The magic that wasn’t

Local authors delve into Walt Disney’s ill-fated ’60s quest to build a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Sierra Nevada mountains

Marrying into a family of fervent Disney fans might typically mean you end up riding Space Mountain more than you ever thought you would. But for local author Greg Glasgow, it meant co-authoring a nonfiction book about Walt Disney’s failed attempt to build a ski resort in California in the 1960s. In Disneyland on the Mountain, Glasgow and his wife, Kathryn Mayer, a lifelong fan of the magic kingdom, tell the story of Disney’s failed Mineral King resort and the fight won by Sierra Club environmentalists to stop it from being built.

The area in question, Mineral King, is a valley at the southern edge of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The valley’s steep mountainsides and relatively close proximity to coastal population centers attracted Disney to propose building a resort with parking lots, hotels and chair lifts for millions of visitors.

The book explains how the Sierra Club initially endorsed building the Mineral King resort in the 1940s because the group wanted to protect another area in California, the San Gorgonio Wilderness, from being developed into a ski resort and approved Mineral King as an alternative. A few years later, the Sierra Club even awarded Disney with a lifetime membership.

The way Glasgow and Mayer tell it, about two decades later, a new environmental movement had dawned, with more attention paid to issues such as pollution and overdevelopment.

To be fair to Disney, Glasgow also points out the idea for this project originated from the National Forest Service.

“It’s important to note that it wasn’t just Walt and the Disney company happening upon a beautiful area in the mountains and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to build a ski resort here,’” Glasgow says. The Forest Service had land it thought would be good for a resort and reached out to people for proposals, Disney included.

Disney was just coming off the success of his Disneyland theme park. This would have been his second project, but he died a year into the planning.

“So there’s the tragedy of this great, unfulfilled dream that he had,” Glasgow says. “And these two forces working against each other, both really for what they thought was good and right.”

In fact, the Sierra Club’s Legal Defense Fund, which morphed into a separate entity called Earthjustice, was born out of the Mineral King dispute.

The legal battle went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972, where the Sierra Club’s Legal Defense Club filed a precedent-setting suit that confirmed the public’s right to protect the environment in court.

“It ushered in the modern era of environmental law and preserved Mineral King’s majesty for future
generations,” according to the Earthjustice website. “Since setting a foundation for environmental law at Mineral King, Earthjustice has filed thousands of lawsuits on behalf of the environment and all the life that depends on it.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to build a ski resort the size Disney proposed today — on one of Colorado’s Summit County behemoths, for example.

“Not a lot of American ski resorts have been built since the ’60s,” Glasgow says. “Because it’s so difficult now.”

And Mineral King will almost certainly never be developed. In 1978, a law was passed making the valley part of Sequoia National Park.

‘A big, rabid fan base’

The couple discovered the seed for Disneyland on the Mountain when they were visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco in 2018.

The museum displays a timeline of Disney’s life, briefly mentioning Mineral King and Disney’s partner on the project, Willy Schaeffler, the late ski coach at the University of Denver (DU).

Glasgow and Mayer had both been working at DU when they met. There were too many connections to their personal lives and interests to forget the idea.

“The more we looked into it, we realized how many pieces there were to it,” Glasgow says. “The two sides between Disney and the environmentalists. It went to the Supreme Court. It slowly dawned on us that this would actually make a really good book.”

Not only that, but it had a built-in audience. Other than the diehard Disney fans who mentioned the story on their blogs, Glasgow and Mayer couldn’t find much else written about the resort.

“We’re writing a book for Disney fans, which we know from being in that community ourselves,” says Glasgow, who has discussed the book with Mayer on a number of Disney-themed podcasts. “We know there’s a big, rabid fan base for that stuff.”

That’s not to say they necessarily took Disney’s side in the telling. Glasgow is a Boulder native with a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Colorado, and he spent 10 years on the arts and entertainment beat at the Daily Camera. Mayer is also a journalist by training.

“We really tried to emphasize both sides and tell the story objectively,” Glasgow says.

Despite spending untold hours writing a book about Disney, the couple’s fandom hasn’t ebbed. When Boulder Weekly interviewed Glasgow, he was leaving for Disney World in a few days. Glasgow says he and Mayer visit the parks at least a couple of times a year, have taken several cruises and watch the movies pretty regularly.

The Disney community has been very receptive to the book so far, Glasgow adds: “People have said thank you so much for shedding more light on this topic.” 

ON THE PAGE: Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was by Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer is out now in hardcover and paperback via Rowman & Littlefield.


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