ST. LOUIS – Imagine packing up the kids and heading for that dream vacation to a Disney theme park … in St. Louis.
It almost happened a half-century ago when Disney drew up plans for an indoor theme park in downtown St. Louis before giving up in a dispute over money and turning attention to Florida. St. Louis’ loss was the Orlando area’s gain: Walt Disney World became one the world’s top tourist attractions.
St. Louis can only lament what might have been.
“I think it would have added a very interesting component to the development of the city in the ’60s,” said Chris Gordon, director of library and collections for the Missouri History Museum, who has researched the project. “Disney was such a big phenomenon at that time. There’s a good chance it would have been successful.”
On Thursday, one of the few remnants of the park goes on the auction block — 13 pages of 1963 blueprints spelling out plans for “Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square” in St. Louis. The Calabasas, California-based company Profiles in History is auctioning the blueprints as part of its “Animation and Disneyana” auction.
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“I believe this is the only complete set of plans,” said Mike Fazio, a consignment specialist working with the company. “It’s amazing how many people don’t even know that they were going to build a park in St. Louis.”
Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955, and by the early 1960s, Walt Disney was looking to expand with another park easily accessible beyond the West Coast. St. Louis seemed a good choice, and not just because of its geographically central location or because Disney grew up in Missouri.
St. Louis was booming in the Camelot years. The Gateway Arch was under construction, opening in 1965. And Busch Stadium was being built a few blocks away, bringing both football and baseball downtown in 1966.
Plans called for “Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square” to cover two blocks in the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from the Arch grounds and the Mississippi River.
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St. Louis isn’t blessed with California-like weather, so Disney’s plan called for a five-story indoor park. Some of the rides planned for St. Louis eventually became fixtures at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, including the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Disney himself met with St. Louis Mayor Raymond Tucker in March 1963 to discuss the proposal.
But, the idea fizzled. Legend was that the plan was thwarted because Anheuser-Busch beer baron August A. Busch Jr. insisted that the theme park sell beer, and Disney refused to do so.
But in a 2013 account of the St. Louis project for the Disney History Institute, Todd James Pierce wrote that any disagreement over beer had been worked out — money was the issue. Disney was willing to pay for the rides and attractions, but wanted St. Louis’ redevelopment corporation to pay for the building. The corporation declined to do so.
Disney officially backed out in 1965.
The Arch, the Cardinals and other attractions make St. Louis a popular tourist attraction today, with an estimated 21 million yearly visitors. Walt Disney World draws about 52 million annual visitors.
The blueprints show some wear on edges, but the condition is rated “very good.” They are expected to sell for at least $5,000 to $10,000, Fazio said.
Among other items to be auctioned are the original production celluloid and hand-painted background from the spaghetti-slurping scene in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club dancing shoes, and a vintage Disneyland Haunted Mansion stretch painting.