Local authors unveil story of Walt Disney's dream to build a ski resort and the monster environmental movement that followed

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Oct. 11—Walt Disney is a towering figure in American history, known for his contributions to the entertainment industry with his legendary animated films and the world-famous amusement park phenomenon that is Walt Disney World.

However, a Colorado couple has unearthed a lesser-known side to Disney that might surprise readers: The man whose company has grown to become one of the world's largest mass media and entertainment conglomerates was an environmentalist who liked to hit the slopes in his spare time.

In "Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was," Colorado-based writers, and husband-and-wife duo, Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer tell the story of how, before his death, Walt Disney attempted to build a ski resort in Mineral King, California, resulting in a years-long battle with environmentalists that ultimately never came to fruition. The story details a legal fight that was carried all the way to the Supreme Court, as well as the "death of Walt Disney and the birth of the modern environmental movement," according to Glasgow.

Both Glasgow and Mayer are writers by day who moonlight as Disney history buffs, and "Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was" marks both of their authorial debuts. Be sure to catch the authors at the Boulder Bookstore on at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19, where they will be singing copies of "Disneyland on the Mountain." (Glasgow was the features editor for the Daily Camera for a decade in the aughts.)

We caught up with Glasgow to learn more about Walt Disney's love for the outdoors, the hefty amount of research that goes into writing a historical novel and to get a peek into this hidden chapter of history.

Q: How did you first come across the story of the proposed ski resort at Mineral King, and what inspired you to write this book?

A: As Disney history buffs, we had heard bits and pieces of the Mineral King story over the years,

but we really got interested in 2018 when we went to The Walt Disney Family Museum in San

Francisco. Among the exhibits, there is a giant timeline of Walt's life and that timeline includes

a couple of small mentions of the Mineral King project.

Most interesting to us was that one of Walt's partners on the project was Willy Schaeffler, a Colorado skier who in the 1960s was head ski coach at the University of Denver. Given our DU ties, we got very interested in the story and started looking into it, as curious journalists do. When we realized it was a big story with two sides and a significant environmental battle (that lasted many, many years), we thought it would make a great book. We were surprised no one else had written it, so we thought we would give it a try.

Q: How does your book shed light on a lesser-known aspect of Walt Disney's interests and vision? Did you learn any surprising facts or insights about Disney as a person that readers might not be aware of?

A: The most interesting thing we learned about Walt was how genuine his love of nature and wildlife was. It started when he was a young boy and his family lived on a farm for a few years, and it continued through animated films like "Bambi" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

In 1948, he launched a series of wildlife documentaries called the True-Life Adventures that exposed a whole generation of kids to animals and locations around the world and, ironically, helped start the environmental movement that would later oppose him on his Mineral King project.

Just a few years before the ski resort drama began, Walt was awarded an honorary

lifetime membership from the Sierra Club — one of the largest environmental groups in the

world and the one that led the opposition against the Mineral King project — in gratitude for

the True-Life Adventures series, and he was lauded by other environmental groups as well.

Q: Just from reading Chapter 1, it's evident that research must have been a significant part of

writing this book. Can you discuss the sources and materials you relied on to piece together

this historical narrative?

A: We were lucky to track down so much great material, from Sierra Club meeting minutes and

oral histories to Disney documents and annual reports.

We combed through thousands of newspaper articles and archives. We also talked to several people on both sides of the battle, including Michael McCloskey, who was president of the Sierra Club throughout the Mineral King battle, and some Disney employees who were there at the time.

One of our best sources was Jean Koch, a Mineral King cabin owner who fought tirelessly against the Disney project. She collected a huge amount of newspaper articles, government documents, letters, and the like over the years, and she ended up donating it all to the University of Southern California. We traveled there for a few days to go through the archive, which was a fascinating experience.

Q: In your guys' opinion, do you think that Walt's vision for Mineral King, had it panned out,

would have struck a balance between conserving nature and allowing visitors to enjoy

nature? Or do you think it indeed would have been a commercial disaster that damaged

Sequoia National Park?

A: We think Walt's pledge to preserve the area's natural beauty — which he first made in 1965,

before most of the environmental opposition had begun — was genuine, and we believe he

would have worked to achieve that balance between conservation and allowing visitors to

enjoy nature. Walt wanted guests to be able to see this beautiful area, which was inaccessible

to a lot of people. When planning the resort, he came up with ideas on how to preserve the area's beauty, including not allowing cars in the area, camouflaging the ski lifts, and so on.

Q: In today's world, where environmental concerns are at the forefront, what lessons

or takeaways do you believe readers can derive from the story you've told in your book?

A: The biggest takeaway is how much the environmental movement has changed in the past 50 or 60 years, and how so many of the protections and environmental awareness we take for granted today have their roots in the Disney-Mineral King battle and other battles fought by the Sierra Club and others. We're excited for people to learn more about that while reading our book.

There's a lesson in the fact that the Sierra Club stood up against a powerful company like Disney to get this stopped, and there's a lesson in the fact that the Disney company kept striving to build the project to honor Walt, scaling back its capacity several times and adapting with the times to try to honor Walt's final dream.

Q: Do you have any plans to write another book together in the future?

A: Definitely. We have a good research process in place, as well as a good agent, so we'd be

foolish not to try. We are kicking around a few ideas right now, most of them in this same pop-culture history vein.