Walt Disney’s pioneering role at Sugar Bowl

Disney’s new movie “Frozen” — a magical winter tale — is a reminder of Walt Disney’s pioneering role in helping his friend, Austrian skiing champion Hannes Schroll, open the Sugar Bowl ski area in the Sierra Nevada in the late ’30s. It is a little-remembered chapter in Disney’s life but a milestone for our region.

Disney and Schroll met while vacationing at Badger Pass, and Schroll sought an investment from Disney to help build a ski resort in the eastern Sierra, near Donner Summit and Truckee. Walt obliged.

“Walt wrote Schroll a check for $2,500, and became one of the initial stockholders of the newly christened Sugar Bowl Resort,” according to Disney historian Jeff Pepper, writing at WaltDisney.org. “To honor Walt’s support and partnership, Schroll changed the name of Hemlock Peak to Mount Disney.”

It continued: “Newspaper reporter Bob Blake spotted Walt at Sugar Bowl on January 7, 1940. Blake noted that, “Walt Disney arrived today without Donald Duck and started skiing immediately.”

Walt vacationed at Sugar Bowl in 1941 with wife Lillian and daughter Diane, who recently passed away at the age of 79. A photograph survives showing the three with Hannes Schroll at the resort.

Diane Disney Miller had recalled to historian Pepper: “That was a long time ago, and I seem, to myself, to have been 7. … The highlight of the trip was when Hannes took me up the chair lift, with my parents, on Mount Disney and skied down with me on his shoulders.”

In 1941, The Art of Skiing was the first of Goofy’s many sports-related how-to shorts, according to the Walt Disney Family Museum. “The cartoon opens with a panoramic sweep of snow-covered mountains, eventually focusing in on a rustic ski lodge, within which the Goof is awakening and subsequently preparing for a day on the slopes. A sign identifies the building as the Sugar Bowl Lodge,” according to WaltDisney.org.

Sugar Bowl recalls that new snow brought skiers to the resort by the trainload. “Southern Pacific’s ‘Snowball Special’ saw train patronage jump significantly during the resort’s first season. Visitors got off the trains in the newly built Norden snowsheds and were then loaded onto tractor-drawn sleds where they made the mile and a quarter trip to the resort,” its website reads.

“California’s first chairlift drew large crowds that first season. The ride to the top of Mt Disney was six and a half minutes and cost riders 25 cents or $2 if skiing. Sugar Bowl also attracted the attention of Hollywood right away.

“The likes of Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert and many others enjoyed the resort’s picturesque slopes and European feel.”

A list of Truckee-Tahoe ski resorts, including Sugar Bowl, is HERE.

(Credit, text and photos: Sugar Bowl, Jeff Pepper and the Walt Disney Family Museum)

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