand project Walt had been working on... Walt Disney World.

Mineral King eventually became property of the National Park Service and is now, undeveloped, part of Sequoia National Park.

In the weeks ahead, I'll be telling other stories from Price's book. But I want to throw this question out there for Theme Park Insider readers... what if Disney had built Mineral King Resort?

Put another way - What lessons could have been brought over from the theme park business to improve the ski business? I tried skiing once, and immediately blew out my knee. My wife loves skiiing and is eager to go again, but we'd be more likely to book a trip if there were more to do at a place like Mammoth Mountain than simply ski. (The kids and I aren't at the level where we can go all day yet - but we don't want just to sit around a condo.)

The Disney Company's genius in developing theme parks has been to provide a variety of experiences, from thrills to story-telling to playgrounds to shows, giving everyone in the family something to do. How could ski areas provide a more comprehensive winter entertainment experience, without "dumbing-down" the skiing? And how could they handle, crowds, service and their overall customer experience in a more "Disney" way?

Replies (5)

November 4, 2009 at 1:02 PM · Robert, great post! As a Disney dork and skiing fanatic I often dream about what Mineral King could have been.

I read a short column in Ski Magazine a while back that said we owe the idea of using a uniform color coded slope rating system to some preliminary work done by Disney for that resort.

There aren't really any ways to theme a ski slope but imagine the possibilities for a base area with superior themed restaurants and hotels. Imagineers could have dreamt up new ski lift technologies that would make the ride up the mountain faster and/or more entertaining. Some lift rides could have dioramas similar to what you see along the Magic Kingdom railroad. It would be the ultimate kid friendly ski area with character greetings right on the bunny slopes. Those cast members wouldn't mind wearing the fur in freezing temps!

I had heard in other articles about Mineral King that local opposition ultimately led to its demise, not necessarily the lack of resources competing with the ongoing WDW project.

For a small taste of Disney on the slopes check out Sugar Bowl near Lake Tahoe. Walt Disney was supposedly an investor in the resort at its opening and some of the slopes have very familiar names: Donald Duck, Buena Vista, and a peak named Mt. Disney.

November 4, 2009 at 2:52 PM · As someone who spent his summers in Three Rivers near Mineral King during that era, I remember the controversy well. While I always thought it would be great to have a Disney development in that rather inaccessible area, there was indeed tremendous opposition to it, including by the Sierra Club, and that's what killed the project.
November 4, 2009 at 2:54 PM · The problem with skiing is that once you get started, it's all downhill...
And, of course, one is almost always "on edge"...
And imagine the liability issues they might face, should someone be killed on their slopes...
Still, I suppose the contracts were "binding"...
Before you tell me to "schuss," let me add that I believe a ski resort would have given profits a "lift," at least until the "avalanche" of law suits.
November 4, 2009 at 4:07 PM · I am suprised a bit that Disney has not built Mineral King or a form of it. With success of Hilton Head, Vero Beach, and likely Hawaii, they could probably put together a Mineral King type place. Adventures by Disney? Yes please!

But its probably better Walt Disney and Disney decided against it, but now with the offshoots of DVC and Adv. by Disney gives this plan a bit of legs in my opinion.

And why can't Disney do Skiing? They have pretty much changed or put up quality stuff in television, movies, theme parks, cruises, etc?

I, being from Chicago, love skiing! Though honestly, I want an ice rink at ESPN's Wide World of Sports

November 6, 2009 at 4:57 PM · It is a rather isolated area. I also heard of opposition to the project which I believe was not so much the location itself, but the area that would have been involved to access it (if memory serves me correctly).

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