|Site Plan for Riverfront Square (Detail) – March 1964|
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 8 – The Presentation
By Todd James Pierce
On March 16, at the Bel Air East Motel in St. Louis, Walt Disney and his designers held a series of meetings to both present the Disney vision for the St. Louis park and to discuss costs—specifically how costs would be divided up between the city, the CCRC and Disney. Reporters were allowed to attend the 2pm meeting, which included a large Q&A session. For the press, Walt explained that the park would be entirely indoors: “We feel we need to contain it within a building so it will be more useful throughout the year…With it contained in a shell, we will have control of light and can put on quite a show.” He also explained that, “This will not be a little amusement park or kiddieland.” If his plans moved forward, Walt would likely change the name from Riverfront Square, as this park now encompassed more than riverboat culture.
When asked if he had considered similar projects in other cities, Walt said, “Yes, but this is the first…It will be the first type of thing developed this way.”
In broad terms, Walt described the overall concept of Riverfront Square: an indoor park that included a “recreation of old St. Louis and old New Orleans.” But the full description of this new park Walt only shared with the CCRC and city officials behind closed doors—far from reporters’ curious eyes.
This private presentation most likely took place on the morning of March 16, a few hours before the press conference. The presentation began by focusing on Walt’s past accomplishments—specifically, the creation of Disneyland, a park that received over five million guests a year—then transitioned to Walt’s newest project, the four attractions created for the World’s Fair. The presentation—partially prerecorded—asked the audience to view Walt’s interests in amusements as starting with the California park, advancing with complexity toward New York Fair pavilions, then expanding yet again into St. Louis. Then the meeting got down to business, with Bob Mathieson’s enthusiastic voice offering a full audio tour of Riverfront Square, a journey that walked the CCRC through this all-weather center, attraction by attraction.
The tour, as presented that morning, didn’t begin with the amusement park. Rather, it began at the top of Riverfront Square, with the Disney solution to the “beer problem.” An observation floor capped the building, with picture windows overlooking the Arch: the floor was divided into a formal restaurant, banquet space, and a 150-seat cocktail lounge that would sell wine, alcohol and of course beer, such as that brewed by the Busch family. Guests could enter this floor directly, by using special elevators and bypassing the amusement areas entirely, or, with a hand stamp, guests could pass from the amusement areas into the restaurant and cocktail lounge. With this, Disney allowed for the sale of alcohol within the structure but created an invisible barrier between the bar and the family-oriented park, though adults could pass freely between the two areas. Only once this proposal was explained, a working compromise between the original Disney position and that of August Busch, did the presentation move on to the amusement areas of Riverfront Square.
The presentation, as heard by the CCRC and representatives of the city, went something like this:
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Guests entering Riverfront Square find themselves in a town square promenade, an entrance street leading them to two themed areas. On the left, Old New Orleans, a picture of Louisiana during the 1850s. On the right, Old St. Louis, a picture of Missouri in the early 1900s. Atmospheric lighting effects (first developed for the domed interior of the G.E. Pavilion at the World’s Fair) create the illusion of dusk, clouds unfurling across the fifty-foot-high ceilings, a band of light, fixed on the far horizon, darkening to the colors of juice. Projected from hidden speakers come sounds of the old cities—such as music, hoof beats, metal wheels passing over stone—to accentuate the illusion that guests are leaving the present world to enter the past.
At the entrance to Old St. Louis guests move into a recreation of a gaslight plaza, an open area with restaurants and shops. At the far end, guests find one of the highlights of Riverfront Square, a new theater with revolving stages and multiple Audio-Animatronic figures that depicts regional history—such as the Louisiana Purchase—though the content for this show is still loose, not yet defined.
Just down the way guests find the Circarama 200 theater, with a wrap-around (200-degree) screen to partially enclose the audience. The theater presentation in this venue will focus on the history of St. Louis.
From the main floor, escalators take guests down into the basement level—past displays of St. Louis History, miniature animated figures and dioramas—until they step off into an even older incarnation of St. Louis, when the city was truly the gateway to the west. Here guests find the centerpiece attraction, a recreation of the Lewis and Clark adventure. Though once this attraction was configured with boat vehicles, the current version incorporates a guest conveyance that Bob Mathieson describes as “a new type of traveling chair-car” that carry guest through the Plains, over the Rockies and finally to the Pacific, with animated scenes depicting historic moments in Lewis and Clark’s journey west.
Also on this lower level is an Audio-Animatronic show featuring American river pirates of the 1800s, such as Samuel Mason, as well as a series of dark rides focused on some yet-to-be-determined aspect of lore or history concerning the Mississippi River. The final St. Louis attraction on the lower level is the Circlevision film, a panoramic experience now called “St. Louis Today.” As what was likely intended as a good will gesture toward August Busch, the presentation indicates that the film will not only include the Jefferson Arch and the outdoor festivals, but also Busch Gardens.
From the basement, guests travel on an escalator up to a mezzanine floor, which largely caters to the interest of children, an area that still needs development and definition. Guests might explore Mississippi river caves. Other rides—perhaps clones of Peter Pan Flight and Snow White’s Adventures—could carry guests into the world of animation.
A tour of the New Orleans section begins on the main floor, with the traditional Creole streets of the French Quarter, but guests quickly find the first marquee attraction, The Blue Bayou Adventure. On this ride guests float on flat-bottom swamp boats through the wetlands of Louisiana, encountering cougars and alligators, as well as water snakes. But unlike previous versions of this ride, once guests surge down a waterfall, they now find themselves accosted by the Pirates of the Caribbean, with the fiery action framed around the sacking of a city.
The Golden Horseshoe Revue, popular at Disneyland, will be adapted to a New Orleans Theme, complete with new songs and a line of French can-can girls.
The third and final attraction for the New Orleans area is an old Haunted Mansion, filled with ghosts of bygone years and troubles that reside in the past, with specific attention paid to the regional flavor of legendary ghost tales. The Disneyland version, completed five years later, will be an entertaining excursion with fun-loving specters, mostly divorced from their historic context, but here at Riverfront Square, where the figures of local history are resurrected through the wonders of audio-animatronics, the Haunted Mansion stands as an attraction where the lore of the past rises from the grave as well.
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In this presentation, there are at least two significant attractions—once central to the project—that have fallen away. Most notably missing, the Audubon Room, which would’ve featured local wildlife and commemorated the life of John James Audubon. Also missing: the PeopleMover-like transportation system between Riverfront Square, the Arch, and Downtown. Aspects of other attractions were also changed in interesting ways. For example, the ride system for The Lewis and Clark Adventure—described as “a new type of traveling chair-car”—might possibly be a distant forerunner for the Omnimover system, yet when I asked Bob Gurr (who later developed the Omnimover) about any such connection, he mostly dismissed the notion. “The Riverfront Square transportation went no further than the publicity words used,” he said. “No design effort by WED that I ever saw.”
I have never come across any artwork created for this presentation, though clearly some was made. The CCRC and city executives were likely shown some conceptual art to help sell the proposal. In addition, they were shown detailed plot plans for each floor as well as design work for comparable Disney attractions. For example, during the presentation on the Audio-Animatronic theater, the CCRC and city were shown photos of the Carousel of Progress and offered an explanation that the technology used to create the Carousel for the World’s Fair would be adapted and improved for Riverfront Square, with the St. Louis show having one center rotating stage and two side rotating stages. Likewise to illustrate the effectiveness of the Circarama 200 presentation, the Disney designers showed attendees sketch drawings for a Circarama 200 program already in development for Disneyland, “One Nation Under God,” to demonstrate the dramatic effect of the expanding motion picture screen.
Yet the March 1964 proposal represents the fullest picture of Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square ever offered to the CCRC and the city managers of St. Louis. In later plot layouts, the placement of certain attractions would shift inside the building. For example, in one version, the Circarama 200 theater would be slotted into the basement, but at this point, the conceptual vision for Riverfront Square was mostly complete, with Walt articulating his desire to build a new type of indoor park, one that would draw upon and challenge the technologies used to create Disneyland and the Disney attractions at the World’s Fair.
The mood at the presentation was upbeat and optimistic, with Walt himself claiming that this new park would provide a tourist icon for the region much as Disneyland had done for Los Angeles. Preston Estep, vice president of the CCRC was “very hopeful” that the Disney project would be built and believed that the financial obstacles were “not insurmountable” and would be worked out in future meetings. Generally the CCRC members felt the presentation “tremendous” and local financial backers—such as the Equitable Life Assurance Society, who had put up $31m to build the new stadium—expressed enthusiasm over the Disney plan. More pointedly, James P. Hickok, president of the CCRC, believed the presentation was “one of the most exciting developments that has ever challenged the imagination of the community.
With good feelings moving through the room, the CCRC set a meeting in early April to discuss their equity investment in the project. To most present, the Disney proposal seemed to engender the necessary interest to bolster a large financial commitment. August Busch appeared satisfied with the addition of a skybox cocktail lounge. The park itself—though entertaining—appeared to treat concerns of local history with respect and reverence. At one point, Walt even said, “We hope to gain the respect of the community,” suggesting, perhaps, that he had taken these concerns seriously. As the afternoon session adjourned for drinks and dinner, most people present were fairly convinced that a large Disney project was coming to St. Louis. So this leaves only one major question left to answer: what went wrong?