Monday, July 18, 2016

Disney's War For The Wilderness: The Mineral King Story

By Keith Mahne

At the same time as Walt was secretly buying up land for a new theme park resort in Florida, his associates were scouting locations for an ambitious new Disney ski resort in California. The plans for the resort were incredible with dozens of lifts, hotels, restaurants, parking lots, and even a planned Disney attraction you may have heard of called Country Bear Jamboree. However, not everyone was as excited as Walt. The project eventually hit a wall of opposition from environmentalists causing Disney to have a huge public relations problem on their hands. Learn the story of Disney's war for the wilderness in today's new article...

Disney's Mineral King concept art

Disney's Mineral King ski resort was one of several ambitious projects, much like his plans for EPCOT City, that Walt Disney spearheaded in the years before his death in 1966. Walt, having served as director of pageantry at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California and also taking a trip to the Swiss Alps for the production of Third Man on the Mountain, became inspired to build his very own Matterhorn at Disneyland. Loving the outdoors and being the best showman the world had ever seen, he decide it was time for his company to build a family resort among real snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada.

Disney's Mineral King concept art

Plans for the majority of this new, Disney resort complex called for it to be free of automobiles, preferring that guests park down slope in an 8-10 story garage with room for 3,600 vehicles. From there, a cog railway would transport them to the main resort area. The Disney plan also called for extensive support infrastructure, including water storage tanks and a sewage treatment facility. The resort's price tag was $35 million.

Walt explaining his plans for Mineral King

A wire service article once quoted Walt Disney on the Mineral King project as saying, “When I first saw Mineral King five years ago, I thought it was one of the most beautiful spots I had ever seen and we want to keep it that way.” To Walt Disney, that meant a self-contained “Alpine Village” designed to preserve the natural beauty of the valley.

Walt, Card Walker and other company executives walk the property

The spring 1966 issue of Disney News described exactly what Walt Disney was going to build...

Walt’s plan for the picturesque area, located about equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco, provides for year-round recreational activities by people of all ages and athletic abilities.

Fourteen ski lifts are anticipated, many serving guests throughout the year. Some of the lifts will be used in the warm months by sightseers, campers, hikers and wild-life students, who for the first time will be able to visit the 7,900-foot valley and its surrounding 12,400-foot mountains.

A completely self-contained village will accommodate visitors. It will have a chapel, ice-skating rink, convenience shops, restaurants, conference center, and low-cost lodging facilities. In addition to Mineral King Village and ski lifts, there will be a series of ten restaurants in the valley and atop surrounding peaks. There also will be two large hotels, a heliport and auxiliary facilities.

The company’s entire approach has been based on the absolute necessity to preserve the site’s natural beauty and alpine character.

To this end, automobiles will be excluded from the valley proper. Guests will park in a 2,500-vehicle parking area at the entrance and will be taken into the valley by a high-capacity public conveyance.

Further, the area’s natural character will be preserved by camouflaging ski lifts, situating the village so that it will not be seen from the valley entrance, and putting service areas in a 60,000 square foot underground facility beneath the village.


“U.S. Chooses Disney to Develop Sequoia Resort.” That was the headline on page 11 of the Los Angeles Times on December 18, 1965. According to the article, the U.S. Forest Service awarded a preliminary permit to Walt Disney Productions giving the company three years to complete a satisfactory plan. The next step would be a permanent 30-year permit.

Walt at a press conference on property for the Mineral King project

And so, given Walt Disney’s wonderful plans, the U.S. Forest Service was sure to grant the 30-year permit. Mineral King was on track. But, to many people's surprise, Walt's health was quietly deteriorating and on December 15, 1966, Walt died. The Mineral King resort was destined to be one of many lasting reminders of his great vision and creativity when it opened, one of his lasting legacies to the world that he already gave so much.

Disney's Mineral King concept art

Meanwhile, much of the nation had embraced a new, preservation-oriented wilderness ethic at this time, a change reflected in the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964. So when the Forest Service and Disney announced their plans for the valley resort, activists jumped into action, led by the Sierra Club, who was one of the first large-scale environmental preservation organizations in the world.

A flyer created to protest Disney's Mineral King project by marching on Disneyland

At first, the battle centered on the fact that six miles of a proposed all-weather access road would cut through Sequoia National Park, displacing some eight million cubic yards of rock and dirt. As Disney launched a three-year snow study and finalized its plans, the Sierra Club lobbied the National Park Service to block the highway project. But after the park service and its supervisor, interior secretary Stewart Udall, approved the road, the club resorted to litigation. On June 5, 1969, the club sued the heads of Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest and the interior and agriculture secretaries in federal court, arguing that the project improperly handed control of too much national forest land to Disney and that the highway through the national park was illegal. A trial judge issued a preliminary injunction, halting work until the case reached the Supreme Court.

A Sierra Club created flyer showing an ax-wielding Mickey Mouse

Now Disney had a major publicity crisis on its hands. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists were determined to make the late Walt Disney and the company he created into one of their very own villains found throughout popular Disney films. Take this 1971 review of the controversy featured in Ramparts magazine that was accompanied by a nasty cover depicting Walt as well as other illustrations of a sinister-looking mouse...

Cover of the November 1971 Ramparts magazine

The Ramparts article summed up the damage done to the company's image of environmental friendliness. "The beautiful old nature films of the '50s are the illusion; the reality is the determination to use all the corporation's considerable good will and political clout to take over via the U.S. Forest Service at Mineral King," the article's author Roger Rapoport concluded. "It is the end to all our childhood fantasies: Mickey Mouse and Smokey the Bear conspiring to tear up the wilderness."

Walt Disney Productions soon announced a major revision to its Mineral King plans in May of 1972. The $35 million resort with as many as 22 ski lifts shrunk to a $15 million resort with 10 ski lifts as a way to reduce the project’s environmental footprint. The biggest change in the new plans was that access to the resort would now primarily involve a 15-mile cog railway that would be nonpolluting, follow the current road, and require a much narrower right-of-way than the proposed all-weather road.

Disney's Mineral King concept art

On October 23, 1973, the Los Angeles Times published an article titled “Planned Mineral King Resort Appears Doomed.” With the Sierra Club still using the legal system to oppose the project, Mineral King was expected to be tied up in the courts for years. The legality of the proposed cog railway was called into question. And a new law meant the project required an environmental impact statement causing all work to come to a halt. In 1977, the U.S. Forest Service attempted to revive the resort plan, but by then Walt Disney Productions had walked away from the Mineral King environmental fight in favor of an entirely different ski resort location on private land at Independence Lake, north of Lake Tahoe... and that's a story for another day.

For Disney, Mineral King was not only the company's first public controversy but also one that tarnished its nature-friendly reputation, built on its successful True Life Adventures franchise of nature films. Before the Mineral King war broke out, Walt Disney Productions had earned 37 awards for its work with nature conservation, and the Sierra Club made Walt Disney himself an honorary life member in 1955. A company executive once admitted to the Los Angeles Times that if Walt Disney were still alive at the time, he likely would have pulled out in respect to environmentalists' concerns. Mountains and forests areas should be available not only to seasoned hikers, but to visitors of all ages and physical conditions. Walt loved nature and wanted to create something that everyone could experience which, in turn, would help develop their own respect for nature. I have no doubt that it would have been a great success, not just for people, but for the wilderness as well.


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.

1 comment:

  1. Certainly the worst maintained Disney property in the world must be what is known to MK locals, as the "Disney Parking Lot" @ the Eagle/Mosquito trailhead. The Disney company bought around 25 acres through shadow buyers in the early 60's, in anticipation of being awarded the contract to build a ski resort. As far as I know, they still own all the acreage, none of which is allowed to be developed as it's in the National Park now.

    The parking lot is an ugly mixture of broken asphalt, scattered gravel and dirt~