Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
An indoor, vertical Disneyland nearly went up in Missouri.
St. Louis, the most magical place on Earth. It may not have quite the same ring to it, but the Missouri city almost was the second site for Walt Disney’s line of theme parks.
As soon as Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, various cities began to virtually harass Disney for the privilege of hosting his next project. In Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography of the entertainment tycoon, the journalist ticks through the options: Secaucus, New Jersey, ran a feasibility study in 1958; Brasilia promised Disney a trip if he was interested (he wasn’t); Niagara Falls was—shockingly—deemed too cold to support a year-round operation.
But St. Louis! St. Louis got as far as a full set of detailed blueprint plans, published in 1963 and sold at auction for $27,000* today as part of a larger Animation & Disneyana sale.
“Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square” was envisioned as an addition to St. Louis’s downtown area. The project solved St. Louis’s pesky winter problem by placing the entire venue indoors, in a climate-controlled, five-story building. A number of classic Disney attractions, like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, were originally designed for this St. Louis project. Other planned attractions included a Lewis and Clark ride, an opera house, a “wishing well,” and two 360-degree “Circarama” theaters.
What went wrong? Gabler, the biographer, offers a few theories. That most fun one blames a spat with Anheuser-Busch St. Louis brewery head August Busch, Jr. That theory suggests that the project lost steam after the titans of industry clashed over whether to serve beer in the park. (Disney was opposed.) Others argue the finances simply didn’t work out, and that city officials couldn’t stomach the buy-in Disney demanded for his part in rejuvenating St. Louis’s waterfront district.
The truth may be that Disney had already fallen in love with a spot near Orlando. A keen student of community planning, the head of the Walt Disney company saw great potential in the Florida city. In an essay on Walt Disney World and tourism, the historian Richard Foglesong describes Disney’s immediate attraction to Orlando’s growing highway system. There was Interstate 4, under construction at the time, which cut across the state and would connect the park to I-95 and the entire East Coast. Then there was the Florida Turnpike, the road to Miami. “Later, when asked what attracted him to Orlando, [Disney] would say: ‘The way the roads crossed,’” Foglesong writes.
Orlando also had the advantage of room—acres and acres of otherwise overlooked, alligator-infested swampland. St. Louis never stood a chance.
*UPDATE: This post has been updated with the plans’ final price at auction.