|Enchanted Tiki Room – Disneyland – 1960s|
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 4 – Walt Goes to St. Louis
by Todd James Pierce
It is unclear when the idea first entered Walt’s head—that St. Louis might be an ideal place to build a new amusement park. The idea is clearly not with Walt as he met the Mayor of St. Louis in March, nor when he directed his economics firm—ERA—to create a feasibility study on Riverfront Square as a community mall that would also include one film-based Disney attraction. But the idea seems to be percolating—if only in small ways—by late spring, 1963.
On May 20, Walt and his wife, Lillian travelled to St. Louis to meet with the Mayor and the members of the CCRC. For two hours they toured the Riverfront District, venturing down to the water where the twin arms of the Arch lifted toward a paper-white sky, the two metal limbs not yet connected. Members of the CCRC took Walt to the top of neighboring buildings, so Walt could visualize the placement of the Square in relationship to the rest of the city. They toured areas around the stadium, including the block identified as Riverfront Square. Decades ago this same block had been home to the Grand Theater, host of vaudeville spectaculars, but more recently, the venue had declined into a strip club. Now the city was preparing to tear down everything, shaving away history to reveal clean dirt. For the press, Walt admired the mayor’s efforts to revitalize the city. He was particularly impressed with the scope of the overall project—block after block pulled down, ready for modern buildings. “It’s great to see a city that has recognized its needs and is doing something about it,” Walt said. “Lots of cities talk but fail to act.”
The mayor and other city leaders noted that Walt was enthusiastic and believed him “personally sold on the project.” But when a reporter asked if the Disney Company was ready to make a firm commitment to St. Louis, Walt explained that he would not know until the feasibility study had been completed. “A number of questions still have to be answered,” he added. “We want to find out how many people will come here, where they’ll be going and what we would do with Riverfront Square in the winter.”
To another reporter, Walt further explored the problem of wintertime attendance, explaining that during summer Riverfront Square might be a national tourist attraction, but in the colder months “it could present a different, but equally attractive face to local residents.”
Walt closed the interview by explaining that the arch would be the major tourist attraction, but that Riverfront Square would draw tourists downtown to explore other St. Louis offerings. “Without it,” Walt added, “the tourist might move on.”
At the end of the tour, Walt visited the city’s Municipal Opera, where he noticed the stage included a circular rotating platform, which allowed the opera to keep multiple sets on the stage and turn them, one at a time, out to face the audience. It was an unusual element for Walt to notice, but also a detail that revealed how his mind worked, taking in ideas and developing them for his projects. Before leaving, he told John Kennedy, the productions director, “The revolving stage is terrific.”
That night, Walt flew with his family to New York, leaving St. Louis behind. But it seems fairly clear that by this visit—based on his interest in the overall placement and development of Riverfront Square—Walt had larger plans for Riverfront Square beyond the single film and tentative transportation ride, even though he had not publicly announced them. Had he talked to the members of the CCRC about overseeing the development of Riverfront Square as a new Disney park? Perhaps. Had he discussed tentative financial arrangements with the Mayor? Possibly. Regardless, during that spring, the size of Riverfront Square kept growing. Originally slotted as a full city block (300 feet in length), plans now called for a super-block (600-feet in length). Originally filled with single-story, freestanding shops and restaurants, Riverfront Square would now likely be a massive enclosed structure—two city blocks, all indoors. Then there was the issue with height. The building needed to fit the design and height patterns of the surrounding blocks, but during this same time, the project grew from a series of one-story buildings to a single building that would have four or possibly five floors.
In 1963, a great deal of Walt’s efforts were directed at the New York World’s Fair—an event for which Walt would deliver four large attractions: Carousel of Progress for General Electric, the Magic Skyway for Ford, It’s a Small World for Pepsi, and the realistic animatronic of Lincoln for the State of Illinois. Many of these projects were behind schedule—with one (Lincoln) encountering severe technical difficulties. Even with these demands on his time, by summer, Walt left behind the idea that he would be a mere consultant on the entertainment square in St. Louis—rather, he might develop it himself as a Disney entertainment complex. With this, Joe Fowler recalls, “Walt gave the green light for some preliminary theme park work to start in St. Louis.”
Unlike any other Disney project to date, Walt and his designers did not start with a blank slate. Instead, they started with the historic St. Louis theme, originally developed by the CCRC, and also included similarly themed concepts for restaurants. In blue-sky sessions, they developed new ideas as to how Disney might contribute to the Riverfront Square area. One idea: to include The Art of Animation as a permanent show. Already a version of this show had been installed at Disneyland, with high guest interest, and the touring exhibit had proved successful with cosmopolitan audiences outside California. Another idea: an actual steamboat on the Mississippi—just like the one Walt Disney had wanted to take in the 1930s. “A steamboat you could do on the river,” one planner remembers. In this early incarnation of Riverfront Square, the Disney project would have both indoor areas and an additional outdoor attraction on the river. But that idea did not last long.
The early concepts for Riverfront Square were exceptionally loose—and largely developed out of attractions Walt had already built in Anaheim. He considered adapting the Jungle Cruise into an indoor attraction, a boat ride that would follow the journey of Lewis and Clark up the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Columbia rivers. Instead of African natives and safari animals, the boats on The Lewis and Clark Adventure would float past American wildlife and foliage, with set pieces depicting key moments in Lewis and Clark’s journey west. Another early idea, an Audubon Room—that is, a room filled with birds to honor the French-Missouri naturalist, John James Audubon. The attraction would likely rely on lifelike birds similar in design to those recently developed for the Tiki Room. And Walt, of course, held on to the Circlevision concept. The Circlevision project, as it existed in the summer of 1963, would present the history of St. Louis. Inspired by the 1944 film, Meet Me in St. Louis, the WED team believed that the Circlevision film might include a long section on the 1904 World’s Fair that was held in St. Louis, just a few miles from Riverfront Square. But as these early brainstorming sessions came to an end—and as the project expanded—Walt focused on the financial realities of building a sophisticated indoor park in St. Louis.
The current ERA report—which explored Riverfront Square as a mall filled with locally-owned shops and restaurants—would prove useless as a persuasive document to convince Roy and the Board of Directors to sign off on the newRiverfront Square project—now casually termed the “Midwestern Disneyland.” But even that report—by the start of August—was not yet finished. Around this same time, Walt talked to Buzz Price again about St. Louis. Walt would need a second feasibility report—this one examining the profit potential of a new indoor Disney park—a project where the city would pay for the massive shell building and Disney would provide the rides, attractions and atmosphere. As before, he would need this document to convince Roy and the company to follow him to Missouri. In this moment, one can see the personal desires of Walt Disney glide slowly into the realm of corporate decisions.
Now sixty-one years old, Walt was the president of a successful movie studio; he had also built the most famous amusement park in the world. Without doubt, he could’ve built a new full-sized Disneyland anywhere he chose: New York, Miami Beach, Washington D.C.—all of them, major tourist destinations. But as his life moved into its final chapters, Walt felt the quiet voice of boyhood calling him home, to a couple acres next to the Mississippi, a place soon to be called Riverfront Square. “Missouri and the history of Missouri are important to me,” Walt told one St. Louis reporter. “I was raised on a farm not far from Hannibal [i.e. Mark Twain’s boyhood home]. There’s a lot of opportunity to do things exciting about the state, the Mississippi River, Mark Twain…things both entertaining and educational.”
These were the things that Walt now hoped to accomplish in St. Louis.