Few people, except perhaps the most diehard Disney fans, know about Walt Disney’s attempt to develop a ski resort on a mountain near California’s Sequoia National Park in the 1960s. What began as a seemingly straightforward development project transformed into a decades-long battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Disney faced competition from other developers in securing the coveted land, and later fierce opposition from environmentalists once he finalized development rights. In Disneyland On The Mountain, Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer detail the dynamic personalities on both sides of the case and explore how the growing environmental and women’s rights movements intersected in this case. Through meticulous research and firsthand reporting, Glasgow and Maher give readers a glimpse into a tremendously compelling conflict that changed the way public land was viewed in the United States. Critics have lauded Disneyland on The Mountain – Publishers Weekly called it “a rewarding deep dive” and Douglas Brinkley hailed it as “environmental history at its very best.” Mayer and Glasgow spoke with Brendan Dowling about discovering the case, how it intersects with the origins of many social movements, and their collaborative writing process.
How did you first hear about Walt Disney’s interest in developing Mineral King into a resort?
Kathryn Mayer: I heard a little bit, a couple of mentions, very briefly over the years. I hadn’t really thought about it much until Greg and I had gone to San Francisco in 2018 and we visited the Walt Disney Family Museum. The museum mentioned the fact that Walt Disney had once tried to build a ski resort in California in the 1960s. It also mentioned that Walt had partnered with a man named Willie Schaeffler, who was a famous skier and spent many years in Colorado. We’re Coloradans so we were very interested in that fact. He was the head ski coach for many years at the University of Denver, and that’s my alma mater. It’s actually where Greg and I both worked and met. We were so fascinated by the fact that there was a connection to our history and to Colorado. As journalists, we tend to be a curious bunch of people. So we just obsessively started looking into this and finding little nuggets here and there, but realizing that there wasn’t much [published] about it, even though there was so much to the story. It wasn’t simply the fact that Walt Disney once tried to build a ski resort and it didn’t work out. It was a decades long battle. It really spurred, in some ways, this modern environmental movement. It was just super fascinating. We realized that no one had told the full story before and we were excited to try to accomplish that.
I think a lot of people might be surprised that Walt Disney had ever been interested in developing a ski resort. Can you talk about what drew him to creating something that seems, from the outside, so different from his theme parks?
Greg Glasgow: Yeah, that was interesting to us as well. Basically he was a skier and had skied since the 30s. He wasn’t great at it, as you would say, but he really enjoyed it. He and his wife took lessons in the Badger Pass area of California. He also had this big love of nature, of wildlife, that you could see in movies like Bambi. He already started this true-life adventure series of wildlife documentaries in the 40s that ran for about twelve years. What lit the spark was in 1960, he was asked to serve as Chairman of Pageantry at the Winter Olympics, which were in California that year for the first time. He really got involved in doing the opening and closing ceremonies. That’s kind of what he was tasked with doing, but he also got really involved in the entertainment for the athletes. The athletes were all together in these dormitories, which was a rarity for the Olympics at that time. Of course Walt, with all his Hollywood connections, was bringing up singers and actors. He brought up a Wild West show from Disneyland one night, plus that’s also where he met Willie Schaffler, like Catherine was saying. This was five years after Disneyland had opened, and all those things put together spurred him to start thinking about what if Disney had a ski resort as their next big experiential project? He wanted to bring this to life because of his love of skiing and also because of his love of nature and the outdoors.
What his vision for Mineral King? How was it going to be different from not only typical ski resorts but also from his theme parks?
KM: So the ski resorts of the day were tailored to very athletic types. It wasn’t family-friendly oriented. People at that time didn’t really go to a ski resort for days; it wasn’t exactly a vacation destination. So Walt was planning to really reimagine this. Of course, we talk about it being a ski resort, but it was actually going to be this year-round recreation destination where they could go ice skating, sledding, and skiing in the winter months, but they could also go hiking in the summer months. There was going to be a movie theater that obviously was going to play Disney movies. There was going to be a lot of restaurants and shopping. It was really going to be this fun place for both skiers and non-skiers.
That was another thing that he was going to plan which was different: he was attracting all sorts of people of all different athletic abilities. Of course, he was very focused on families as well. An interesting tidbit is he kept saying that it wasn’t going to be a Disneyland amusement-type destination. He did reiterate this fact, because he really wanted it to focus on the natural wonderland that surrounded this area, to have people be excited about that and appreciate it.
A fun fact for fans of the Disney parks, when they were starting to plan, Walt started to create an audio animatronic attraction which would feature bears that would be singing, dancing, and playing instruments for the guests. That ended up being the Country Bear Jamboree, which was featured at the Disney parks. Certainly with planning, I’m sure [the resort] would have become something so much bigger than we can even imagine.
It was fun to read about all the things that were designed for the Mineral King resort that fans of Disney Parks might recognize, like the Country Bear Jamboree. The People Mover was another thing that started there, right? That was their original plan to cut down on road traffic for the resort.
GG: Yeah, they had developed that partially for the World’s Fair in 1964, and they were sort of modifying that. It would basically take people from the parking structure, which was going to be partially underground, because they really wanted to camouflage as much of this stuff and keep the natural beauty as much as possible. But the People Mover then would move people onto different tracks. At one time, the plan was that they would shuttle the people that were just there for the day directly to the slopes. The people who were coming to stay for a few days would go on a different track up to the hotels and their skis and their suitcases would be waiting in their room.
A lot of areas in California and Colorado had been developed into ski resorts seemingly without any controversy. What made the development of Mineral King so contentious?
KM: A big part of the reason was where this area was. Mineral King is right on the edge of Sequoia National Park. If they were to develop it, a big contentious point was that they would have to construct this all-weather highway to get people to be able to visit this area. Essentially the road would have had to cut right through Sequoia National Park, which was a big point of contention.
More than that too, I think, was a perfect storm of events. Certainly the time that this is taking place plays into that. This was the 60s and then the 70s and we’re seeing a lot of movements. We’re seeing a lot of environmental activism and we’re seeing women’s rights activism and civil rights. At the time, a lot of people were starting to get nervous about areas being developed. They wanted to keep some areas essentially open and wild. The Sierra Club, who at the time and still to this day is one of the biggest environmental organizations, really opposed this [development], because this was a favorite area of the group as well. They didn’t want it to be marred by burly machinery and thousands of people and tons of traffic.
The development also attracted the attention of a lot of boots-on-the-grounds activists, like Jean Koch. Her work played a key role in the story and she really leaps off the page for the reader. Can you talk about her and her involvement?
KM: This activism was so important to her. We were so excited to see a female leader lead some of this cause. This was extremely important to her because she actually had a cabin at Mineral King. She was worried about what was going to happen to her home, essentially, because she wasn’t sure if her cabin was going to be torn down. That certainly would seem to have been the likely case for that.
She did such amazing grassroots activism. She funded a documentary actually about Mineral King which, believe it or not, is actually available on Amazon. It’s a thirty-minute film and is fantastic. She led a bunch of different protests, including one at Disneyland. She wrote thousands of letters. She actually donated all this information to USC. We visited her archives and read through her letters. It was unbelievable. She was just such a fabulous example of someone straddling both these lines of environmental activism and women’s rights activism. We talked to her several times, believe it or not. She sadly passed away just a couple of months ago at the age of 100, if you can believe it.
She was really amazing. She actually emailed us at length because she was hard of hearing, as you could imagine, so she [preferred] email. It was so funny. She would write, “Oh, this was so long ago. I don’t always remember” and then she would have the most unbelievable details. I don’t remember stuff like that! We couldn’t even believe it. She was amazing.
What do you see as like the long lasting impact of the court case? How does this affect us today?
GG: It’s interesting, because, you would think in this whole story that somehow the Sierra Club won, and that’s why there’s no Disney Resort at Mineral King. In fact, the Supreme Court actually ruled against the Sierra Club. They ruled in favor of the government and in favor of this development getting built, but it kept getting tied up in other legal limbo. This was right around the time that the National Environmental Policy Act had been passed, which required any public project like this had to have these environmental impact statements written. That was a lengthy, years-long process. But really, the lasting impact that came out of this, more than the decision, were the dissents. In particular William Douglas had a famous dissent that was connected with a legal paper by a law professor named Christopher Stone called “Should Trees Have Standing?” Basically it was this idea that you could sue to protect the environment purely based on the aesthetic value of the environment. Prior to that, you had to show how you would be affected by this. If a development like Mineral King was going to be built, in order to stop it, you would have to show how you were going to be financially affected or personally put out by this, which the Sierra Club deliberately didn’t do, and that was why they lost the case. But really, as this dissent started to take hold, the prevailing attitude became these places shouldn’t have to show how someone is affected in order to say don’t build a ski resort on this beautiful plot of land. That was really the lasting effect that we have today, that these areas have agency, in a sense, on their own.
After spending so much time with the story, where do you fall on the side of Mineral King? Do you think it should have been left alone or could it have been developed into a ski property?
KM: That’s something that we’ve asked ourselves so many times. For us to have researched both sides, to have talked to people on both sides of this argument, and to try to do it in such a thorough way, it’s kind of impossible for us to pick a side. I know that sounds like a cop out, but our goal was really switching points of view, and again, giving merit to both sides of the argument. Both sides really have merit, you know? It was super important on the environmental side, especially just what it meant during that time. On the other hand, Disney’s intentions, as far as we’re concerned, seemed very genuine. It wasn’t really this money-making venture as much as it was Walt really wanting to create something that he was passionate about, and that was nature and the great outdoors and wanting to share that love with people. So we’re certainly excited for people to read this and come away with an opinion, and we would certainly love to hear what people think and whose side they’re on?
I’m also curious about how you wrote this book together. Can you talk about what your writing process was like to write this book?
GG: In some ways we’ve looked back and wondered how did we even do this or who wrote this part? Who did this part? We worked on it together and one of us would take the lead on one chapter and write part of it. Then we’d sort of workshop it together. We’d read it out loud back and forth and try to polish it up. Both of us were doing research and so someone would find a cool fact that we could insert into one of the chapters. It definitely was very collaborative.
I love the idea of you looking back at your work and not being able to remember which one of you wrote it.
KM: We’ve honestly done that, which is crazy. It’s been really fun and interesting, obviously as a couple. I’m sure we wanted to kill each other at some point. We talked about this too, but for people who have writing partners, obviously they’re not usually living together and in the same space. They probably carve out certain hours of the day where they’re collaborating or whatever they do. But sometimes we would go on walks with our dog, or we’d be making dinner, and then that’s kind of when we started. Even in the moments that we weren’t, quote unquote, working on our book or writing, that’s when our best ideas came out.
And finally, what role has the library played in your life?
GG: I mean, honestly, just with this book, the library was so huge as far as getting access to articles and things like that online. More than that, just having like the interlibrary loan system here in Colorado, they call it Prospector. There are so many random books that we would read about. Just these little books that came out on an obscure press in 1976 or something, and we’d be able to find it through interlibrary loan. At one point, we had a whole shelf in our house just stacked up with books from the library, so it was super invaluable. More than that, as a kid, I would go to the library with my mom and bring home an armload of books. It just sort of instilled this lifelong love of reading and then later writing that I think definitely led to my career as a writer. We absolutely love the library.
KM: We really do. Like we’re not just saying this! On the weekend, sometimes like that’s like our fun outing. It’s like, “Let’s go to a different library around here and walk around and get our books!” We both read a ton too. Both of us have stacks of books from the library and certainly get e-books for reading on our iPads or from our latest library download.
GG: Our dream now is to walk into the library, you know, in a few weeks and see it on a shelf. That would be amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.