On Saturday January 21, we gathered at the Walt Disney Family Museum for a discussion of Walt Disney’s last project, and one that not many, but the more serious Walt Disney fans, know anything about. Most Disney aficionados are pretty knowledgeable about Project Future, which you know better as Walt Disney World. But… Did you know that, during the same period that Walt was developing his ideas for Florida, he was also working on developing a ski resort in the California Sierras? Well, yes he was… But first, let’s head back to 1958 and the other well development that came out of Walt’s visit to Zermatt.
How many of you remember Holiday Hill at Disneyland? The mount of dirt was excavated from in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle to create the moat, and atop of that mound was one of the towers that supported the Skyway gondola ride. Since Walt had always felt that the tower detracted from the picture he wanted painted for the Castle, he was always looking for a way to plus the area. While in Zermatt, Walt sent a postcard by to one of his favorite designers – Harriet Burns. Harriet’s daughter, Pam Burns-Clair, was also at the Museum for this day’s events. The postcard simply said this, “Build this.” You know that build today as the Matterhorn, the first tubular steel rollercoaster, and built inside a mountain. The added bonus or probably more accurate reason for building it… It disguised the Skyway tower next to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Another added bonus of the day… Since there was an event in the morning, Sam Gennawey, and Jeff Kurtti were at the Museum for a Meet & Greet and book signing, I had time between the two events to go through the galleries. The galleries in a minute, but, the meet and greet was great. Jeff is one of my favorite presenters (well, they are all my favorites, but, Jeff is at the top of the list) at the Museum, and I always look forward to seeing him. Since I wrote a review of Sam’s book on my blog, I’ve had the opportunity to strike up an online friendship. So getting the opportunity to meet him – in person – was special, and I’ve got to say, he is every bit as friendly in person as he is online. Also in the meet and greet was Werner Weiss of Yesterland. Werner wrote the Foreword for Sam’s book. But what followed was a completely unexpected pleasure.
As I mentioned, I got the chance to once again go through the galleries, amazingly, a different experience each time. This visit will be one of those very special times in my memory. As I was making the transition from gallery 6 to 7, I notice another individual I now recognize from the earlier meet and greet event. As I was stopped to talk to a couple of Museum Staffers, I didn’t have a chance, then, to approach this person. But, I did manage to eventually catch up with him toward the end of gallery 8. This person was and is David Price, one of the panelists for the afternoon’s event. I got to introduce myself, and confirm that he was indeed “Buzz” Price’s son, as I had suspected. And, I got to telling him how much I had enjoyed seeing his dad at an event about a year and half earlier. And… as it turned out, “Buzz’s” last public appearance, another of my special moments at the Museum. Not being a person who wants to intrude on others experience in the galleries, I was preparing to move on, and leave David to his viewing and thoughts. Imagine my joy as he walked along side of me, conversing about the exhibits before us, Walt, and his Dad. We strolled and talked all the way to the Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination exhibit, where after several minutes we parted company. It was a most pleasurable 30 minutes which I will always remember fondly. I was left with one overwhelming thought; I wish I had a Dad that I cherished as much as David so obviously cherishes his Dad. Thank you David, for spending that time with me.
Now for the reason we came together at the Museum… We were joined in the Walt Disney Family Museum Theater by Sam Gennawey, David Price, and Ron Miller to talk about the Walt Disney efforts to develop Mineral King Valley, which is now part of the Sequoia National Forest, as a ski resort, and summertime mountain destinations. You might recognize Sam’s name as I wrote a recent review of his new book, WALT AND THE PROMISE OF Progress City. I have found Sam’s book thought provoking and inspiring. David Price is an architect in Southern California, and for the Disney fan, you may recognize a familiarity with his last name. Yes, David is Harrison “Buzz” Price, the man responsible for the economic study which led to Disneyland’s location in Anaheim, along with dozens of other studies for Walt and the Disney Company. Finally, we have Ron Miller. Rom is a former CEO of Walt Disney Productions, husband of Diane Disney Miller, and a co-founder of the Walt Disney Family Museum. As Sam described, Ron was “in the room” as plans for the development of Mineral King were pursued, and it is always wonderful to see one or more of the Museum’s co-founders participate in a presentations. And… As an added bonus, I got to sit next to Diane. Okay, yes there was the 6, or so, feet of wheelchair space between us, but no wheelchairs today. So, leave me alone… I was sitting next to Diane!!! J
Now on to Mineral King…
We now know that Walt was very taken with Zermatt, Switzerland from his visit during the filming of Third Man on the Mountain. But, did you know that he and his family were avid skiers. Well, as we learned during this session, Diane… not so much early in her life. While we were treated to a picture of Lillian, Walt, Diane (about age 8 or 9) and Hannes Schroll (more on him later) all posing on skis. Diane did confess that she really did not really learn to ski until years later. Hannes Schroll was a Alpine ski racer and the creator of the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. Hannes and Walt became good friends and Walt was an early investor in Sugar Bowl, but, you may not know his other Disney connection… Hannes was known to many as the yodeling skier, and could often be heard skiing done the slopes. It is Hannes doing Goofy’s holler in The Art of Skiing, and Sugar Bowl, even today, has a few Disney references, such as Mt. Disney, Disney Meadows, and the Donald Duck run.
Out of Walt’s interest in winter sports, he was approach to do the pageantry portion of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. Walt’s staff planned the opening and closing ceremonies, it was at Walt’s insistence that these ceremonies be televised for the first time. Much, if not all, of today’s televised sports pageantry can trace its root back to those televised ceremonies of the 1960 Winter Olympics. As we learned from Ron, on Saturday, it turns out the much of the operational aspect of those games were handled or managed by Disney staff. Seems the operational skills needed for running a theme park, are much the same as running the Olympic Games… who knew? J As result of all of this, Walt was looking to develop a winter sports destination with all the natural Disney flair. Several locations were explored, but for many reasons these projects went nowhere. So when the U.S. Forest Service put out an RFP to develop the Mineral King Valley, the Disney organization jumped on the opportunity. The Mineral King Valley is bordered on three sides by the Sequoia National Forest, established in 1908. The Mineral King area was originally excluded from the Sequoia Nat’l Forest primarily because of the earlier mining and commercial development activities in that area. While it was made part of the Sequoia Game Refuge, it was still available for development. While the Forest Service’s RFP was for a modest ski resort, Walt Disney saw a greater potential for a resort that could be used and enjoyed year round, and submitted grander plans for the valley’s development. Using what he had learned in his development of Disneyland, the plans, underway at the time, for his visions of EPCOT, and what he saw as an ideal Alpine village in Zermatt, Switzerland, Walt designed what he thought would be an ideal resort in Mineral King. Walt even put his best number guy, Harrison “Buzz” Price, on the task. Remember, it was Buzz who had successfully identified the optimal location for Disneyland, and had recently identified Orlando as the future home of Disney World. Even the Sierra Club was originally on board for the development. Unfortunately, before the project could really get off the ground and actually building started, we lost Walt. With Walt gone, there was no one to illuminate his vision well enough to keep the project going. The team Walt left behind tried gallantly, but eventually the Disney organization was left with no alternative but to walk away. It truly saddens me that this project never came to fruition. From all the pictures Sam showed us and the comments for Ron and David, it would have been a place I’d visit often.
I particularly enjoyed this session, as we treated to some very loving banter and comments back and forth between Ron and Diane. And David recalled some poignant memories of his young life in the Mineral King Valley. You see, David’s family shared ownership of a cabin in valley, and he recalled often being at the cabin to make repairs. Sam Gennawey is and exuberant presenter and moderator and greatly enhanced the presentation. I’ve already started a campaign to have him back. With this year being the 30th anniversary of Epcot, I thought a session discussing what we see today at the theme park, and the EPCOT of Walt’s vision. It would be a very interesting program.
Finally, I don’t say it here enough, but… I would like to thank all of the Walt Disney Family Museum staff for all their efforts. I enjoy each of my visits to the Museum as much for the exhibits and programs, as for the staff interaction. Each and every one of you has every reason to be proud of what you have helped to create. You all make each visit better, so to all of you… THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!
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