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When is a castle not a castle?

The Disneyland "castle" is really a gatehouse with a jumble of sets on the roof
A castle is a fortress meant to protect the regent. The king and queen’s living and entertaining spaces are surrounded by a walled city, which is, in turn, surrounded by battlements and defensive constructions, such as moats and walls which taper out (called a battered wall) to make scaling with ladders more difficult. Bridges across the moat can be retracted or raised, and strategic points often feature a series of obstacles--“defense in depth” as it’s known. A drawbridge typically has a strengthened gate (a portcullis, literally “sliding door”) behind it, and paths toward the central “keep” are more maze-like than linear. Defensive aspects can turn offensive--hot tar can be poured from the parapets, the moving edge of the portcullis often had sharpened spikes, and crenelations (the up and down along the parapet) were meant to shield archers.

The castle from Cinderella (1950)
Because many fairy tales involve royalty, castles figure in stories from Snow White to Cinderella. As a rule, the military aspects don’t matter--we see the towers of the castle as a distant landmark, then the action moves to the throne room, the private suite of the queen, or underground in the cells of the dungeon. "Dungeon" actually refers to the keep at the center of the defenses, including the ruler’s residence, but these days the association with jail cells is (humor warning) hard to escape.

When Walt Disney imagined a Mickey Mouse Park across the street from his studio, there was no castle. A “real” defensible castle would not be suited for a place like Disneyland. Early site plans drawn in June 1953 featured a section with more fanciful, exotic architecture and a square building with round turrets at the corners. This “castle” was to be viewed across the main lagoon (the reflection would be dramatic), but it was never clear how to use its interior. Perhaps, like the Sydney Opera House, form would precede function.

Later plans for Disneyland, developed after art director Bill Martin joined the team, put the kiddieland area in a walled city with cobblestone streets and Old World architecture. Geppetto’s toy shop on Pinocchio Square, Hook’s ship, the Jolly Roger, tied up at the quay at the end of a winding alley. A crenelated wall would be visible beyond the dark ride buildings and jumble of roofs, creating a magic kingdom. Undefined on these early sketches, a castle keep with towers and spires would be built toward the back. As with the first plan, it was not clear what would go into the keep--it would be like the Eiffel Tower at Epcot’s France pavilion, a visual point in the distance.

The entrance into the walled city would be a drawbridge across a moat. The problem was that the wall would restrict the view of the wonders inside, and the solution was the spires of the distant keep. The vertical towers, visible from outside the walled village, would be the visual wienie. When Herb Ryman sketched the park on the famous lost weekend, he imagined the keep as a fairy castle in the far corner, something like Mad King Ludwig’s Bavarian schloss. Reportedly, Walt urged Ryman to draw it taller, higher, grander.

Herb Ryman's first sketch was too Neuschwanstein-y.
Note the tournament tents outside the city wall.
Ludwig’s “castle,” by the way, was a fantasy--it defended nothing and was never finished due to Ludwig’s death in 1886. Neuschwanstein (new-swan-stone) has a gorgeous setting overlooking Swan Lake. Architecture critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock called it "a fake castle, impressive mostly for its precarious site."

Then Bill Martin was told that his Old World architecture was too expensive.

The genius solution to the budgetary problem was to fill the walls of the city with brightly colored tournament tents. Canvas (later sheet metal) tents were much cheaper to build. Also for budget reasons, the designers decided that they didn’t need to enclose the entire area with a wall. The drawbridge would lead to a small gatehouse and the courtyard inside would contain a carrousel and boxy dark rides behind bright tournament tents. Done.

The dormers of Chambord
But what about the distant towers, the visual lure? Hollywood art direction to the rescue. A scaled set piece on the roof of the gatehouse would simulate the distant castle keep. The original design imitated the stepped gable of Neuschwanstein’s north face, but the result was a bit severe. The courtyard side of that early design was a tall dormer on a hip roof, based on Chambourd, a French château (large residence). Both Herb Ryman, an illustrator, and Marvin Davis, a trained architect, took credit for spinning the set around so that the large window faced the drawbridge.
Early architectural drawings with relative heights (Drawings © Disney, courtesy of James D. Keeline) 

The castle has been the logo since the beginning.
It was quickly realized that the gatehouse and the set on the roof would be perceived as a single structure. The set was a hodge-podge, meant to look like a jumble of roofs inside a medieval walled city. A polygonal church apse with flying buttresses, surmounted by a golden flèche, or spire, modeled on Sainte Chapelle, built in Paris (1243-48), became part of the assemblage, along with an asymmetrical main tower with a cute bartizan, or mini-tower, on its side. This is a Christian castle, including the cross-shaped loopholes for archers. The tournament tent concept suggested that banners fly from the apex of every tower.

The random variety of the rooftop set is deliberately unbalanced, popular in the Queen Anne architecture style, which was the fashion when Neuschwanstein was built. A real castle is symmetrical to defend all sides equally.

The gatehouse became Sleeping Beauty Castle in 1957
Any attack plan for the Disneyland castle would begin with shooting flaming arrows through the big windows in front. There is a report that Walt wanted the turret roofs to be all different colors. WED art directors Dick Irvine, Marvin Davis, and Bill Martin persuaded him that gray stone and the now-familiar cheerful blue roofs would be better.

Bud Washo created the castle in the field, using skills to make cement plaster seem like stone and to cast the turret roofs and other pieces in fiberglass. More about this in a future post.

The Saint-Chapelle-inspired church with it's golden spire. (Photo by Alastair Dallas, Inventing Disneyland)
Round turrets with round hats (borrowed from Chateau de Pierrefonds, 1390-1400) are mixed with square turrets with German hip roofs and square turrets with round roofs. The result was an eclectic mix of styles with a pleasing skyline suitable not only as a visual come-hither, but as a logo for the entire Disneyland project. Marv Davis made certain that the fairytale castle would reflect sweetly in the moat by elongating the body of water toward the hub. In 1962, photographer Diane Arbus wrote in her journal that the castle was like an “advertisement for a dream.”
Diane Arbus' 1962 portrait of the castle.


  1. Added early drawings showing height relationships. Thanks to Disney historian James D. Keeline!


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