The story behind St. Louis’ canceled Disney Park is a long one. In 1962, Walt Disney had plans to make a short film on St. Louis’s history and culture. The film project inspired him to create plans for Disney’s second amusement park. The indoor park would’ve been five stories tall. (Check out the blueprints that were recently auctioned off).
But Disney’s Riverfront Square never materialized.
According to legend, during a party Walt Disney attended, August Busch of St. Louis’s Anheuser Busch stood up. He proclaimed that anyone who thought they could run a park in St. Louis without beer “should have his head examined.” But contrary to stories afterward, Busch’s outburst wasn’t responsible for ending the park’s plans. The men eventually solved the beer issue.
The “Second Disneyland” failed for other, more practical reasons.
Walt Disney’s nostalgia for his childhood
Walt Disney modeled Main Street USA in Disneyland after his hometown, Marceline, Missouri. Disney later told a St. Louis reporter
“Missouri and the history of Missouri are important to me. I was raised on a farm not far from Hannibal. There’s a lot of opportunity to do things exciting about the state, the Mississippi River, Mark Twain…things both entertaining and educational.”
After his service as an ambulance driver in WWI, Disney planned a trip with a friend, embarking from the source of the Mississippi River all the way to its mouth in Louisiana. The trip didn’t materialize, but it didn’t stop Walt from fantasizing about a Mississippi River adventure. Disney later added a steamboat to the Disneyland Park. In 1928, he created an animated film called “Steamboat Willie.” It was the first film to include Mickey Mouse and synchronized sound.
In 1931, Walt Disney almost had a mental breakdown while working in Chicago. He and his wife planned a vacation to Key West. Along the way, they stopped in St. Louis. They were disappointed that the steamboats, lining the once bustling riverfront were gone, and many of the buildings were abandoned.
In a little over 30 years, Walt Disney would be back, hoping to revive the Missouri of his youth.
A revitalized St. Louis
In the 1960s, St. Louis’s downtown was headed towards a renaissance. For decades, the riverfront area was in decline. The Great Depression ravaged the St. Louis area, closing many St. Louis businesses and factories. The brick buildings lining the riverfront were falling apart. Gone were the ornamental cast-iron building fronts and crime was rampant. The riverfront area that was once a jewel of the Mississippi had disappeared. The reputation of the city that once held the famous 1904 World’s Fair took a nosedive, and city officials knew something had to be done.
Eventually, the tides turned. The strong economy of the 1950s brought an influx of money to the city. The city planned two massive building projects, the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium II. Before they could be built, workers demolished blocks of historical, downtown St. Louis. Demolition areas included the proposed site of Riverfront Square. Before the demolition, a former Vaudeville theater called the Grand Theater, which was transformed into a strip club, occupied the Riverfront Square site.
The Disney project’s origins
With the construction of the Gateway Arch, millions of annual visitors were expected to visit the arch when it was finished. Plans for Busch Stadium II, which was also expected to bring in hordes of people, were being finalized. Meanwhile, the Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC) looked for ways to capitalize on the new landmark and the new home for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball and football teams.
In 1962, the CCRC created plans for a historical, St. Louis-themed, outdoor mall. They planned to build the mall two blocks north of the site of Busch Stadium II. The CCRC plans filled the mall with shops, restaurants, and a river-boat-shaped silent movie theater. The proposed name for the mall was Riverfront Square.
The CCRC also had a longshot idea. They would approach Walt Disney to make a movie for St. Louis’s bicentennial. They presented the idea for a short film on St. Louis’s history and culture to Disney. Walt was excited about the project, and he invited CCRC delegates to California to meet with him. Disney agreed to create the film about St. Louis. He also offered his expertise for the design and development of the Riverfront Square project.
Disney decides to build the St. Louis park
Eventually, the project enamored Walt Disney. The short film morphed into plans to build a Circle Vision, 1,000 person theater in the mall.
Disney was inspired by plans he created for a domed park in Jersey Meadows, New Jersey. With St. Louis’ unpredictable weather, Disney suggested the park should be enclosed, so it could be open year-round. Disney stated, “With it controlled in a shell, we will have control of light and can put on quite the show…we will have our own sky and complete control over the weather.”
In the late spring of 1963, Walt Disney decided to make the mall his own park. Multiple economic, feasibility studies, done under Disney’s direction, showed there was potential for opening up a Disney Park in St. Louis. Disney also hoped to attract visitors from the eastern states. Many east coasters saw Disneyland as unsophisticated and folksy. Research also showed that among Disneyland visitors, only two percent were from the eastern states. Disney figured if he brought a park closer to them, they would visit. (This was also the reason why Disney looked at a location in New Jersey and other states.)
The Disney team designed the park to be spread out across five stories in an enclosed building that took up 3 acres of land. Half of the park recreated Old St. Louis and the other half New Orleans. In the beginning, unlike Disneyland, cartoon figures weren’t planned for the park. Disney wanted the park to look and feel as realistic as possible.
The lighting and scenery would imitate evening or nighttime scenes. The New Orleans section had a realistic French Quarter. Meanwhile, a ride called the Blue Bayou Adventure, led guests riding in flat-bottom swamp boats across the Louisiana swamps. The boats dodged animals like alligators, cougars, and water snakes. A waterfall then swept the boats into a scene with pirates sacking the city.
A proposed Lewis and Clark ride had visitors riding on a boat across the Missouri River, viewing all the wildlife and other sights. The St. Louis section had a massive theater showcasing a film about St. Louis with modern, birdseye views of the city. A Meremac Cave ride was also proposed, and a “Haunted House,” with ghosts inspired by Missouri ghost tales along with special effects trickery.
Early ideas also included an Audubon room and an actual Steamboat on the Mississippi River. The Audubon Room was inspired by Missouri native, John James Audubon. Audubon was a naturalist, known for his studies and illustrations of birds. The room would’ve been filled with modern lifelike, artificial birds utilizing Disney’s new animatronic technology. Animatronics could replicate the movements and speech of lifelike figures.
During a press conference, Walt Disney said the park would “make parts of Disneyland obsolete.”
Complaints from St. Louis residents
St. Louis was known as a drinking town. It was one of America’s brewing capitals. Beer brands like Falstaff and Budweiser were brewed in St. Louis and many of the city’s residents were German Americans that loved beer.
When Disney had plans to make the park alcohol-free, St. Louis residents weren’t happy. The residents of St. Louis were so unhappy that Walt Disney had to initiate a press conference, reiterating that the Disney brand was meant to be wholesome and family-oriented. This made them angrier.
August Busch, was also upset. He was contributing a large portion of his money towards the revitalization of St. Louis, he at least wanted his beer sold in the park. Eventually, Disney compromised and proposed a lounge on the observatory floor that served alcohol.
Meanwhile, St. Louis historians were scared that Disney was replacing the vestiges of old St. Louis with a revisionist history. Disney worked hard to alleviate their fears, and his team researched St. Louis and Missouri history to implement into the park’s plans.
According to Disney History Institute historian, Todd James Pierce, a list was drawn up of people and events to include in the park. The list included Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. It included Will Rogers, John Phillips Sousa opening the 1904 World’s Fair with music. Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis plane were to be included. So were local sports heroes.
On March 16th, 1964, Walt Disney and designers presented the plans and findings to an impressed CCRC. The vice president of the CCRC, Preston Estep said the organization was hopeful that the plans would come to fruition. He said the financial obstacles could be solved. The president of the organization, James P. Hickok, went further. He said the project was
“one of the most exciting developments that has ever challenged the imagination of the community.”
Disney told audience members the park would have as much of an impact on St. Louis as Disneyland with Los Angeles. Local investors were also impressed.
By the spring of 1964, Walt Disney and his team felt that they reached an agreement with CCRC on building the new Riverfront Square. The Disney team was convinced the people of St. Louis overwhelmingly approved of the project too. Because of this, the team assumed the city would be willing to make a substantial investment in the construction of the project. Disney’s team was confident enough that their PR team leaked info to the New York Times. Magazines like Parade Magazine reported that Disneyland in St. Louis would likely open in 1967.
Disney continued trying to gain St. Louis’ goodwill, allowing the use of Disney characters in the upcoming Veiled Prophet Parade.
What was the main reason why Disney’s plans failed? Money.
On July 6th, 1965 invited the vice president of the CCRC, Preston Estep, to California to talk about the project’s finances. Estep left empty-handed. That day he told a LA Times reporter the Riverfront Square project was dead.
St. Louis Magazine said Disney “wanted the city to cough up $9 million for the building.” He wanted the city to pay not just for the shell of the building, but for some of the interior development.
The little economic gain from Disney’s point of view was another factor. The perceived profit margin from the park was modest, hovering around 5%.
There was also another factor. According to the book Walt Disney’s America, Ray Wittcoff of Downtown St. Louis Inc., said that negotiations broke down after Walt Disney brought up that he had been offered thousands of acres of land in Florida for a cheap price. Walt indicated to the CCRC that the CCRC should match the Florida prices for land. The CCRC couldn’t afford it and the negotiations were over.
Speculation still surrounds the fateful meeting. But in July 1965, it was clear. The deal was over.
The final meeting
At the final Riverfront Square meeting. They most likely discussed how to dismantle the project while keeping the reputations of Disney and the CCRC intact. Later that day Walt Disney, with his brother Roy, issued a personal statement:
“We were asked to try to develop a major attraction having the impact on the St. Louis area of a Disneyland. We suggested at the outset that a project of that scope, in size and cost, might well prove difficult to accomplish, due to a number of imponderable factors. Such has proved to be the case.”
James Hickok, president of the CCRC, said:
“We are in agreement with Mr. Disney’s findings and conclusions on the termination of these plans. With thanks to Mr. Disney, and sincere regrets that a Disneyland sort of center could not be worked out, we are now exploring other ideas on our own.”
Roughly, four months later the Gateway Arch, which has become the symbol of St. Louis, was completed. Around the same time, Walt Disney announced plans for a sprawling, 20,000-acre park located in Orlando, Florida. This park would cement Disney’s legacy as a visionary. However, he would never see arguably his greatest creation. By the middle of December, lung cancer complications took Walt Disney’s life.
Riverfront Squares’ legacy
Riverfront Square’s legacy lives on. Disney engineers adapted plans from Riverfront Square into rides including the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. There was even a steamboat that influenced steamboat attractions in other parks. The animatronic technologies envisioned for Riverfront Square have been implemented in every Disney park across the world. Meanwhile, Riverfront Square’s enclosed space design influenced the dome at EPCOT.
The CCRC shelved the idea for the Riverfront Square completely. But the project leaves behind one important question. What would St. Louis be like if Disney’s Riverfront Square opened?
Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius By Brian Burnes, Dan Viets, Robert W. Butler · 2002 https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/JEjSDvkp7OUC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA150
Todd James Pierce’s Walt Disney and Riverfront Square http://www.disneyhistoryinstitute.com/2013/03/walt-disney-and-riverfront-square-part-1.html