(European culture frequently merges the arts. “The Sleeping Beauty” fairytale inspired Tchaikovsky to write his eponymous ballet which ironically became the songs for Disney’s animated “Sleeping Beauty.” FYI: Instead of building fairytale castles, Charles Perrault’s brother, Claude Perrault, actually built real palaces - including the world-famous Louvre’s 17th-century Classical East Facade.)
Before we examine the three main castle that inspired Disney theme-park fairytale castles around the world, I must add that it’s not an open and shut case finding actual “brick and mortar” models (or even stone and mortar). It’s an enigma, which continues to stump architectural historians: Which European palaces inspired which Disney’s Fairytale Castles? That’s my version of other ongoing travel puzzles such as “Which is the original New York Ray’s Pizzeria?” and “Which is Rome’s original Alfredo’s?”
There are some long-standing puzzles that are very easy to find answers to - that are staring everyone in the face. Ten years after the original, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” still can’t identify which one of the three men was Sophie's father. Duh! Mamma Mia, didn’t they ever hear of DNA testing? Sadly, in 2018 there’s still no architectural DNA testing when it comes to Disney theme-park castles. And now, since there are more Disney theme parks, there are more palaces that inspired them. Among the most famous is . . .
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany
Since Walt and Lillian Disney actually visited mid-19th century imitation medieval Neuschwanstein Castle in the mid-20th century, we'll also make it our first visit. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, "A rose is a rose is a rose." Using 2018 vernacular, "The FAKE Pierrefonds Castle inspired the FAKE Neuschwanstein Castle which inspired the FAKE Disneyland "Sleeping Beauty Castle." All “FAKE” castles!
While Charles Perrault's 17th-century French fairytale inspired "Sleeping Beauty,” and subsequently her Disneyland abode, it was German medieval myths that inspired “Mad King Ludwig” to design his Neuschwanstein Castle. Once again we have European merging of the arts. German medieval myths inspired Richard Wagner's operas - which in turn inspired King Ludwig - which in turn inspired the interior decoration of Neuschwanstein with its depictions of Wagner operas, “Tanhauser,” “Parsifal” and especially “Lohengrin.” That's not surprising since Richard Wagner's number one patron was the Bavarian king mad for Wagner's Teutonic operas – “Mad King Ludwig.” The construction of Neuschwanstein took even longer than attending a performance of a Wagner opera. Building started in 1869 and mysteriously was nowhere near completion at the time of Ludwig's mysterious death in 1886 - drowning in a shallow lake with his tutor (who was obviously not Ludwig's swimming instructor).
No visit to Munich is complete without visiting nearby Neuschwanstein Castle – which can be seen topping its mountain peak dominating its surrounding valleys for miles. Neuschwanstein’s simple exterior consists of mostly what could almost pass as a gigantic, pitched-roof chalet if it weren't for the crenellation, the round-arched windows (puncturing its unadorned stone walls) and its many attached towers with conical roofs.
The minute you step inside from the refined, Neo-Romanesque exterior - simplicity gives way to kitsch. From the Palaces of St. Petersburg to Portugal’s Pena Palace, European palaces from the late 19th century frequently featured each room designed in a different historical style. Neuschwanstein goes beyond over-ornate late 19th-century norms – combining several different historical, architectural and decorating styles within one room: Byzantine, Romanesque, Renaissance with out of place 17th-century Louis XIV furniture.
One room you won’t see in any other palace anywhere in Europe is the Grotto – with the ornate pastel-colored gondola in which Ludwig was transported (pulled around by a servant) to another world. Neuschwanstein’s boat-grotto ride reminds me of a Disneyland ride – the Peter Pan ride with its boats transporting riders into Walt’s fantasy world.
The Alcazar, Segovia, Spain
It’s nice to think that Disney was inspired by an actual authentic medieval castle - Segovia’s Alcazar, spectacularly crowning that Spanish city’s skyline. Instead of journeying into the kitsch of “Mad King Ludwig” – visiting this Alcazar is a journey into Spanish history, culture, art and architecture. It was even a palace of Queen Isabella. The interior decoration is uniform throughout in a unique Mudejar (Moorish) style. The exquisitely carved and painted ceilings alone are reason enough to visit.
Since Disney’s Fairytale castles were not replications of any particular single castle, I have to admit something. When photographing people – most people have a “good” side. The same theory applies to matching Disney Castles and their real inspirations. If you line-up the right views – you can approximate a visual linkage. The view that most closely matches Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and Segovia’s Alcazar is when the Spanish castle is photographed from the side.
Neuschwanstein and the Alcazar have something else in common. Both dominate their respective countryside for miles. In fact, the Alcazar looks like a bow on a ship just waiting for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to embrace on top of the highest tower. “Location, Location, Location” is the battle cry of real estate – as well as these two European castles. Sadly not a single Disney theme-park castle is positioned dramatically with their castle perched on top of a hill (even an artificial one).
Disney castles all look as if they were dropped into the middle of a former parking lot. As new Disney theme parks open, their castle architecture becomes more flamboyant and less realistic.
In fact, the grouping of towers in the center of a Disney castle - with each thin tower climbing over one another to reach the highest peak –trying their best to visually approximate a mountain – at least in outline.
A good example of a Disney Castle with towers grouped in a capping triangle is Disneyland Paris’ Sleeping Beauty Castle. In fact, the Paris Disneyland castle barely uses any medieval architectural motifs. And when it uses a medieval architectural feature, it uses it incorrectly. There’s a “flying buttress” – normally found on French Gothic cathedrals – piled on haphazardly.
Looking closely at many of its towers rooflines, you’ll see late 19th-century French Second Empire mansard roofs topped with ornate “Victorian” iron railings.
Chateau d’Usse, Loire Valley, France
Ironically, the last inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle comes from France – the Loire Valley. Look at the gateway and lower castle walls of Sleeping Beauty’s Disneyland Castle and you’ll see a striking similarity in the stone, crenellation and towers of Chateau d’Usse.
In many ways, Sleeping Beauty was a “(Loire) Valley Girl” – literally -coming full circle back to Charles Perrault – who wrote “The Sleeping Beauty” fairytale. Perrault admitted to an actual building inspiring him to write that Beauty’s beautiful fairytale - the only and only - Chateau d’Usse.
Unfortunately, the Chateau d’Usse is too often overlooked on tours of the Loire Valley – even with its rare Le Notre formal garden. But above all, the chateau is so proud of its Sleeping Beauty association – it did not sleep on the job of promoting it. The Chateau d’Usse’s love of its Sleeping Beauty origins would make Madame Tussaud proud - for the story of The Sleeping Beauty unfolds in magnificently (and accurately) furnished period rooms with 17th-century attired mannequins acting out the story.