Sunday, June 4, 2017

Designing Disney Castles

By Keith Mahne

The castles of Disney's kingdoms don't strive for authenticity; they were born in a world of fairy tales and fantasy, and that is where they've stayed. These castles "belong" to Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, not a long-forgotten king, queen or prince. These castles have become the enduring architectural symbols of Disney's theme parks. It is to the castle where guests turn when they want that last memorable photograph, and it is the image of the castle that the Disney Company has used more than anything else in advertisements and commercials. But how were they designed? Let's find out in today's new article as we discuss designing Disney castles...

The animated castles: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Prior to there being castles in the Disney Parks, there were the memorable castles of the animated features. The castles in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991) all share a storybook look. They are slender and turreted structures. The buildings in Disney's animated features are always rendered in a painterly style, and the castles gave the animation background artists great opportunity to indulge their most romantic architectural impulses. In Sleeping Beauty, for example, a movie whose highly detailed backgrounds were inspired by Early Renaissance paintings, the castle is literally plucked from storybook pages as the film unfolds.

The Château of Ussé in France's Loire valley was the inspiration of Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty

The castle, though, was based on real "storybook" castles, among them the Château of Ussé in France's Loire valley, the compact and beautiful castle that originally moved Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Beauty Castle concept art

The first three-dimensional castle was almost created out of an impulse. Walt asked for it in the original Disneyland design, and Herb Ryman dutifully put it in the plan he created so hurriedly over a single weekend. The late Imagineering legend John Hench once said that, "the first one we sort of invented by going back to some of the stories where the castles were in the backgrounds." The castle was a montage of French and Bavarian castles, drawn from such Loire valley châteaus as Chenonceaux, Chambord, and Chaumont, from the "pleasure courts" of Fontainebleau and Versailles, and from Bavarian hunting palaces of the Black Forest.

Loire valley châteaus: Chenonceaux, Chambord, and Chaumont

The Imagineers also looked at Medievel illuminations, like the famous fifteenth-century illuminated Frech manuscript called the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry which is the most famous and possibly the best surviving example of French Gothic manuscript illumination, showing the late International Gothic phase of the style...

Page from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry featuring a painting of the Château de Saumur

Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle was, at Walt Disney's personal request, supposed to be a sweet castle, truly a storybook castle, one more of the imagination than to history. Disney Legend Ken Anderson, who Walt often referred to as his “Jack of all Trades”,  once recalled that Walt would say, "You know, tyrants in the past built these huge buildings — look how big and powerful I am. And they towered over people to impress them."

Later, as a group of designers struggled unhappily to make the castle a three-dimensianal reality, Herb Ryman, thinking it looked too much like a flamboyant nineteenth-century castle that King Ludwig II of Bavaria built at Neuschwanstein, impulsively turned the castle top so it sat crosswise on its base, in an utterly unauthentic fashion shortly before Walt walked in to see the model. Somehow it worked and Walt loved it...

Shortly before his death, though, Ryman confided that he would have liked to have seen the castle bigger; in the rush to build Disneyland so fast, the castle fell victim to limited funds. It was only when the Magic Kingdom opened in Walt Disney World in 1971 that Ryman got to see the castle as he'd originally envisioned it, in all its excessive glory. The Disneyland castle actually started out as Snow White's, but Sleeping Beauty was in production in 1954, so a different princess got a house in Anaheim.

Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle undergoes a refurbishment, 1958

Cinderella got her animators' castle in 1950, but it wasn't until almost two decades later, as Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was being designed, that it gained its three-dimensional status. Of the two, the more delicate Disneyland home of Sleeping Beauty and its much grander cousin in the Magic Kingdom, it is the former that became Disney's hallmark.

It was also the Magic Kingdom castle that has been imported to Tokyo Disneyland as well.

Cinderella Castle: Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland

The Disneyland Paris castle presented a special problem, because the designers were aware that the authentic castle that started it all, the Château of Ussé, would be less than an hour away. Tony Baxter once put it this way: "Disneyland used Neuschwanstein. and Florida was an amalgam of many French castles. We needed to go to the realm of fairy tales and not tread on anybody's sense of integrity. I didn't want to do Gothic columns. I didn't want to do Fiberglas what you could go into the city [Paris] and see. And right nearby were the finest castle examples in the world. So we created twisted tree forms that kind of grow out of rock as our columns. There's no way you're going to confuse that with the real thing. Likewise, having a fire-breathing dragon in the basement is not the sort of thing you're going to encounter at Chenonceaux." Hence, Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant is the most fanciful Disney castle of all...

The Disney Company now has six properties all over the world. Each with a Disneyland style park anchored by an icon in the form of a castle. Sleeping Beauty has three castles, Cinderella has two, and the new Shanghai Disney Resort has the Enchanted Storybook Castle...

Shanghai Disney Resort's Enchanted Storybook Castle

Here is how they all match up...

Beginning in 1955 with the opening of Disneyland, castles have played a major role not only as awe-inspiring park icons, but as attraction entrances, meet-and-greets, magical restaurant locations and more. As the technology of the future advances and Disney castles continue to grow, it will always be that early success of Walt and Herb Ryman in a little room at the Disney Studios that has truly made these castles such an identifying and important feature in the Disney Parks we know and love today...

Walt and Herb


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.

You can find all of Keith's articles here.


  1. And now rumor has it that Hong Kong Disneyland will design a new castle:

    Something to cover once it is fully realized.

  2. Imagineer Tom Morris has more to say on the design of the DLP Castle as he was it's designer. the haunting silhouette of "Le Mont St. Michel" was the authentic mistress to Eyvind Earle's animated cubism, as Tom's story is one to research.