The Disney Parks That Could Have Been
Believe it or not, your family’s memories at Disney could have been much different from the nostalgic rides, beloved snacks, and warm-weather experiences you’ve grown to know today. There could have been a document in your scrapbook of your mock immigration through Ellis Island in a proposed Americana park, or even a small souvenir from your ride on It’s A Small World aboard a tanker parked off the coast of Brazil, not to mention what you’d find on trips to a Disney aquarium, historical center, or wharf, which nearly happened, too.
Disney California Adventure simply wasn’t supposed to exist—there were not one but two parks planned before its crunch-time inception—and your family’s ski vacation or trip to see The White House could have come with a dose of Mickey magic, too.
From oceanside ports to oceanic parks and everything in between, here are the most unexpected places you nearly spent your Disney vacations:
Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square in St. Louis, Missouri
Riverfront Square was to be Disney’s second park after Disneyland opened in 1955, honoring Missouri's history as part of the state’s bicentennial celebration. Due to Midwestern climates, the park would have been completely indoors, hosting attractions and dining beneath a ceiling that would change to coincide with the time of day outside. The ground floor was planned to hold attractions based on Lewis And Clark and Davy Crockett, Missouri’s Meramec Caverns, and even an early iteration of Pirates of The Caribbean, with a second floor restaurant and bar overlooking the Mississippi River. After lengthy negotiations, the idea ultimately fell through due to disagreements over the building funding, but each time you spot Jack Sparrow wreaking havoc from your boat, be grateful you’re back in Floridian sun instead of caught in a rough Midwestern winter.
WestCOT in Anaheim, California
This $3 billion idea was supposed to take updated attractions and concepts from Epcot to the West Coast and function as a brand new gate atop Disneyland’s old parking lot — only despite its endless planning, it never really got off the ground. Old-school crowd favorites like The Living Seas, Journey into Imagination, and The Land were to be updated for this Californian iteration, as well as a ride based on Adventure Thru Inner Space and a duplicated Spaceship Earth, housed in an even larger geodesic dome. A fresh take on World Showcase would have been brought to Anaheim as well, offering a World Cruise through now-consolidated regions like Africa and Asia, who would have hosted a river raft ride and Chinese lion dragon roller coaster, respectively. The financial burden of Disneyland Paris at that time, a massive price tag and fury from nearby neighbors about evening disturbances caused the company to pivot and think locally, brainstorming Disney’s California Adventure atop the that very lot instead, allowing guests to ride beloved attractions like Radiator Springs Racers instead of taking yet another trip on Epcot’s frozen-in-time attractions.
Port Disney in Long Beach, California
Announced in 1991, this waterfront enclave would have held a marine-inspired theme park called DisneySea, as well as a mass of bubble-shaped structures housing Oceana, a two-story aquarium and educational center that would serve as Port Disney’s icon. Most of the projects’ in-development lands were tied to mythology— Mysterious Island would utilize pirate rides, the lost city of Atlantis and a massive volcano to entertain guests, while Heroes’ Harbor would highlight the triumphs of sea heroes like Ulysses through attractions and an aqua maze — but even though the concept was quite novel, it never came together. Port Disney was even set to serve as the central dock for Disney Cruise Lines, and offer shuttles to Disneyland that would allow guests to efficiently extend their vacation, but the project faced complications for construction (250 of its 350 acres were still underwater), port disruption, and difficulty with extending the Long Beach Freeway. Add budgetary concerns due to other projects on the horizon, and the idea was scrapped in favor of focusing on the aforementioned WestCOT, which was never built either. Guests today can still experience what this seaside land would have held—many of the resorts, rides, and concepts for Port Disney were repurposed at Tokyo DisneySea.
A converted supertanker carrying the Magic Kingdom’s best rides around the world sounds like a kooky child’s fantasy, but in the early nineties, it nearly came true. The floating theme park was intended to travel to a new port every two months, bringing famed attractions to places like South America, Australia, and the West Pacific, which did not host any Disney parks at the time. Interestingly, no guests would reside on board, as the entirety of the ship was to be dedicated to attractions and dining—employees would travel on a separate, smaller cruise liner—freeing up plenty of space for the rides Walt Disney World and Disneyland are known for. S.S. Disney would have held many Fantasyland and Tomorrowland attractions, including the Mad Tea Party, Star Tours, It’s A Small World, and even a version of Space Mountain beneath the bow, with space also allotted for a theatre, interactive exhibits and restaurants, as well as a proposal for nightly fireworks from a secondary barge. The company eventually decided to rethink their strategy and opt for a traditional cruise line instead of this traveling theme park, which would be more disappointing if their decision wasn’t the right choice.
Disney’s America in Prince William County, Virginia
Announced in 1993, this long-lost 1,200 acre park was intended to capitalize on heavy tourism in Washington, D.C. while simultaneously featuring a park full of educational attractions highlighting our nation’s history. Disney’s America was to feature seven themed lands, bringing guests inside attractions and experiences at Ellis Island, a Native American village, and even included areas with a state fair, Midwestern family farm, and a factory town. The public questioned how Disney would tackle the trickier stories in our nation’s history, like slavery, and the project faced serious opposition from its nearby neighbors, who CEO Michael Eisner himself deemed “some of the most powerful families in America.” Paired with an increased projected cost, shortened season, and turmoil at the company, it never came to fruition, but it’s not for a lack of trying. They later tried to build it in California as well—on the grounds of Knott’s Berry Farm, in fact—but it never came to be.
Disney’s Wharf at Sydney Harbor
Donald Duck nearly went Down Under in Sydney’s White Bay when Disney proposed a marina and ferry wharf with retail, hotels, and a residential development that would coincide with a new and hefty entertainment area. The project wasn’t planned to be a full-blown theme park but more of a waterfront destination, with Fantasia Gardens hosting hedges shaped like Disney characters which Epcot guests have come to know and love, as well as an arts center, downtown district, and a school. The project eventually fizzled out due to the infrastructure needed for its completion (two new and expensive light-rail stations were integral to the proposal), but a portion of the proposed greenery lives on. When Shanghai Disney Resort opens this summer, it’ll host one of its many in-park gardens under the exact same name.
Mineral King at Sequoia National Park, California
After the early success of Disneyland, Walt Disney looked to other modes of recreation he could influence. With a skiing boom following the 1960 Winter Olympics being held in California and the winter season being slow at Disneyland, a ski resort seemed like a no-brainer. Drawing inspiration from a trip to Switzerland, Walt dreamt up a year-round facility that would have skiing, attractions, and recreation across 15,000 acres in partnership with the United States Forest Service. Despite his plan to reduce the number of cars on site by building a train to the area and encouraging walking and biking, The Sierra Club went on to oppose the project, even filing a lawsuit that escalated to the Supreme Court. After much negotiation, the project was scaled back greatly, and when the state would not pay for the infrastructure necessary to build roads to the park, the project was scrapped entirely. Disney’s ski lodge dreams were gone but not forgotten — they tried again in 1978 with a location on Independence Lake, and even in Yosemite in 2000, but neither project ever went through.
Disney Theme Park in New York City
Walt Disney deeply wanted to open a park on the East Coast, and the tourism passing through New York City seemed like the greatest location for his latest version of Disneyland. NBC was even set to help finance the project, but it had its issues from the get-go. The park could only stay open during the summer due to inclimate weather and land in the boroughs would be much more expensive that Anaheim’s converted orange groves—problems that could have been fixed if it wasn’t for one other thing: Freedomland. Opened by a former Disney executive in the Bronx around the same time Walt was exploring his options, this theme park, which hosted American history-inspired attractions in regional lands such as Old New York, Chicago, The Southwest and San Francisco, quickly saw its operations turn tumultuous, citing bankruptcy when it closed just four years later. Walt eventually moved on to Florida, where he established Walt Disney World with more than enough space and good weather to spare.