By Kathryn Mayer and Greg Glasgow

Over the past week, several of our friends and connections have sent us the link to Unofficial Networks’ April Fool’s Day post about Disney purchasing Colorado-based Vail Resorts.

“Imagine the magic of Disney meeting the beauty of the mountains,” the April 1 posting read in part. “It’s a perfect synergy between storytelling and nature.”

The article may have caused some chuckles in the skiing community, but in reality, that synergy isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. Friends sent us links to that April Fool’s post because they knew we had just written about the real-life connection between Disney and Vail in our new book, “Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was.”

Our book tells the full, fascinating and largely untold story of how Walt Disney and the Disney Company attempted to build a ski resort and year-round vacation destination in Mineral King, California, in the 1960s and ’70s. Walt—a skier himself—wanted to share the growing sport with more California residents. But even more than that, he wanted to share his love of nature, wildlife and the outdoors with people as well.

But the idea was extremely controversial. As we write about extensively in our book, environmentalists opposed the project from its inception, and the Sierra Club eventually filed a lawsuit against the Disney development that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The legal fight, combined with new federal laws to protect nature and a growing environmental consciousness in the U.S., ultimately spelled the demise of Disney’s proposed Mineral King resort.

Although the resort was ultimately never built, the project lives on in a number of different ways: At Disney, themes and pieces from the Mineral King plans made their way into other resorts and attractions—including the Country Bear Jamboree, a show initially designed to entertain visitors at Mineral King.

In the world of environmental law, the Supreme Court case—in particular, the dissent by environmental justice William Douglas—pointed to new ways to protect nature in the courtroom.

And the world of skiing took cues from the project, too.

Enter Vail, Colorado.

In the 1980s, Vail Resorts was struggling, having fallen on hard economic times. Its new president and CEO, Mike Shannon, a then-27-year-old executive who was the youngest CEO of any major North American ski resort, came in with some lofty goals for the Colorado ski destination. In 1986, Vail was the 15th most popular skiing destination in the country, but he wanted to make Vail No. 1. Shannon’s wife, Mary Sue, was a nursery school teacher who worked with kids all day, and the couple had two young children of their own. His idea was to position Vail as a family-friendly resort.

And he had a Disney connection to help him do it.

Shannon previously had done business with Frank Wells, who became president and chief operating officer of Walt Disney Productions in 1984, and when Shannon took over as CEO of Vail, he became friendly with Wells, who owned a house in Vail. The two started skiing together.

Shannon, who had heard about Disney’s foray into the ski business in the 1960s and ’70s, asked Wells if he could look over Disney’s Mineral King plans and concept illustrations and talk to Imagineers about ideas on how to turn Vail into the country’s favorite family skiing destination. After Wells agreed, Shannon had one more bold request: If Disney and Vail could work together to bring some Disney magic to the Colorado mountains.

Soon after, “Sport Goofy,” the athletic incarnation of the cartoon canine who had starred in animated shorts such as “How to Play Baseball” and “The Olympic Champ” (both released in 1942), became Vail’s ski ambassador, appearing at events, welcoming families to the resort, and offering encouragement to youngsters at the ski school. (It was a big deal: Disney rarely allowed its characters to appear outside of official Disney properties.)

Vail took several other cues from Disney—including a focus on customer service, cleanliness and guest relations—and added innovative and whimsical designs to its kid-friendly ski school and courses. Kids could ski through a rumbling, roaring dragon at Dragon’s Breath Mine and practice their balance on the snow-banked turns that simulated the mythical creature’s tail. They got accustomed to moguls on the Mining Mounds, a series of small hills, and learned to snowplow at a strategically placed magical mine where the ski instructor would pull up a bucket of gold.

Vail also invested in daycare and childcare facilities and even sent managers and children’s instructors to Walt Disney World for inspiration. 

The Disney magic turned out to do the trick: In 1989, Vail was ranked No. 1 on Ski magazine’s annual list of the best ski resorts in the country and Snow Country magazine’s list of the top 35 vacation ski resorts in the U.S. 

And that’s no joke.

“Disneyland on the Mountain” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers. Learn more about the book at

By Kathryn Mayer and Greg Glasgow

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