St. Louis’s Cancelled Disney Park
In 1962, Walt Disney had plans to make a short film on St. Louis’s history and culture. This eventually culminated into plans for Disney’s second amusement park. But Disney’s Riverfront Square never materialized.
In 1962, Walt Disney had plans to make a short film on St. Louis’s history and culture. This eventually culminated into plans for Disney’s second amusement park. The indoor park would’ve been five Stories tall. (The blueprints were recently auctioned off).
But Disney’s Riverfront Square never materialized.
It’s been said that August Busch of St. Louis’s Anheuser Busch stood up at a party, which Walt Disney attended. He yelled that anyone who thought he could run a park in St. Louis without booze “should have his head examined.” But Walt and Busch came to a compromise, allowing alcohol in an observation deck lounge, cut off from the rest of the park.
Contrary to popular belief, the plans weren’t canceled over Busch’s outburst regarding booze. (Disneyland had a strict “family-friendly atmosphere” which prohibited alcohol.) The booze issue was eventually solved.
The “Second Disneyland” failed for other, more practical reasons.
Walt Disney was a nostalgic man. He 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.”
Disney indeed was nostalgic about Missouri, especially regarding life on the river. He added a steamboat to the Disneyland park. In 1928, Disney created an animated film called “Steamboat Willie.” (It was the first film to include Mickey Mouse and synchronized sound.) 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.
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 shocked that the steamboats, lining the mighty Mississippi were gone, along with the beautiful buildings that lined the riverfront.
In a little over 30 years, Walt Disney would be back.
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. Crime was rampant. The riverfront area that was a jewel of the Mississippi was gone. The reputation of a city that once held the famous 1904 World’s Fair took a nosedive. City officials knew something had to be done.
Luckily, the strong economy of the 1950s brought an influx of money to the city. Two massive projects were planned and being built, the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium II. (Both attractions would bring in millions of visitors a year). Meanwhile, blocks of downtown St. Louis were being demolished. Demolitions included the proposed site of Riverfront Square. An old Vaudeville theater called the Grand Theater, which was transformed into a strip club, occupied the site.
With the construction of the Gateway Arch, millions of visitors were expected to visit the arch each year when it was finished. Plans for Busch Stadium II, which was also expected to bring in hordes of people, were being finalized. 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 an old, St. Louis-themed, outdoor mall. The mall was planned to be built two blocks north of the site of Busch Stadium II. It was designed to be filled 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.
Eventually, Disney became enamored with the project. 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’s unpredictable weather, Disney suggested the mall should be enclosed, so it could be open year-round. Disney later said, talking about the enclosure “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 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 in opening up a Disney Park in St. Louis. He was also inspired by the hope of getting visitors from the eastern states. Disney figured that east coasters saw Disneyland as being 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 park was 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 were mostly set up to imitate evening or night time. The New Orleans section had a realistic French Quarter. A ride called the Blue Bayou Adventure, had guests riding in flat-bottom swamp boats. The boats were guided through the wetlands dodging 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 Merrimac Cave ride was also proposed, and a “Haunted House,” with “ghosts” inspired by Missouri ghost tales along with special effects tricks.
Early ideas 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.
Disney also had plans to implement the new technology of animatronics to create lifelike figures that could move and talk.
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 America’s brewery. Beer brands like Falstaff and Budweiser were brewed in St. Louis. Many of St. Louis 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.
St. Louis residents including historians were also scared that Disney was replacing old St. Louis with a revisionist version of St. Louis history. They saw the plans as a caricature of St. Louis history. Disney worked hard to alleviate their fears. Disney’s team researched St. Louis and Missouri history to make the park even more realistic. 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, Will Rogers, John Phillips Sousa opening the 1904 World’s Fair with music, Charles Lindbergh with the Spirit of St. Louis plane, and local sport’s heroes.
On March 16th, 1964, Walt Disney and designers presented the plans and findings to the CCRC. The presentation impressed the CCRC. The vice president of the organization, Preston Estep said the CCRC 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 impressed.
By the spring of 1964, Walt Disney and his team felt that they were in agreement with CCRC on building the new Riverfront Square. The Disney team thought the people of St. Louis overwhelmingly approved of the project too. The team also assumed the city would be making 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. The New York Times published that
“the new Disneyland, which is scheduled to be built in St. Louis, will bear little similarity to its predecessor.”
Magazines like Parade Magazine said that a second Disneyland in St. Louis would likely open in 1967.
Disney also started giving back to the city, 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” Disney also 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 the view was another factor. The perceived profit margin from the park was modest. It hovered 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 when Walt Disney brought up 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 that. The negotiations were over.
Speculation surrounds the fateful meeting. But in July 1965, it was clear. The deal was over.
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 next to his side, 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, over 20,000-acre park located in Orlando, Florida. This park would cement Disney’s legacy as a visionary. By the middle of December, Walt Disney was dead from lung cancer complications.
Riverfront Squares’s legacy
Riverfront Square’s legacy lives on. Rides including the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion were adapted from the plans for Riverfront Square. There was even a steamboat. The Riverfront Square’s enclosed space design influenced the dome at EPCOT. The animatronic technologies envisioned for Riverfront Square have been implemented in every Disney park across the world.
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
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