St. Louis and the Plan for a Midwestern Disneyland

3, June 2014

It’s the eve of my family’s annual summer vacation, and this time it’s the big one. You know, that magical place in Orlando. I’ve spent weeks planning this trip to Disney World, poring over a seemingly endless fount of information: where to dine, where to stay, how to get from here to there, which apps I need, and which attractions to see.

As excited as I am for the experience with my daughters and husband, I abhor the process of packing the suitcases in order to get to said fun time. Maybe I’ll pack for the wrong weather, or I’ll forget something important, but whatever the reason, it ends up taking me hours to prepare.

This impending trip got me thinking about the proposed Disney theme park in St. Louis in the 1960s, and if it had happened, then just maybe I wouldn’t be faced with packing this evening.

Editorial cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, 1963This editorial cartoon by Tom Engelhardt was published March 27, 1963, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Used with permission of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In 1963, Walt Disney was approached by St. Louis mayor Raymond Tucker and the Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC), who proposed a theme park to be built just two blocks north of Busch Stadium.

The working title for the project was Riverfront Square and plans included a five-story indoor park that could remain open year-round. At the time, Disney had already opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Riverfront Square would also have an entryway reminiscent of the nostalgic Main Street USA at Disneyland (and later at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando), except Riverfront Square would include elements of Old St. Louis and Old New Orleans. Attractions would include prototypes for today’s popular Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion rides. Other, more local interest ideas were rides based on Lewis and Clark’s expedition, Davy Crockett, and the Meramec Caverns; a bird room filled with exotic species in a nod to John James Audubon; and a 200-degree theater experience showing a film about the history of St. Louis.

Walt Disney grew up in Marceline, Missouri, and had a lifelong fascination with the charm of his childhood hometown. He also loved river life and steamboats. According to Disney historian Paul F. Anderson, Disney told a St. Louis reporter: “Missouri and the history of Missouri are important to me. I was raised on a farm not far from Hannibal. There’s a lot of opportunity to do things exciting about the state, the Mississippi River, Mark Twain…things both entertaining and educational.”

Despite Disney’s interest in creating a midwestern Disneyland, plans for Riverfront Square were called off in July 1965. According to Anderson, there are many possible reasons why it failed. Money was probably the biggest factor, as the development would have cost millions of dollars, and there was concern about revenue projections. Incidentally, by the time the deal fell through, Disney had purchased 27,000 acres of land in central Florida. And the rest is history.

—Keri McBride, Editor