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‘Disneyland on the Mountain’: A Tale of Imagination and Activism

Disney on the Mountain is an epic tale of big personalities, political clashes, tragedy, protests, and legal battles that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was
Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer
Rowman & Littlefield
September 2023

The history of Disney has already been the subject of numerous books, from both inside and outside the company, chronicling the company’s growth from a small animation studio founded in 1932 into the corporate behemoth of today. But one part of the Disney story has largely been overlooked, especially in the company’s tightly controlled historical narrative: how it battled for over a decade to build a ski resort in a California valley. Now, that story is told by journalists Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer in their book Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was.

The site that Disney had its eyes on for its resort was Mineral King, a former mining town in a valley near Sequoia National Park. Because of the industrial activity in the area, it had been excluded from the park when it was created in the late 1800s. However, by the middle of the 20th century, the mining had ended, and other than cabins mostly inhabited by summer residents, the valley was largely undeveloped. The only access to the region was via a narrow two-lane road that wound through the surrounding mountains.

Glasgow and Mayer outline several factors that emerged in the early 1960s to spark Walt Disney’s interest in creating a winter-themed resort. Walt was an enthusiastic skier, and as the chair of the “pageantry committee” at the 1960 Winter Olympics – held in California’s Squaw Valley (now called Yokuts Valley) – he saw the potential for combining family-focused activities and entertainment with winter sports. As a nature lover, he regretted that Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida had destroyed significant amounts of natural habitats. Walt’s vision for Mineral King was a family-friendly resort that would showcase the valley’s scenery while offering outstanding sports facilities and activities year-round.

Realizing that vision, however, led to confronting practical realities. It was difficult to accomplish what Walt envisioned without compromising the area’s spectacular natural beauty, which was one of the key selling points of the project. The initial prospectus that the US Forest Service issued in 1965 for Mineral King’s development called for “ski lifts with minimum capacity of 2,000 people per hour; parking for 1,200 cars; a resort with overnight accommodations for at least 100 people; and a plan for improving or rebuilding the access road to all-weather standards”. All of these requirements presented significant financial, logistical, and legal challenges, and Disney was one of the few companies with the resources and experience to overcome them.

Hikers and backcountry explorers who valued the region’s pristine wilderness opposed the idea of a resort at Mineral King. They were even more opposed to the idea of a resort offering some kind of winter equivalent to the cartoony good times of the Disneyland / Disney World experience. The nearly 70 families who owned the cabins in the valley had no desire whatsoever to see their rural tranquility destroyed. That brought the Sierra Club, with decades of experience in advocating for the environment, into joining the opposition to Disney’s plans.  

Describing what happened during the subsequent decade of conflict would derail one of Disneyland on the Mountain’s great strengths: the engrossing narrative. The book’s subtitle is a bit of a spoiler, so it’s not giving anything away to say that the resort was never built. But how that happened is an epic tale: one full of unexpected swerves, big personalities, personal and political clashes, tragedy, protests outside the gates of The Happiest Place On Earth, and legal battles that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Disneyland on the Mountain is also an affirming tale of citizen activism, with environmental organizations, nature lovers, and feminists joining forces to defeat a wealthy company with governmental and business connections that it wasn’t afraid to use to get its way. The struggle also resulted in laws and legal precedents that, to this day, protect nature and the environment.

Some readers might be concerned about the length of Disneyland on the Mountain. At just over 200 pages, it’s comparatively short for a work of historical non-fiction. Glasgow and Mayer have undertaken extensive research, including interviews with some of the still-living participants in the events around Mineral King, and their narrative is thoroughly fleshed out and thoughtfully written.

Sadly, the current reality of the media industry is that newspapers and magazines have largely moved away from running long serialized features; in the past, that might have been the place for this type of journalism. So, a book, even a relatively short one, is the most feasible format to tell the story of Mineral King. Disneyland on the Mountain makes an important contribution not only to Disney’s history but also to the history of activism and resistance in the US by providing a definitive account of these largely forgotten events.

RATING 8 / 10