|The Ford Magic Skyway (1964) at the World’s Fair, an early version of the PeopleMover transportation system|
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 3 – St. Louis Goes to Walt
by Todd James Pierce
In 1964, the Disney Company explained Walt’s interest in St. Louis as a nostalgic longing for his childhood home. This story was then picked up by various papers and magazines: “Walt Disney has always had a soft spot in his heart for Missouri,” wrote one of them, “which is probably why St. Louis will be the site of the second Disneyland in America. Although born in Chicago in 1901, Walt was raised on a farm in Marceline, Mo., then educated in Kansas City, Mo.” But the actual story of how Walt settled on St. Louis as the likely site for the second Disneyland—or as the “Midwestern Disneyland,” as the studio often called it—is far more complicated.
For decades, the riverfront sections of St. Louis existed in shambles—low rent buildings, high-crime neighborhoods, a ghost of the grand city that once hosted the World’s Fair in 1904. With the economic boom of the 1950s, federal and local funds became available for St. Louis to acquire land for two massive projects in the Riverfront District: the Gateway Arch and the Busch Stadium. Along with these iconic structures, entire blocks of the Riverfront District were acquired by the city to be demolished, clearing away the remnants of the Nineteenth-Century and making way for a Twentieth Century metropolis: new buildings for shops and apartments, as well as high-rise structures designed for business. The Arch and the stadium were started with an eye toward completion in 1964, the city’s bicentennial, but the revitalization of the entire Riverfront district would continue until the end of the decade.
Among these other projects was an outdoor mall tentatively called Riverfront Square. The Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC) estimated that the St. Louis Arch would receive roughly three million tourists each year and the stadium would receive another two million. Riverfront Square—an easy walk from both the Arch and the stadium, would provide dining and shopping opportunities for tourists visiting St. Louis as well as local residents looking for a night on the town. In 1962, the CCRC announced plans to build its own outdoor mall—a complete city block, stretching 300 feet—filled with restaurants, shops, an arcade, and at least one theater.
The members of the CCRC felt that the Square should draw “its character and charm from the most romantic period of St. Louis—when it faced its river and was the Gateway between the old World and the New, our settled East and our new West.” In other words, Riverfront Square would be an outdoor park and shopping mall that would draw on Nineteenth Century architecture and pay tribute to the city’s history as a river port. The CCRC imagined a provincial French restaurant called The Lafayette; a repertory and cabaret theater called The Palace; a bar named the Last Chance Saloon that would be “decorated with historical items of fur trappers, explorers, Indian guides and ‘characters’ of the early days of St. Louis”; and a music and dance club called The Maple Leaf to showcase “Dixieland Jazz and Ragtime” bands. But the most interesting architectural feature of the Square would be The Gilded Cage cinema, a building shaped like an old Riverboat, complete with a rear paddle wheel, with the structure located entirely atop a manmade pond. During the day, inside The Gilded Cage visitors would find a movie theater that played “two reel comedies from the silent film ages”; at night, visitors would find live melodrama productions with beer served in the lobby. In essence, the earliest plans placed Riverfront Square as an outdoor mall with a light historical dressing.
But even in 1962, the CCRC was looking for ways to make these offerings more appealing.
After years of planning, on Feb. 12, 1963, the first triangular section of the massive arch was lowered into place, the start of the new city. At about the same time, the city’s mayor, Raymond Tucker and the CCRC brained-stormed a list of possible attractions and festivities to further expand the city’s bicentennial celebration and better develop the Riverfront District. On that list was at least one farfetched idea, that Walt Disney, one of Missouri’s most famous sons, might produce a short film about the history or culture of St. Louis to be shown in conjunction with the bicentennial celebration, in one of the theater spaces at Riverfront Square.
In either February or March, 1963, the Mayor and the CCRC approached Disney and proposed that the studio participate in the city’s bicentennial—most likely with a travelogue film. This initial exchange was so positive that on Thursday, March 28, a St. Louis delegation flew to California to meet with Walt in person. From newspaper reports, it is clear that Walt wasn’t yet considering St. Louis for a new Disneyland, but he might offer his expertise—and the talents of his WED staff—to develop the shopping-and-entertainment area into an attractive, successful venture. At that meeting, according to the Mayor, Walt was “personally interested” and “stimulated” by the city’s plans. Walt promised to make a decision within two weeks about the film project, with the understanding that if he were to contribute, his staff of WED designers would eventually “submit a proposal if he decides to work on the Riverfront Square project.”
In these early weeks, the Disney film project was presented as a “major entertainment attraction” to be installed in “a multi-purpose special theater featuring an unusual permanent daytime attraction [the Disney film] designed to capture the interest of tourists and visitors.” The theater itself was described in city documents as a “1,000 seat peripheral vision theater”—meaning, of course, a Circlevision theater or, perhaps, a slight adaptation of a Circlevision theater. At night, the theater might be converted into “a sophisticated theater-in-the-round or repertory theater” to attract local residents.
At this time, the CCRC also absorbed two more Disney elements into the plans for Riverfront Square:
First, the plans now included “an unusual ride”—one described in city documents as “a transportation system between the Square and the Jefferson Memorial.” Elsewhere the ride is described as a transportation system that “would have an economic potential as an amusement ride in addition to its primary transportation function.” To the best of my knowledge, no illustration exists of this “transportation system,” but in 1963—as Walt was having these discussions—he was testing an early version of the PeopleMover system that would be installed as part of the Ford Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. In all likelihood, the “transportation system” imagined here was a primitive model of what later evolved into the PeopleMover, a system that Walt would promote as ideal light transportation for dense urban environments.
Second, at the suggestion of Disney personnel, the CCRC explored the possibility of enclosing the entire Square, creating “a year-round attraction” in a “covered air-conditioned space rather than open-air activity.” Or to put this another way, under Walt’s influence, the CCRC explored the idea of protecting the Square inside of a massive open-air building, much like the dome Walt had once suggested for the park in Jersey Meadows.
Beyond these modifications to the site plan, Walt did one more thing for the CCRC. He introduced them to his friend and economist, Buzz Price. A decade earlier Price had developed the initial feasibility report for Disneyland, a report that was startlingly accurate in its predictions of attendance patterns, per-capita spending, and overall profit. After Disneyland, Price developed his own firm, Economics Research Associates (ERA) that primarily explored the economic potential within the outdoor amusements industry. Price was the natural pick to create a feasibility study for any new Disney amusement venture, but as Riverfront Square was arranged presently as a shopping and dining mall, Price didn’t prepare the report himself. He handed it off to one of his employees, Bill Stevenson, a man with far less experience in—what Price later called—roller coaster economics. With Stevenson as lead, the ERA team explored the financial prospects of a mall, built right by the Mississippi River, with a dozen restaurants and nearly as many shops. The mall would also have one Disney film attraction, perhaps a transportation ride as well.
Walt could not do much before Stevenson finished the ERA feasibility report—a process that could take months. He would need that report to convince his brother and the Disney Board of Directors that an attraction in St. Louis made sense and would prove profitable—especially as film production costs for a single Circlevision film could run as high as $2m or even $3m. As was often the case, Walt used financial reports to fund creative projects, while his brother used these same reports to minimize the company’s financial risk. But right now Walt had other things to do: he was working on human animatronic figures for the New York World’s Fair; he was developing a Pirates attraction for Disneyland; he was endlessly reviewing production dailies for film and TV projects. But with this, Walt was beginning his engagement toward a “Midwestern Disneyland.”
Click HERE for Part 4, which includes…the answer to that age old question: how do you adapt the Enchanted Tiki Room for a Midwestern park focused on history? Maybe with an Audubon Room, filled with realistic American birds, to honor the French-Missouri naturalist, John James Audubon. Post up your comments below. –TJP