Disney’s Riverfront Square: The St. Louis Park that Almost Was

Anaheim… Orlando… St. Louis? In an alternate universe, this is the geographic lineup of Disney theme parks in the United States. In fact, the Gateway City came tantalizingly close to being the home of Walt Disney’s second permanent themed entertainment complex – Riverfront Square – in the mid 1960s, years before Walt Disney World opened. So what exactly was Riverfront Square and why was it never built? Let’s take a look.

As the sign says clearly, Disneyland was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays at certain times of the year. [The Walt Disney Company]
Pretty much from the moment Disneyland opened in July of 1955, both the press and public began peppering Walt Disney and his eponymously-named company the same question: Where will the next Disneyland be? Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Walt publicly denied that he would ever build a second park, proclaiming that there would only ever be one Disneyland. However, privately Walt had been thinking about expanding in the United States, thinking of potential locations and pondering whether his brand of themed entertainment would work outside of California.

St. Louis entered the picture in 1963. At the time, the city’s government had undertaken a massive project to revitalize downtown St. Louis. The city government decided to contact Disney (since he was not only the most famous entertainer in America, but also often spoke of his love for the town of Marceline, Missouri, where he’d briefly lived as a boy).

Initially, the request to Walt was only for a film based on the city’s history for its bicentennial. However, Walt being Walt, he came back with plans for much, much more than movie. Walt and his Imagineers (including the legendary Marc Davis)  had designed a whole theme park known as Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square. 

So what exactly was Riverfront Square supposed to be? Well, in deference to St. Louis weather, the complex was supposed to be a theme park housed in a large five story building. Other than that though, it would have been similar to Disneyland. The entrance was to be similar to Main Street U.S.A., with one side of the street based on “old” St. Louis and the other based on “old” New Orleans.

Riverfront Square Blueprints – St. Louis Magazine

Attractions planned for the park included clones of many of the Fantasyland Dark Ride, an early version of New Orleans Square including Pirates of the Caribbean, and (most famously to Disney fans) a river raft ride based on the famous journey of Lewis & Clark. In addition, the building would contain shops, banquet halls, and other amenities. 

Riverfront Square Blueprints – St. Louis Magazine

While hope was initially high for Riverfront Square, the project languished through 1964, before being outright cancelled on July 1965. There are numerous reasons the park was never built, however the biggest were financial. St. Louis balked at the cost of the enormous show building that would be required, as well as bristling at the idea that they would provide the land and pay for the structure, only for Disney to own the park. The development did move forward, eventually including the famous Gateway Arch as well as Busch Stadium II, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1966 to 2005.

Busch Stadium II and the Gateway Arch

For his part, Walt seemed to lose a bit of interest in the project, instead turning his attention in to the company’s attractions at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (which served as a test run for new technologies and a gauge if interest amongst east coast audiences for Disneyland-style entertainment) and then the early development of the original E.P.C.O.T. and its related “Florida Project” that would eventually develop into Walt Disney World. It is worth noting that despite a well-known urban legend, there is no evidence that Riverfront Square didn’t happen because Walt was insulted by beer baron August Busch, Jr.’s public criticism of Walt’s design not to serve beer at the park.

Walt Disney poses on the set after narrating the film which introduced the world to Epcot. [The Walt Disney Company]
Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square is one of the best known unbuilt Disney projects, likely because it would have brought a Disney resort to middle America, which is something many fans still clamor for today. 

Riverfront Square Concept Art

What do you think of the plans for Riverfront Square? Do you wish the park had been built, or would it have been dwarfed by Disneyland to the west and Walt Disney World to the east? Let us know in the comments below. 

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