Walt Disney's Riverfront Square That Never Was

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In December 2015, the only known existing copy of the blueprints for Walt Disney's Riverfront Square project in St. Louis sold for $27,000, after the auction house predicted a price of between $5,000-$7,000. Those plans are now in the hands of a private collector and unavailable to researchers.

What was Walt Disney's Riverfront Square?

Walt Disney grew up in Missouri in the cities of Marceline and Kansas City. Even though he was born in Chicago, Illinois, he considered Missouri his home.

In 1945, he wrote, "I feel that my roots are in the great state of Missouri and that I am a Missourian in every sense of the word, even to the 'Show Me' tradition. Missouri typifies good, common sense Americanism, whether your roots are in the farm or in the streets of its bustling cities. I guess you can gather from this that I still have a fine warm spot for the old home state."

The city of St. Louis had been founded in 1764 and in the early 1960s, plans were made to celebrate its upcoming bicentennial with the building of the Gateway Arch (opened October 1965) and the multipurpose Busch Memorial Stadium (opened May 1966).

Part of the planning for the stadium included setting aside some land just a few blocks to the north to be called Riverfront Square, an outdoor mall about 300-feet long, that would be developed with theaters, restaurants, and stores with all automobile traffic excluded.

One of the theaters would have been in the shape of a steamboat and be called the Gilded Cage and show old silent movies during the day and some evenings live melodrama performances. The entire mall facing the Mississippi River would have featured 19th century architecture glorifying the age when St. Louis was a popular river port.

In 1963, business and civic leaders approached Walt with the proposal that he produce a film to honor the city's history as part of the celebration as well as part travelog of the city as it was today. The intention was to build 1,000-seat modified Circle Vision theater where Walt's 15-minute film would run continuously.

Besides the America the Beautiful Circle Vision film (originally produced for the American pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair) at Disneyland, Walt produced Italia '61 sponsored by Fiat for the Italia '61 Exposition in Turin, and was in discussion for doing other possible Circlevision films including one at Niagara Falls. At the time, a Circle Vision film could cost more than $2 million to produce.

Although he considered the proposal for a few weeks, Walt wasn't enthused about the idea but he was intrigued by the land that had been set aside especially since he had become deeply interested in city planning at the time. He talked with Raymond Witcoof, president of Downtown St. Louis Inc., a group of businessmen who were involved with the downtown development.

The CCRC (Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation) invited Walt to be a consultant on the project. Walt and his brother Roy met with some of members at the Disney Studio in Burbank on March 28, 1963.

The St. Louis Riverfront project would have included attractions and shows that saluted St. Louis at the turn of the century.

After the meeting, Walt immediately assigned Harrison "Buzz" Price and his Economics Research Associates to explore the St. Louis project and how many potential visitors might come to see the Arch and the stadium and how much money they might spend and create a feasibility study.

Price was the one who had been involved in helping select the land for Disneyland and later Walt Disney World, and was the person Walt always went to when he was considering a new project involving the purchase of land.

Walt and his wife Lillian personally visited the city along with their daughter Sharon and her husband Robert on May 20 to tour the area and see the ongoing construction on the Arch. It was assumed that Walt was just checking to see if the Disney Company might participate in some way with the celebration.

Walt and his staff were deeply involved with their commitments to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, so were hesitant to make any immediate decision on St. Louis and any possible level of participation.

Price's report in August showed that the St. Louis project could be modestly profitable with enough visitors from both the local population, as well as ones coming from out of town to see the Arch and events at the stadium to recover the initial investment.

It turned out Walt was interested in doing the entire venue. He felt that if the Disney name was going to be connected in any way, that Disney had to be responsible for the entire thing to make sure it kept to his philosophies and standards. On November 18 at a press conference, he outlined his vision for Riverfront Square if it were built and operated by the Disney Company.

The central theme would be the history of St. Louis as well as the lore of the Mississippi River and the Old West. He actually said that there were things that he was envisioning that would "make parts of Disneyland obsolete." The venue would be entertaining but also educational and respectful.

"Missouri and the history of Missouri are important to me," he stated at the press conference. "I was raised on a farm not far from Hannibal. There's a lot of opportunity to do things exciting about the state, the Mississippi River, Mark Twain…things both entertaining and educational. I am not interested in a tourist trap attraction. I want something we can be proud of and St. Louis can be proud of."

While he did not make a definite commitment at the time, people were excited. They were very excited until he also announced that liquor would not be served anywhere in the complex. Just like at Disneyland, it was Walt's feelings that in a family venue, alcohol had the tendency to change the tone and encourage "rowdies".

After the press conference, Anheuser-Busch beer baron August Busch Jr., a very powerful man in St. Louis and the state, supposedly made the remark that "Any man who would build something like this and then not serve beer and liquor is crazy!"

According to Disney mythology that statement resulted in Walt abandoning the project on the spot and then finding another location in Central Florida.

It is a myth. Walt kept planning for many months after the incident. Busch may also have been upset because in the original plans for the Riverfront Square there would have been a themed bar and restaurants, all proudly serving his product especially since he was part of the development committee. He was also planning on building a museum near Riverfront Square to honor his company's heritage and offer some free beer samples.

Preston Estep, the chairman of the CCRC, declared, "Any plans developed by either Mr. Disney or anyone else would not be approved if they did not make provision for the sale of beer, wine and liquor in the restaurants and other appropriate entertainment facilities in the area."

A local newspaper also agreed that "Can't Mr. Disney who wants to incorporate Missouri history and Missouri flavor into the project realize on his part that a Sahara in downtown St. Louis would be somewhat out of character?"

That same November was when Walt and his staff headed south to Florida in a plane and determined that the swamps of central Florida would be the future home of the Florida project.

Shockingly, Walt felt that Florida was not an alternative to St. Louis, but that he and his staff could actually build both venues at the same time. It was never a case that when the St. Louis project collapsed, Walt started looking around for an alternative location although some of the things planned for St. Louis were later incorporated into the Magic Kingdom.

The following year on March 16, 1964, Walt had another press conference after several more meetings with the CCRC officials. He had refined his ideas into a single, five-story (one story or more would be underground since they could dig down at least 112 feet), enclosed building covering two city blocks.

It was enclosed so that it could operate year round despite the weather. One of Walt's concerns was the cost to heat and cool the interior of such a structure year round and he had research done on that issue to determine it was feasible.

In terms of the sale of alcoholic beverages, Walt had developed a compromise that it would be limited to areas restricted to adults only. Walt proposed an observation floor with picture windows overlooking the Arch and could be entered directly by special elevators, avoiding the amusement areas.

The floor would contain a formal restaurant, banquet space and a 150-seat cocktail lounge. All those areas would sell beer, wine and alcohol, but would be restricted to adults. Those adults who wanted to visit the amusement area would have a special hand stamp and not be allowed to carry beverages into the area.

This compromise was agreed to by Busch and the others and Walt still had his barrier between the alcohol and the entertainment.

Walt had Imagineer Marvin Davis design the plans just as he had for Disneyland and later for Walt Disney World. He had finished the plans by February 1964. Thirteen pages of blueprints were produced. Conservatively, the cost for the project was $40 million, with expectations of at least 25,000 guests per day.

The plans for the interior of the indoor theme park were fluid and the specifics were never exactly addressed. As far as Walt was concerned, planning had just begun so there was no need to tie things down permanently yet, especially without the reaction of the CCRC or a definite budget.

The general concept was that half of the 600 foot, 3 1/2 acre building would represent St. Louis at the turn of the century (early 1900s) and the other half New Orleans before the Civil War (approximately 1850).

Lighting would be used to create a cloud-filled sky on the high ceiling and speakers would pipe in vintage sound effects, like the sound of horses clip clopping on a street and appropriate music.

A Bayou Boat Ride would take guests through a Louisiana swamp and down a waterfall into the lower basement 60-foot high, and then back up a waterfall at the end. It didn't feature pirates but did include alligators and other wildlife.

Those historical scoundrels were reserved for the "Jean Lafitte Adventure Ride," where the famous pirate would be joined by other scallywags from New Orleans in an attraction similar to the original walk through attraction planned for Disneyland where guests could tour a pirate ship. Later plans included them in the Bayou Boat Ride.

A "Haunted House" would have included a stretching room to take guests to a lower floor for a "room of illusions," but some of the ghosts would be themed to actual Missouri ghost tales.

Besides a haunted house on a hill and a pirates' attraction, the French Quarter would include restaurants (including a full-sized steamboat in an indoor lake), shops and even a live show. The area would be surrounded by a diorama of the city during the time period with an emphasis on it being a port for the Mississippi River.

The St. Louis section would include a Circle Vision theater that featured a 15-minute film that showed a trip down the Mississippi River perhaps ending with a helicopter trip through the Arch.

Walt also was thinking of a theater with a 200-degree screen and interactive elements to tell the history of St. Louis. Again, the actual content of this film experience was never completely settled. It might have included the stories and characters of Mark Twain to illustrate the 1800s or may have focused on a collection of historic milestones like Lindbergh's flight or the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Walt also had plans for the Old Opera House to feature a live-action show inspired by the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Disneyland, but somehow themed to St. Louis and specifically including French can-can dancers.

There were plans for Fantasyland dark rides, like at Disneyland, and the placeholders on the blueprints were Peter Pan Flight (the most popular of the Disneyland dark rides) and either Snow White Adventures or a new attraction based on Pinocchio.

Basically, Walt was not sure he wanted to include the Disney characters, because it would distract from the illusion he wanted to create by focusing on local culture and regional history.

Walt preferred that the dark rides somehow be tied to the history of St. Louis and the Mississippi River. One suggestion was a gentle roller coaster thrill ride through Mississippi River caves while another was a more leisurely Native American canoe ride. At one point, there was talk to utilize the legends of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink as the basis for the water ride.

A proposal for an attraction based on the great St. Louis fire of 1849 was rejected because New York's Freedomland had a similar attraction based on a Chicago fire. Walt rejected a ride based on the famous Missouri outlaws Frank and Jesse James, because he did not want to glorify criminals.

It was considered to bring in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction from the New York World's Fair because it would only cost for transportation and installation and save expenses.

Imagineers suggested other possible Audio-Animatronics figures more closely aligned with Missouri, including Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon discussing the Louisiana Purchase, Will Rogers, John Philip Sousa, Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis plane, President Teddy Roosevelt, and local sports heroes from the turn of the century—although none were specifically identified.

It was suggested that it be presented in a theater with multiple revolving stages featuring several figures and sets much in the style of the later Country Bear Jamboree.

Many suggestions came and went, including a Lewis and Clark Adventure Ride that would take guests on a boat tour through dioramas and Audio-Animatronics figures of their journey. A Merrimac Cave ride, an Old Water Wheel, a tribute to John Audubon in an aviary exhibit with live birds and more were some of the many ideas tossed around.

Always looking to the future, as he was working on this project, Walt considered other future small Disney parks, including one in Kansas City tied in with Hallmark Company's Joyce Hall's plans for an elaborate park, mall and zoo.

What caused the project that was so close to being built to fall apart was not a dispute over alcohol but of money and what St. Louis was willing to do for and with Disney. It was the same situation that existed in Florida, but got resolved when the Florida Governor and the state pledged 100% cooperation to make the dream a reality. Perhaps they had seen what had happened in St. Louis.

The Disney Company's understanding was that they would be responsible for all the costs related to the "show," meaning the design and building of the rides, creating the films, attention to theming, etc.

They felt that St. Louis would provide the massive building, building parking garages, land improvement (including street traffic) and selling the land itself at a bargain price like they were getting in Florida. St. Louis would later be reimbursed from the net profits of the operation resulting in Disney eventually owning the entire development.

St. Louis was required not to build just the shell, but to deliver a facility ready for the installation of the shows and attractions with all the walls and infrastructure. St. Louis felt it should only be responsible for the basic shell with Disney responsible for anything in the interior.

In July 1965, the city and Disney jointly announced that the project would not proceed. In a joint statement from the CCRC officials and Disney, it stated, "We were asked to try to develop a major attraction having the impact on the St. Louis area of a Disneyland. We suggested at the outset that a project of that scope, in size and cost, might well prove difficult to accomplish, due to a number of imponderable factors. Such has proved to be the case."

In November 1965, Disney officially announced its plans to build an entertainment venue in central Florida. It is hard to believe that Walt felt he could build both projects concurrently, but the cancellation of the St. Louis project allowed for more attention to be paid to Walt Disney World.