How Did European Castles Make Their Way to Walt Disney World?
All About Castles and the connection to Walt Disney World/Disneyland
A few years ago I was able to organize and lead a one-off castles and cathedrals tour of Western Europe that proved to be quite popular with the participants. Many Americans (many thanks to Disney)have romanticized the notion of a castle as a mythological space where fairy tales come to life yet the harsh realities of most castles was that they were places of protection and a means to accumulate wealth. In this post I hope to that cover some of Europe’s greatest castles (and throw in a few chateaux and manor houses along the way) and try to connect them to the castles found in Disney’s theme parks..
Castles Aren’t Created in a Vacuum You Know…
My Confession…I’m a Long Time Disney Fan
I have also had a long-term interest in the Walt Disney company particularly with the life of Walt Disney and the history of theme parks. Combine this with my interest in European culture and travel and this series of articles emerges. As a professor of art and design I have a keen appreciation of the high levels of ideation that go into the creation of a theme park.
Both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in Florida are frequent pilgrimages for families with young children. These parks are both designed around a castle that is the centerpiece of a series of lands with each area having drawn from some sort of cultural or mythological inspiration (Frontierland/Tomorrowland etc.). This hub and spoke concept was devised by Walt Disney’s Imagineers (his term that implies a combination of imagination and engineering) and is a smart solution for dispersing large crowds and keeping a manageable traffic flow. One of the keys to the traffic flow concept is what Walt Disney called the “Weenie”. If people have a large architecturally significant structure in their sight line they will progress in that direction. There are advantages to having people be in constant motion as they will inevitably make more purchases and have new experiences.
Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World is the “weenie” located in the center of the hub and spoke model. The Disney empire was built upon its early successes creating full length animated features based on fairy tales like Snow White, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Castle imagery loomed large in these features and it was fitting for one to be included in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Neuschwanstein and Mad King Ludwig II
Disney’s fairy tale castle is not the first time that castles have been romanticized. “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria ascended to the throne in 1864 at the young age of 19 and he was not ready to deal with the real world of rough and tumble politics of Bavaria and instead immersed himself in Wagnerian Operas and Romantic literature. He commissioned Neuschwanstein on a nearby ridge with a spectacular landscape surrounding it (he even wrote letters to Wagner about its construction and that it would be a fine place for performances).
In the middle ages many castles were built as protection for the inhabitants and as fortresses that could levy tolls along trading routes such as roads and rivers. Castles were not necessarily designed for beauty or aesthetics with tall ramparts with narrow slits for soldiers to launch arrows at enemies. Structurally castles could protect you for many weeks from being surrounded or if you were the unfortunate victim of a siege. Large numbers of these structures were positioned down the Rhine river in Germany to levy tolls on the passing ships. This could be quite profitable for the river-baron land owner.
Castles quickly went out of favor with the advent of gunpowder. With this invention you could easily smash through the walls and destroy the castle along with the inhabitants. Thus the era of the castle is over.
Although the Cinderella story is found historically among most cultures, Charles Perrault’s version has come to be one of representative examples of the folktale. It was determined that Cinderella would be the representative theme in the castle design of the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in Florida and sketching began in the late 1960’s. The Disney Imagineers referenced Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein along with a trio of French castles, chateaux and manor houses. Chateau de Chenonceau located in the lush and beautiful Loire valley in France provides clear inspiration in the turrets.
The style of French Renaissance architecture that is clearly evident in Chambord clearly provides inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle with its scale and color scheme and its subtle reference to traditional French Medieval forms. Chateau de Chaumont is yet another French Renaissance building that the Disney Imagineers were clearly referencing. There are also some tiny bits of reference points to King Louis XIV’s mega palace Versailles and Fontainebleu.
Designing a Fairy Tale Castle
Veteran Disney Imagineer Herb Ryman played an influential role in the design of both Disney castles in Walt Disney World and Disneyland. In addition to the above castles Ryman also referenced the Alcazar of Segovia, Spain and the Moszna Castle in Poland.
Ryman was adept at conceptualizing and drawing fantastical spaces and his watercolors show his mastery of the expressive yet informative brushstrokes.
What I find intriguing about designing a castle in modern-day California or Florida is that the Imagineers tried to distill the most Romantic elements of the Euro Castles and work them into a fairy tale-esque environment. Having toured through a number of German, French and Austrian castles I can attest that Disney did a respectable job of inferring the various elements into their Orlando park. I will say that it is disappointing that you cannot tour the upper levels of Cinderella’s castle as your only true interior space is the tunnel through the center into Fantasyland or the interior restaurant (Cinderella’s Royal Table).
A Castle Pilgrimage
While getting to Orlando or Anaheim is a rather straightforward affair you may want to consider seeing some of the real European ones in Austria, Germany, and France. It would be pretty easy to have a home base in Paris and see Versailles, Chambord, Chenonceau and Chaumont. If it were my trip I would choose one and for me that would be Chenonceau with its river location and fancy strolling gardens.
Some Historical Photos of the Building of the Castle
Thanks to Imagineering Disney for the photos.
I Drew This Graphic…
We are working on this for a T-Shirt! I’ll post the link as soon as we have it up!
Just Add Pixie Dust…
I recently found this video produced by Disney which shows the creative process behind designing a fireworks show ‘around’ the castle. It’s a testament to the creativity that goes into every detail found in the Disney parks. The castle is typically the first and last thing people see when they visit the park and seeing it with fireworks overhead makes the moment extra special.
The Force is With Us
Since Disney recently purchased the Lucasfilm empire I suppose this is a good place to link to another one of our very popular articles (in fact it is our most popular!). I found a beautiful series of photos of the old original Star Wars sets in Tunisia and Morocco that are just slowly decaying out in the elements. Eerie and haunting all at the same time. Click here to see more.