|Political Comic – Mickey Mouse Eying St. Louis – 1963|
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 9 – Dollars and Sense
By Todd James Pierce
By spring of 1964, Walt Disney’s team felt that they had worked out a general agreement with the people in St. Louis to build Riverfront Square, with the CCRC and St. Louis making a substantial equity investment in the project. Generally, Disney would be responsible for all costs pertaining to the show (such as rides, propping, the creation of film, etc.), while parties in St. Louis would provide the massive super-block building, as well as parking garages and other land improvements. The project was moving so well that summer, the Disney PR team floated a national release to pave the way for future promotions. The New York Times proclaimed that “the new Disneyland, which is scheduled to be built in St. Louis, will bear little similarity to its predecessor.” Parade Magazine announced the chances were “excellent that by 1967 a second Disneyland will rise 5 stories, cover about 3½ acres of the St. Louis waterfront.”
Moreover, the rift between Walt Disney and August Busch, over beer, was settled with handshakes and smiles. Despite the popular story that disagreements over alcohol ended Disney’s designs on Riverfront Square, General Joe Potter, who worked with Walt on both the World’s Fair and Disney World commented that Walt “had a great relationship with Augie Busch”—so great that Busch wanted to partner with Disney on yet another project. Impressed with the Disney plans to transform the Riverfront mall, Busch asked Disney to design a regional attraction around the family Brewery in Houston, Texas. In November, 1964, Busch sent a proposal to Disney’s team—specifically Jack Sayers and Donn Tatum—only to be met with rejection. Initially Busch hoped to hire the Disney artists and architects as a design team to create a smaller—though equally beautiful—attraction centered around his facility in Texas. But Walt felt that the design of a brewery tour, coupled with some attractions and an outdoor garden, was something his company should avoid—even when Busch suggested that it would be work-for-hire with the Disney name absent from the project. The letters Busch received let him down softly, with Donn Tatum complimenting the “beautiful and imaginative” gardens Busch had developed next to his plant in Tampa, then explaining that WED and the Disney team was not a traditional design firm and preferred to have “basic ownership” of their projects to insure their future upkeep and development.
Though Walt never walked away from St. Louis because of the proposed sale of alcohol, he definitely refused to participate with Busch in the Texas project over the issue. This might possibly account for the famous statement by Joe Fowler, in which he claimed that Disney left Missouri after quips with August Busch, with Fowler mixing elements of these two closely related stories, then again, this second Busch/Disney proposal might have had no bearing on Fowler’s statement.
Early in 1965, plans were still on-track to build Riverfront Square, with Walt Disney creating good will in St. Louis by loaning out thirty-three Disneyland costumes (of Mickey, Minnie, the Seven Dwarves, etc.) for a ten-day charity event. That year, the annual St. Louis Police Department’s circus featured dozens of Disney characters, interspersed between traditional tightrope and trapeze acts, with all money raised going to the Police Officers’ Relief Association. Likewise, Walt approved plans to feature Disney characters in the annual Veiled Prophet Parade—which was more-or-less the St. Louis version of a Mardi Gras festival.
By spring, there was at least one clear problem with the St. Louis project: money. Disney sought to curtail cost by re-using show elements from the World’s Fair. For example, one idea strongly considered in 1965 was to include the World’s Fair version of the Lincoln Show at Riverfront Square. At this time, plans were already in motion to deliver a new Lincoln show to Disneyland. Moreover, the State of Illinois—which initially wished to claim the first Lincoln for itself—could not afford to build a show center to feature the animatronic. The Fair Lincoln could be relocated to St. Louis simply for the cost of transportation and installation. Likewise, the WED team considered ways to scale back on more expensive, centerpiece attractions, including the Circarama 200 presentation: once pictured as a lavishly produced film with historical re-enactments, it was now arranged as a far more modest endeavor, likely relying on art and models to create some of the film’s historic depictions.
Beyond the basic show costs, there was one fundamental division between the people in St. Louis and Disney. The Disney people believed that St. Louis should cover the entire cost of the building, delivering the facility ready for the installation of shows and rides. The St. Louis people believed it was only their responsibility to contribute a basic shell building, with Disney responsible for all interior improvements that would support their shows and rides. In one memo, circulated among the development teams, Disney estimated that it would cost nearly $9m to create necessary walls, floor alterations, show pits and other facilities for just three attractions on part of one floor (Circlevision, Circarama 200, and Lincoln) while the actual attraction cost for those same three attractions would run just over $4m. There would be more expensive attractions, such as the Lewis and Clark Adventure, but this memo served to demonstrate the enormous cost to develop the facility that St Louis was unwilling to absorb.
On July 6, Preston Estep, vice president of the CCRC, met with Walt Disney in Burbank. The central topic was, of course, money—specifically if the two parties could reach some understanding as to how to pay for the entire project. Later that day, a reporter from the LA Times asked Estep about the St. Louis project. Estep dejectedly announced that Riverfront Square was now a “dead deal” but refused to elaborate on the underlying problems.
On July 8, Estep directed a memo be sent to the CCRC board that members of the Disney team would meet with them on Tuesday, July 13. Recipients were advised that “this meeting be treated as confidential.” But news about the failed Disney park was already beginning to leak into the Midwest.
The following day The Des Moines Register ran a front-page story announcing “Kill Midwest Disneyland.” When the reporter called Donn Tatum—administrative assistant to Roy Disney—he received no other information than what he’d already learned in the LA Times. Donn Tatum refused to comment.
The final Riverfront Square meeting took place at 10am at the Bel-Air East Hotel—the same location that had hosted most previous Disney/CCRC conferences. The meeting, in all likelihood, was to discuss how to abandon Riverfront Square without damaging the reputation of the Disney Company or the CCRC. I have never been able to locate notes from this meeting. Perhaps none were taken. But later that day Walt Disney 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.”
With these statements, Disney and the CCRC ended its plans to build an indoor theme park. The Disney Company never publicly discussed its full plans for the park, nor the reasons why they abandoned the project. The most famous story—Admiral Joe Fowler’s 1989 explanation that the failure of Riverfront Square primarily stemmed from a rift between Disney and Busch over alcohol—is surely not true for all the reasons already discussed. But in 1973—when Fowler was a much younger man—he offered a different explanation as to why Disney walked away from the project:
We got to the point where we actually laid [Riverfront Square] out with the attractions, by putting a large part in the basement of one of the buildings… All in all, it looked good…It only fell through because in the last analysis we were not going to put our money in it. We’d put our effort in it, but the St. Louis interests would have to come up with the money. It finally was decided that they couldn’t do it.
In addition to money, there may have been one other, unspoken reason as to why Disney walked away from Riverfront Square. Over the previous two months (in May and June of 1965), Disney had purchased large tracts of land in central Florida, including an 8,500 acre parcel that once belonged to State Senator Irlo Bronson. By the time Walt held his final meeting with the St. Louis CCRC, the Disney Company had acquired 27,000 acres south of Orlando, more than enough land for a massive resort. There may have been a sentiment inside the company that a Midwest Disneyland—though small in comparison—would siphon off possible visitors from the park they were now committed to build in Florida.