Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The History of Disney's Rarely Talked About Independence Lake Project

By Keith Mahne

In our last article we discussed the history of Disney's well known Mineral King Project, which turned out to be a publicity nightmare for the company and tarnished its nature-friendly reputation. This time around we'll discuss a project that is not as often talked about, Disney's Independence Lake Project that was in development in the latter half of the 1970s. As you'll soon learn, Disney just wasn't meant to build a resort in the California wilderness. Join us in today's new article for this rare piece of Disney history...

A 1976 photo of the Independence Lake land during summer

Disney's Independence Lake Project was announced in July of 1974 after the loss of its Mineral King Project. Disney, still wanting to fulfill one of Walt's final projects, proposed another ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Truckee, California. The land around the lake was jointly owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the U.S. government.

Disney's Independence Lake concept art

During the summer of 1977, Disney announced their preliminary master plan for a family oriented year-round destination resort in the Independence Lake-Mt. Lola region of Northern California...

Disney's Independence Lake concept art

Visitor facilities, both winter and summer, will be concentrated at the northeast end of this magnificent two-and-one-half mile long lake. Here will be located a 21-acre pedestrian oriented visitor village, lodging units, restaurants, guest services, campgrounds, and base operations for both winter and summer recreational programs.

At full development, there will be accommodations on site for 2,900 guests during the winter and 3,400 during the summer. It is estimated that the project will ultimately host 1,800,000 visitor-days per year, with a maximum of 10,800 guests on site during a peak winter day.

The area offers some of the finest beginning and intermediate ski terrain to be found anywhere in America, with runs emanating from elevations up to 9,100 feet. The terrain is ideally suited for family skiing groups, which will be an essential part of the Disney market.

Disney's Independence Lake concept art

Later that year, on October 4, 1977, Disney culminated more than three years of environmental and engineering studies and master planning by filing with Sierra County and the United States Forrest Service its Environmental Assessment Report, thereby beginning the formal Environmental Impact Statement process with federal, state and local agencies.

While there was no way for Disney to predict how the government agencies required to give this project a green light would react, the company was optimistic that they could begin groundbreaking in the spring of 1979 with the first facilities being opened to guests in the winter of 1982, which would be timed to coincide with the opening of EPCOT Center on the east coast.

A 1976 photo of the Independence Lake land during winter

Though Disney waited anxiously with fingers crossed for the government to give them the go-ahead, the administrative process would end up being the Independence Lake Project’s downfall, and the word came quick. In the spring of 1978 Disney shut down all plans for the area due to the increasing issues with the governments excessive bureaucracy and formalities. On March 27, 1978, the Los Angeles Times ran an article explaining the dilemma Disney was facing...

Even if Disney had a favorable Environmental Impact Study in hand - and none is in sight - it still could not proceed without the additional approval of nine state agencies, ranging from the Department of Fish and Game to the Public Utilities Commission. But Disney officials were never told which agencies had jurisdiction, and did not find out until new demands were made on them by still another entity of government.

A 1976 photo of the Independence Lake land

Unfortunately, Disney's Independence Lake and Mineral King projects never had the ability to see the light of day for one MAJOR reason... the two projects simply did not have the enthusiastic support of the government that Walt Disney World in Florida had enjoyed. The Independence Lake project cost Disney $2 million dollars, took over five years to development and never produced a single cabin, slope, or hiking path. However, that wasn't even the worst of it. The hardest part for the company was knowing that one of Walt's final dreams of allowing everyone, regardless of their athletic ability or age, to experience the mountain and forest areas would never come to fruition. I suppose the saying is true that some things just aren't meant to be. Clearly this is one of them. But one still can't help but wonder about what might have been.


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. Nice article Keith!

    For further reading: the very interesting article "Disney's Independence Lake Project - A Case Study of California's Environmental Review Process" from California Historical Society magazine (1982)

    Harald (@dixProject)