Monday, February 5, 2024

Between Books - Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort that Never Was

Book cover for Disneyland on the Mountain displaying Walt Disney and Califronia officials looking at plans for Mineral King outside in the natural setting

Mineral King is a project mentioned in every complete Walt Disney biography. It’s also one mentioned throughout books on the development of the Disney parks. But generally, these mentions are glancing, a paragraph or, a few pages. But now we have a complete look at the history of Disney’s failed outdoor recreation area. As one delves deeper, it becomes clear that this story is about more than Walt Disney and his hopes for the Mineral King Valley.

Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort that Never Was by Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer provides a detailed history of the Walt Disney Company’s hopes and failed vision for the Mineral King Valley. In 1966, Walt Disney, after extensive research, announced his intention to develop Mineral King as a skiing and outdoor recreation area. Disney, inspired by European ski villages hoped to bring visitors to the valley’s natural beauty through a ski resort that would bring visitors all year long. But others saw his vision as destroying the valley's splendor by bringing in a cheap Disneyland aesthetic to the Sierra Nevada mountains. The book chronicles the regulatory, legal, and public relations challenges that kept the Walt Disney Company from moving forward on its ambitious plans. Immediately creating obstacles was Walt Disney’s death soon after the announcement, and leadership changes within the corporate structure. Mineral King would be added to the Sequoia National Park in the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, ending any options for extensive land development and putting an end to a project that had fatigued many in the company. The book ends with a discussion of the legacy of the fight over Mineral King, both inside and outside of Disney's corporate history.

Disneyland on the Mountain feels complete and is super dense. This is a true serious well well-researched study of the park. The language used is formal and is more than a fan-written history. The 180 pages are misleading, as each page is packed with facts and reports of the action. Glasgow and Mayer also ensure that their writing goes beyond the perspectives of Walt Disney, Card Walker, and other Disney executives. Instead, they look at the issue from the perspective of Walt Disney employees, Sierra Club officials, Mineral King homeowners, a Supreme Court Justice, and many more. The story is made even more complex through all these perspectives making the tale one much more than a Disney story and infused with unexpected drama. For example, some parties in this tale, saw their opinions change as developments moved forward. The authors are fair to all involved voices, leaving room for readers to make their own conclusions about the benefits of the outcome.

This story does what I love about history, using one story to point out greater societal changes within history. Glasgow and Mayer use this incident to point out the growing voice of women in politics, as key members of the movement against Mineral King development were women who were freed by the standards of the day to not only add their voices but also use their voices in leading this movement. Also, it is a good case study, as the authors show, for the growth of the environmental movement. Mineral King serves as one incident in the growth of advocacy groups, lobbying, and legislation that increased environmental protections.

While this book’s beautiful cover features a picture of Walt Disney at Mineral King, due to his death his memory was more active than the man himself. Readers, much like the participants in the story, are often left asking what was Walt’s intent. So while Walt is not always present, you do ask yourself like those who lived the story, what would Walt do?

For Card Walker, leading Walt Disney Productions, he was left with a charge and moral obligation to honor Walt Disney’s hopes for Mineral King. As a reader, we find that Walker was very concerned with the impact of the struggle on the company’s public image which placed the company as the villain looking to destroy natural wonder. The incident strained the company's image with the state and federal government along with California citizens. And one wonders how the story will be reflected in more recent legal struggles with the state of Florida. I will say one lesson that I took from the story was that for the company this incident passed and is now very much today mostly locked away in the Disney Archives.  

Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort that Never Was by Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer expands the story that many Disney fans just see as a paragraph or rare failure in Disney history. However the book goes beyond just telling the story of Mineral King by presenting a case study that demonstrates changing societal norms in American society. 


Review Copy Provided by Rowan & Littlefield.

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