Wait, what? A Disney theme park in St. Louis?
By Pat McGonigle
St. Louis, MO (KSDK) - On Monday, we opened the NewsChannel 5 film vaults to take another look at a fascinating chapter in the local archives. It's a story that illustrates how close Walt Disney came to building an impressive five-story theme park in downtown St. Louis just north of Busch Stadium in 1963. Sadly, those plans fell apart and Disney focused his attention on Florida instead.
Even though "Riverfront Square," as it was going to be called, never happened, St. Louisans and Disney fans alike can take pride in knowing that the ambitious plans can still be seen in some of the most famous Disney attractions.
Which ones? The Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, Epcot Center, and even the Hall of Presidents.
It's just more proof of how serious Disney's famous Imagineers were about crafting and designing a major tourist destination for downtown St. Louis.
According to historians, Disney always had plans for a "Haunted Mansion" even before the original Disneyland opened in California in 1955. It's explained in "Walt Disney's Missouri" (Burnes, Butler, Viets).
"But the ('Haunted Mansion') concept was refined in the St. Louis plans, which included a stretch room elevator down to the illusions below,' exactly the way the ride was built years later in several Disney parks," according to the book.
As for Pirates of the Caribbean?
"The (St. Louis) park was to feature a 'Caribbean Pirate's Lair' and a 'Blue Bayou' boat ride...the Lair and Blue Bayou boat rides later evolved into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride," according to "Walt Disney's Missouri."
When Disney touted the plans for the St. Louis park in 1963, he was very enthusiastic about his new technology using "audio-animatronic" robots. The plans for "Riverfront Square" called for animatronic robots portraying Missouri legends like Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, and even Napoleon.
Here's an excerpt from Disney during a St. Louis visit taken from the KSDK film vault, speaking about this new technology.
"I've moved into three dimensional animation now and I'm not trying to compete with the human being. But I do have human figures that can enact roles and carry out programmed presentations of different things."
The animatronic robots later were a big hit for Disney at the World's Fair in New York City in 1964 and, more famously, at the Hall of Presidents in Orlando.
Disney spent parts of his childhood in Missouri and had a deep affection for the state and St. Louis in particular.
"Missouri typifies good, common sense Americanism," Disney wrote at the time. "Whether your roots are in the farm or in the streets of its bustling cities, I guess you can gather from this that I still have a fine warm spot for the old home state."
Disney was also impressed with the plans for downtown St. Louis, which included a new Busch Stadium and a nearly complete Arch.
"It's great to see a city that has recognized its needs and is doing something about it. Lots of cities talk but fail to act," Disney said.
When Disney passed on St. Louis and turned his attention to Florida, city leaders didn't give up.
They came up with an even more far-fetched tourist attraction for the downtown area.
It was an epic flop, and it's still there. You can find out more Wednesday morning on Today in St. Louis in the next installment of "Wait, They Did What?!?"