How an Environmental Movement Foiled a Colorado Disney Ski Resort | Westword

Colorado Authors: How an Environmental Movement Foiled a Disney Ski Resort

Colorado writers Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer's new book uncovers how Walt Disney's ski resort dreams were denied — but had a direct impact on Vail.
While they're longtime Denver-area writers, this is Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer's first book.
While they're longtime Denver-area writers, this is Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer's first book. Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer
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It was meant to be a natural-world Disneyland at the top of a California mountain. Never a stranger to the early-twentieth-century ideal of Americans conquering — and enjoying — the wilderness, Walt Disney dreamed of a vacation destination stationed at Mineral King, a sub-alpine glacial valley in the southern Sierra Nevadas. It would be a place where families could gather for skiing and ice skating in the winter, fishing, camping and hiking in the summer. And because it was Disney, guests could be entertained year-round by a band of animatronic bears.

It would be his last big passion project — and the rare Disney plan that would never exist. Instead, in many ways it boosted the burgeoning environmental movement, both in California and nationwide. The project would languish in the courts for years, facing challenge after challenge from such groups as the Sierra Club. Those battles went both ways, but prolonged the process to such a degree that Disney gradually lost interest. Congress had the final word in 1978, when Mineral King became a part of Sequoia National Park.

Such is the saga told in the new book Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was, by Colorado writers Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer. They’re bringing their new work to the Boulder Book Store for a reading and signing on Thursday, October 19, at 6:30 p.m.; the $5 admission will go toward the cost of buying the book. They’ll also appear at the Sam Gary Branch of Denver Public Library at 3:30 p.m. on November 18, where books will also be available for purchase courtesy of the Bookies.

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Rowman & Littlefield
Glasgow and Mayer, a married couple living in Parker, are also local writers in their own rights. Glasgow is a Boulder native who’s a veteran of several Colorado news outlets, including the Denver Post, 5280 Magazine and the Boulder Daily Camera, where he spent a decade reporting on arts and entertainment. Mayer, whose family moved to metro Denver when she was young, has similar chops, writing for several print and glossy magazines, including the Aurora Sentinel and the Denver Business Journal.

“Like a lot of people, I grew up with Disney,” says Mayer. “My family would go to the Disney parks; it was sort of a thing.” As she grew up, those experiences led her to become interested in Disney history. “I’d done some freelance articles on Disney, and then in 2018, we were in San Francisco at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and it had this big timeline of Disney’s life. It had this one small mention of his time in the 1960s when he’d tried to build this ski resort," she recalls. "I remember I’d heard a rumor about it, but what perked our ears up was that it mentioned that Disney had partnered with Willy Schaeffler," a longtime head coach of the University of Denver ski team.

With both Mayer and Glasgow ensconced in Colorado journalism, the connection between that story and their home state was intriguing. It led to a deep dive into some little-known Disney history, with more than one Colorado connection.

“It was interesting to see how this coincided with, and in some ways incited, the changes in environmental policy since the 1960s,” adds Glasgow. “When this project started, it wasn’t the Wild West anymore, but there weren’t a lot of protections in place, really. In the years following Mineral King, we saw the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act passed. The first Earth Day was in 1970. There was another law passed in 1970 called the National Environmental Policy Act that requires big federal projects to do impact studies. There were a lot of things going on, a lot of things happening very quickly.”

Disneyland on the Mountain takes a narrative approach to the Mineral King saga, through the lenses of both Disney and environmental activism. But those Colorado connections don’t stop with the participation of Schaeffler in the early planning stages.

“The plan had a direct impact on Vail in the 1980s,” Glasgow says. “Mike Shannon, the CEO of Vail, knew the CEO of Disney at the time. Shannon asked to see the plans for Mineral King, and that inspired him to turn Vail into this family-friendly resort. All that is what led to Vail using Sport Goofy as the mascot in Vail for several years.”

Disney, it’s said, had also looked at spots in Colorado very early on before settling on Mineral King. And there was most likely some interplay with Celebrity Sports Center, the Denver entertainment landmark that was an investment between Disney and the titular celebrities (Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, George Burns and several others) that was an incredibly successful operation from its opening in 1960 through its eventual closure in 1994. “At one point, it was suggested that Celebrity Sports Center was where they could train employees for Mineral King,” says Glasgow.

The book might have begun as a footnote in a museum timeline, according to Mayer, but it grew into something much more through copious research. “The more we dug into it,” she says, “the more we found a story about both Disney and the environmental movement. It became sort of its own magic.”

Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was is available in bookstores now. Authors Glasgow and Mayer will read from and sign books at Boulder Bookstore, 1101 Pearl Street, Boulder, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, October 19, and the Sam Gary Branch of the Denver Public Library, 2961 Roslyn Street, 3:30 p.m. November 18.
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