The Story of Mineral King

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney said in 1965, "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."

Harrison "Buzz" Price stated, "Like everyone who had worked on this stunning project, we believed that Mineral King would have been the greatest winter resort in the world bar none."

How did Walt Disney who produced movies and animation ever get interested in building a unique ski resort?

In 1931, his doctor recommended that Walt take up some type of exercise to help relieve the stress he was experiencing at work. He tried several sports, including golf, horseback riding, swimming, boxing, wrestling, badminton and more.

In a January 1935 edition of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper, it stated that Walt and his wife were vacationing at the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park: "Movie producer Walt Disney and his wife found the winter sports in Yosemite decidedly to their liking. It was the Disney family's first experience with winter sports and they were learning to figure skate before they left Yosemite Valley."

It was here that Walt first learned to ski through lessons with Austrian skiing champion Hannes Schroll at Badger Pass where Schroll was head of the Yosemite Ski School. The two hit it off and became good friends.

In 1938, Schroll and his business partners purchased land with the intention of building a ski resort in the east Sierras, near Donner's Summit and the small town of Truckee. The land encompassed an area around two mountains—Hemlock Peak and Mount Lincoln.

Schroll wired Walt in June 1938 to invest money, but Walt was unfortunately out of town when the cable arrived and Schroll had to find others to advance the needed funds to buy the land

One year later, when Schroll was seeking additional investments to actually build the resort in the style of the great European resorts, he again approached Walt who, in turn, wrote Schroll a personal check for $2,500, and became one of the initial stockholders of the newly christened Sugar Bowl Resort. To honor Walt's support and partnership, Schroll changed the name of Hemlock Peak to Mount Disney.

Among the preeminent enticements that drew skiers to Sugar Bowl in those early years were the chairlift up Mount Disney. The Disney lift was constructed and completed in time for the resort's planned December 15, 1939 opening. It marked the first chairlift to be installed in California.

Designed by Henry Howard, the lift was 3,200 feet long and had a 1,000 foot vertical rise and consisted of 13 steel towers and terminals that could be raised as needed to compensate for the snow depth. The cost to riders was $0.25 for a ride up or $2 if you wanted to ski down.

Newspaper reporter Bob Blake spotted Walt at Sugar Bowl on January 7, 1940, and reported that "Walt Disney arrived today without Donald Duck and started skiing immediately."

For many Christmas holidays, Walt and his family visited Sugar Bowl. A 1941 photograph shows Walt, Lillian and their daughter Diane, 7, posing with Schroll. Diane later recalled, "I remember that I very much wanted to learn to ski. The highlight of the trip was when Hannes took me up the chair lift, with my parents, on Mount Disney and skied down with me on his shoulders."

A newspaper account from February of 1941 reported that a director named Ewing Scott had arrived at Sugar Bowl to begin work on a documentary about the history of skiing that was to be produced by Walt Disney. The film was never produced.

Notable Hollywood personalities, like Errol Flynn, Robert Stack, Marilyn Monroe and Claudette Colbert, frequented the resort, as did many affluent San Francisco citizens. There were "Snowball Special" trains that ferried Hollywood luminaries up to the remote location.

Walt skied at the resort several times with Schroll and fellow Austrian Bill Klein, who directed the ski school until 1957. According to John Wiley, the resort's first winter sports director, Walt once filled in for a bartender at the lodge's bar. Wiley recalled, "There was no television in those days, so he tended bar almost incognito for about two hours."

Walt eventually sponsored such events as the Disney Junior Challenge Trophy and the Sugar Bowl Perpetual Goofy Races for children. In addition to Mount Disney, there are specific runs named the Disney Nose, the Disney Meadow, the Disney Return and the Donald Duck. A modernized lift replaced the original Disney chairlift and is now called the Disney Express.

The Art of Skiing (1941) was a popular Goofy cartoon in the "How To" series. The opening panoramic view of snow covered mountains eventually focused on a rustic ski lodge with a sign in the lower left identifying it as the Sugar Bowl Lodge. It was clearly the same iconic lodge designed by architect William Wurster.

The animated short is filled with gags of Goofy trying to ski from attempting to put on his pants while his skis are already attached to the difficulty of turning around while wearing skis. Of course, Goofy spends much of the cartoon falling down.

"Dad really liked the idea of skiing going all the way back to the 1930s," his daughter Diane told me. "He never skied well and we have funny home movies of him trying. The artists at the studio used some of that as an inspiration for the Goofy animated short."

The yodeling in the short was provided by Schroll as well as the famous "Goofy Holler" of "Wa-hoo-hooey" that was a variation of a yodel and then was re-used in other Goofy shorts.

Rob Kautz, Sugar Bowl's chief executive, began skiing at Sugar Bowl in the 1970s. He became a ski patrolman before working his way up to the resort's top management spot.

"One evening, Hannes was telling some of us about that trip down to Burbank in the late 1930s to see if Walt Disney wanted to invest in the resort," Kautz said. "Disney and Hannes got to chatting about Austria and yodeling, which Disney liked. So Hannes yodeled for him. Disney was greatly impressed and called in his sound guys to record Hannes. That's what ended up in the Disney cartoons. And Hannes always said, 'You know what? I was never paid a dime for that!'"

On December 19, 1941, a presentation of The Art of Skiing was held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco as part of the California Ski Association's inaugural Skiers Ball. Walt and Lillian attended the event and introduced the cartoon. One newspaper account described the showing as the film's world premiere, but it had in fact been released to theaters as early as November 12, 1941.

Among his many awards, Walt received the Hans Georg Award posthumously in 1967 for elevating the sport of skiing.

The beautiful Alpine town of Zermatt in southern Switzerland is at the foot of the Matterhorn mountain. It was one of Walt's favorite European destinations. Zermatt is known throughout the world for its skiing that thanks to the high altitude can even be done throughout the summer.

The entire town is a combustion-engine car-free zone with visitors reaching the destination by a rack assisted railway train from the nearby town. In 1958, the town was the site for the filming of the Disney live action film Third Man on the Mountain and Walt was in Zermatt for part of the filming. He and his wife stayed at Zermatterhof, the town's oldest and grandest hotel.

It was this visit that inspired him to build a Matterhorn attraction at Disneyland but also reinforced the idea of the viability of a secluded ski resort for the entire family.

In February 1960, the Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley as a result of Alex Cushing, who met Wayne Poulsen, the original owner of Squaw Valley, at Sugar Bowl 1946. Poulsen invited Cushing to open a ski resort in Squaw Valley with him. Within six years of it being opened, the Winter Olympics came to Squaw Valley.

Organizing Committee President Prentis Hale flew down to the Disney Studios to convince Walt to produce the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the nightly entertainment for the athletes for the Winter Olympics. Walt accepted because he had been thinking about building a ski resort with a different slant and this would give him some hands-on experience and observation that he could transfer to his innovative concept.

At the Olympic Games, Walt met Bavarian ski expert Willy Schaeffler, who was later hired by Walt to help scout a location for the proposed Disney ski resort, and Schaeffler confirmed Walt's choice of Mineral King as the best location.

The cost for the Mineral King Resort was estimated at $35 million and it was expected to attract up to 1 million visitors in just the first year.

Harrison "Buzz" Price and his Economic Research Associates (ERA) that had researched the site for Disneyland was also engaged by Walt, and some initial areas investigated included San Gorgonio (near Walt's Smoke Tree Ranch home in Palm Springs), Aspen, Mammoth and finally Mineral King.

Walt came very close to a deal to put his resort at Mammoth Mountain. Negotiations started with Andrew Hurley, who owned the resort there, and the McCoy family, who managed the ski slopes at Mammoth Mountain. However, before the deal was closed, Hurley and the McCoys pulled out at the last minute feeling they were not being treated fairly.

Mineral King was roughly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The high peaks surrounding the valley protected it from the wind and made it exceptionally beautiful and compact.

However, it was surrounded on three sides by the Sequoia National Park, created in 1890 under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior, but excluded from the National Park because of the belief that mining might return to the area.

Mineral King got its name from the prospectors who mined the terrain for ore deposits starting in 1872. Avalanches and disappointing findings made the area a ghost town roughly by 1882, a decade later. However, the area soon became the home to campers, hikers, horseback riders and other visitors, some of whom built summer cabins.

Mineral King, which was roughly 15,000 acres, had been part of the Sequoia National Forest since 1936, but not part of the Sequoia National Park. Even as early as 1949, the area had been under consideration for recreational development as a possible ski resort.

The United States Forest Service published a prospectus in 1965, inviting bids from private developers for the construction and operation of a ski resort that would also serve as a summer recreation area. The proposal by Disney was chosen from a group of six bidders, and on December 17, 1965, Disney received a three-year permit to conduct surveys and explorations in the valley in connection with its preparation of a complete master plan for the resort.

The Disney proposal envisioned an "American Alpine Wonderland" on the floor of Mineral King Valley: a five-story hotel with 1,030 rooms, a movie theater, general store, pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and a golf course, in addition to a hospital, a gas station, a chapel, conference center, heliport and a power station.

Twenty-two lifts (later scaled back to 14) and gondolas would scale the eight glacial cirques above the village, leading to ski runs four miles long with drops of 3,700 feet. Imagineer Bob Gurr designed a high-capacity ski lift and the concept was so appealing that Walt had the system patented and created a business unit and sent Gurr out to find buyers.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Ten restaurants and cafes would be built (each at different price points for guests) including a 150-seat coffee shop perched atop Eagle's Crest Ridge, 11,090 feet above sea level, called Walt Disney's Sky Crown where there would be entertainment and dancing.

For entertainment at one of the other restaurants, Imagineer Marc Davis designed a show with Audio-Animatronics bears that eventually became the Country Bear Jamboree attraction at Walt Disney World.

As Imagineer Wathel Rogers recalled, "After the Mineral King contract had been signed, Walt had an idea for entertainment after people had been skiing. Walt said, 'What we are going to do is have a bear band and have them perform two or three programs of entertainment. We'll say that the bears had come out of the sequoias and we trained them to be entertainers'."

The cost for the resort was estimated at $35 million and it was expected to attract up to 1 million visitors in just the first year, when the previous annual total for the area had been closer to twenty-four thousand people.

Eventually, it was decided that the proposed resort would have two hotels, one deluxe and the other a moderate, plus a dormitory for cast members accommodating approximately a total of 7,200 people.

In a brochure about the project, Walt said, "When we go into a new project, we believe in it all the way. That's the way we feel about Mineral King. We have every faith that our plans will provide recreational opportunities for everyone. All of us promise that our effort now and in the future will be dedicated to making Mineral King grow to meet the ever-increasing public need. I guess you might say that it won't ever be finished."

To set the resort apart from other ski areas in California, Walt intended it to be family friendly with activities like ice-skating, tobogganing, sleigh and dogsled rides so that skiing was not necessarily the primary attraction.

In the summer, there would be activities like exploring caves, horseback riding, tennis, swimming and even entertaining wilderness lectures by Donald Duck. In addition, the resort was to be designed to be at least an overnight visit or longer.

Ladd & Kelsey were selected as architects with Marvin Davis, who provided the initial layout for both Disneyland and later Walt Disney World, supervising the final overall design.

The designer for the ski facilities was Willie Schaeffler, who had worked on the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics. His proposed lifts would also operate in the summer to take guests to hiking trails, fishing lakes and other activities.

Automobile access, like at Zermatt, would be limited. Guests would park in an eight- to 10-story underground garage with room for 3,600 automobiles. Generally, guests would get to the resort by small Cog train, like at Zermatt. Guests would pay to use the train and, at one point, it was even discussed to build a monorail.

However, an all season 25 mile highway wide enough to handle a lot of traffic was also discussed. A section of that road would have gone through Sequoia National Park, as would have a proposed high-voltage power line needed to provide electricity for the resort.

Walt, who had always been a staunch conservationist and been recognized for his efforts by the American Forestry Association, the National Wildlife Federation and other similar organizations, wanted to keep the natural beauty of the area intact with as little intrusive infrastructure as possible.

Before Mineral King, Walt Disney Productions had garnered 37 awards for its work with nature conservation, and the Sierra Club had made Walt Disney an honorary life member in 1955.

The spring 1966 issue of Disney News, stated, "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."

A press conference was held at Mineral King on September 19, 1966 to announce the plans for the resort. In attendance was California Governor Edmund G. Brown, who strongly supported the project and said that state funding of a year round accessible roadway was in the works. Walt was in attendance, but appeared pale and often out of breath. It was claimed that he was just momentarily bothered by the high altitude. Two months later, he died.

The final Disney plan, approved by the Forest Service in January 1969 (and supported by Governor Ronald Reagan, a long time friend of Walt Disney), outlined a complex of hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, parking lots, and other structures designed to accommodate 14,000 visitors daily.

"I want to stress as strongly as possible that I am firmly in support of the development of Mineral King as a recreation area," said Reagan. "Southern California urgently needs additional year-round mountain recreation areas. Development of Mineral King will help serve that need."

The complex was to be constructed on 80 acres of the valley floor under a thirty year use permit from the Forest Service. Other facilities to be constructed including ski lifts, ski trails, a cog-assisted railway, and utility installations like water storage tanks and a sewage treatment facility that were under a revocable special-use permit.

Disney anticipated opening the resort around 1972. Later when the legal wrangling started, Disney adjusted the estimate to 1976.

In June 1969 the Sierra Club filed a Federal suit in the Northern District of California court to attempt to stop the project fearing that Disney would negatively impact the environment and that such a new expanded roadway through a National Park was illegal to build and not in keeping with the National Park policies.

In an April 1972, 4 to 3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the suit on the grounds that the Sierra Club had not established that it was suffering direct harm as a result of the actions.

In June 1972, the Sierra Club filed an amended suit including the results of several surveys about the environmental impact. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, founded in 1971 to fight the Mineral King resort in court, lives on today as Earthjustice.

Without Walt, public opposition to the development increased and legal battles escalated. Also rising were the costs for the resort itself, so Disney kept cutting back to just 10 ski lifts and fewer buildings at a total cost of only $15 million, but truthfully, the champion for the resort was Walt himself and without him or Roy around, the rest of the company felt it was not worth pursuing.

Finally, the Mineral King Valley was annexed into Sequoia National Park in November 1978 by an act of Congress and by then, Disney had officially abandoned the project.

For awhile, Disney spent a few years considering reviving the project on private land at Independence Lake, north of Lake Tahoe, and created a scale model that cost roughly a million dollars. Interestingly, the Sierra Club and the Disney organization agreed to cooperate on the environmental study for the project.

According to the Los Angeles Times on March 22, 1978, "Disney project manager Wing Chao accused the state [of California] of trying to sabotage the [Independence Lake] development. Far from expediting its process, state agencies sniped at the development, resulting in delays that cost the company a year of development time, Chao said, and Disney could tolerate it no further."

That ski resort project was also abandoned.