Disney’s failed attempt to build a massive ski resort in the California wilderness

It’s never quite made sense that the Country Bear Jamboree debuted in Disney World, located in muggy Florida, a state not particularly known for furry brown bears. But the ensemble of musical bears wasn’t meant for Disney World at all. They were destined, once upon a time, for a stunning alpine-style resort tucked deep in California’s Sequoia National Park.

For almost two decades, Disney’s Mineral King Ski Resort was the company’s white whale, the project that Walt loved but environmentalists hated.

The saga began in 1960 when Walt Disney was appointed head of the “pageantry committee” for the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. He loved it. He loved the snow; he loved the resorts; he loved the idea of healthy, family-friendly outdoor exercise. Disney, he decided, should have its own ski resort.

So the company began searching for suitable locations. By the mid-1960s, they’d landed on Mineral King, a little-known jewel four hours north of Los Angeles. The area had never been seriously developed because of its inaccessibility. Miles of the “road” into Mineral King Valley were completely unpaved. As a result, in winter, its most alluring and potentially lucrative season, the region was off-limits entirely.

Famed skier Willy Schaeffler was brought in by Disney to assess the project’s viability. Mineral King had the potential to be “unsurpassed when it comes to magnitude, terrain and dependable snow,” he told the company. They estimated the slopes could accommodate up to 20,000 skiers of all skill levels. It had the potential to be America’s greatest ski resort and a training ground for its Olympians.

In 1965, Disney was awarded a three-year permit by the U.S. Forest Service to explore its Mineral King idea further. It was assumed during that period they would fully develop their plan and, by the end of the permit, be automatically approved for a 30-year lease.

The plans, at least on paper, were stunning. Disney officials promised locals Mineral King would never be “another Disneyland.” There wouldn’t be theme park rides or magic castles. Instead, it would be a ski haven built into the mountains. There would be 10 restaurants, 14 ski lifts, two hotels, a heliport, a conference center and even a chapel. To keep the area pristine — and because Walt hated traffic — vehicles were prohibited in the valley. Guests would park at a massive lot some miles away and be ferried into Mineral King via one of Disney’s famed transit vehicles, like a monorail or gondola.

“The company’s entire approach has been based on the absolute necessity to preserve the site’s natural beauty and alpine character,” Disney wrote in its Spring 1966 “Disney News” magazine. “… 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.”

Most importantly for the Forest Service, Disney committed to help build the road into Mineral King, a huge public works project that would transform that part of the forest.

The plans thrilled locals who relished the revenue potential of a Disney property in their midst. But the summer of 1966 was the last moment Mineral King would ever feel like a true, solid reality.

That December, Walt Disney died. His sudden death sent ripples through the corporation, the embodiment of Walt’s whims and inspirations, and worried stakeholders in his many pending projects. The Disney company quickly assured locals that the Mineral King development was unchanged.

“We’re sorry only that Tulare County didn’t have the chance to know Walt Disney better personally,” the Tulare Advance-Register wrote the day after his death. “His handiwork will play a great part in the shaping of our future.”

A look down into the Mineral King Valley, once eyed by Disney as a home for its massive ski resort.

A look down into the Mineral King Valley, once eyed by Disney as a home for its massive ski resort.

HikingMike via Wikimedia Commons

It was a poor prediction. The Sierra Club filed the first of several lawsuits against the project in 1969, the same year Disney’s permit was extended. The suit alleged any development in the valley would disturb the “unspoiled” ecosystem. The Advance-Register wrote a blistering editorial in response, pointing out that Mineral King was currently being used as a literal dump.

“It’s difficult to understand just what they mean by ‘unspoiled’ when an unsightly garbage dump and polluted water already are part and parcel of the way of life in Mineral King,” the editorial read. “Only the Sierra Club has raised a discordant note of opposition,” it went on.

As the suit worked its way through the courts, Disney had other problems. Across the country, Disney World had just opened. The total construction costs came in at $400 million, astronomically more than had been budgeted for. As a result, in 1972, Mineral King was scaled back. Its $30 million budget became $15 million, meaning fewer ski lifts, amenities and, most importantly, canceling the road altogether. Instead, Mineral King would be serviced by a 15-mile cog railway funded by a bond passed by Tulare County.

When then-Gov. Ronald Reagan officially signed legislation that removed the would-be Mineral King road from the highway budget, he reaffirmed the state’s commitment to the project. “I want to stress as strongly as possible that I am firmly in support of the development of Mineral King as a recreation area,” Reagan said.

“Alternate access methods will suffice and, in the end, better serve the needs of both conservation and recreation,” he added.

It was at this time, though, that Disney began to cool on the idea. Tied up in lawsuits and annoyed by the road issues, Disney’s Mineral King project lead Robert Hicks offhandedly told the Los Angeles Times, “Mineral King is not the only area in the world. We have had countless other offers.” Hicks estimated that even if the Sierra Club lawsuit went away tomorrow, it would take Disney 13 more years to build Mineral King.

“It’s been so long,” he said, “we’d have to start over.”

In 1977, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially came out against the project, citing environmental concerns, and the next year, Congress passed a bill that officially added Mineral King Valley to the national park system. Now under the jurisdiction of Sequoia National Park — and saddled with far more stringent environmental protections as a result — Mineral King Ski Resort was, in effect, dead.

Locals by then had already given up any hopes the project would materialize, and it barely made the news when Disney announced they were looking to purchase 10,000 acres near Independence Lake, north of Tahoe, for a would-be ski mecca. But that project, too, ending up dying on the vine.

All that now remains of Mineral King Ski Resort is the Country Bear Jamboree, an attraction planned for one of the resort’s restaurants. Still enamored with the project — one of the last Walt ever approved — the company gave it a new home in Disney World, where it still performs folksy ditties today.

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