First Details on the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough

Brady MacDonald over at the LA Times Travel Blog has put up the first real guide as to what will be included in the “re-awakened” Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough when it re-opens this December. After watching the special feature on the original walkthrough from the Sleeping Beauty Plantinum DVD last night, it’s safe to say that they are keeping very close to the original design, which is a very good thing for us Disney purists:

The Sleeping Beauty castle walk-through reopens at Disneyland in December 2008 after a seven-year hiatus.

Visitors will walk past a series of forced-perspective dioramas featuring deceptively simple special effects that tell the story of “Sleeping Beauty.”

Disney Imagineers redesigned the castle walk-through in 1977 to dismal results, installing costumed Barbie doll-like figurines under the misguided notion that the classic artwork from the 1959 animated movie had become dated. The 2008 re-redesign hews closely to the hand-painted concept art employed in the original 1957 walk-through.

A scene-by-scene breakdown of the re-created Sleeping Beauty castle walk-through:

  • Entering from the castle courtyard, visitors encounter the first of seven illuminated manuscripts that tell the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” Naturally, the first book begins, “Once upon a time…”
  • In the first scene at the top of a long staircase, the king and queen watch as a pyre of spinning wheels burn. Imagineers used the first of several Pepper’s Ghosts effects in the castle to achieve the flickering inferno — shining a light through a rotating wine bottle onto an unseen plate of angled glass, making the fire appear to burn in the middle of the scene.
  • In the christening scene with baby Aurora, the fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather sprinkle sparkling pixie dust from their magic wands. To achieve the effect, a light shines through a revolving grocery store checkout conveyor belt poked with “pixie dust” pin spots as the fairies rock on hidden cams.
  • Maleficent makes her first appearance in her dungeon. The tails of her cloak billow ominously (aided by hidden air jets) as her pet raven spreads its wings (an early animatronic). A cyclorama painted on the curved back wall gives the illusion of a long hallway. The original 1957 raven survived, thanks to a Disneyland maintenance worker who kept the black bird on his desk since 1977.
  • Ascending to the top of the castle, visitors first come upon the sleeping spell scene. The fairies sprinkle pixie dust on the castle inhabitants in a repeat of an earlier sight gag. In the 1957 version, visitors were encouraged to add their own “snore” — which was recorded, looped and added to the scene.
  • In the next scene, Sleeping Beauty makes her first appearance locked in eternal slumber. Rays of pixie dust filter across the room from a moonlit window, aided by a shimmering light shining through a series of pinholes onto an invisible piece of glass slopping at a severe angle from the canopy of her bed toward the viewer.
  • In the first of a series of scenes not in the 1959 animated movie, Maleficent’s goons pop up to surprise visitors who peer into a barred prison cell. Back in 1957, visitors peeked through keyholes at Maleficent’s imprisoned goons in a simple yet elaborate mirror illusion that put the viewer’s eyes on the goons’ faces. The gag, which halted traffic in the cramped castle corridors in 1957, proved too problematic to replicate in 2008.
  • Heading downstairs, visitors come upon Maleficent summoning her demons to help her destroy Phillip — a scene that never made the movie. Using another pepper’s ghost illusion, the ghouls ascend into the night sky as lightning bolts flash. A rear projector shines storm clouds against a scrim.
  • In Maleficent’s dungeon scene, ghouls emerge from a fiery pit. Ghastly green smoke reflected off diffusion glass appears to billow from the pit. The original 1957 effect would be used later in the Haunted Mansion ballroom.
  • In a new scene not in the 1957 castle walk-through, Prince Phillip battles Maleficent’s dragon. As viewed from the thorny brambles, the villainess transforms from a wicked witch into a fire-breathing fiend. Imagineers based the tableau on artwork developed for but never used in the original walk-through.
  • The increasingly dark storyline moves onto another scene not in the movie — the Dance of the Spinning Wheels dream sequence. A single set of spinning wheels on a rotating platform reflects in the mirrors surrounding the room, creating a mesmerizing and hypnotic illusion. A flickering blue flame effect made of China silk strips painted with black-light colors and fluttered by a hidden fan would be used later in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
  • In the final diorama, Prince Phillip awakens Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. Doves fly past overhead with the aid of a rotating wheel cocked at an odd angle. A bed of roses spreads to infinity with the help of an angled pane of glass. Imagineers are still working on the effect that transforms Aurora’s skin tones from cool to warm when kissed. Inexplicably, the kiss scene was not included in the 1957 castle walk-through on opening day.
  • And just when all seems resolved, a shadowy silhouette of Maleficent appears on the wall — from a hidden projector. The 1957 scare frightened children so terribly that it had to be unplugged. How kids today react remains to be seen.
  • Before exiting to the courtyard, visitors encounter the last illuminated manuscript, insisting that all ends “Happily ever after.”

Brady has also put up an exclusive interview with the amazing Imagineer spearheading this attraction, Tony Baxter. Here are a few highlights from the interview:

Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter, who shepherded the walk-through restoration, understands that the best new Disneyland attraction is an old attraction conceived by Walt Disney himself. Resurrecting the past plays into one of the Anaheim theme park’s core assets: nostalgia.

“I still have very strong memories of taking a journey through this castle,” said Baxter, Disneyland’s chief Imagineer.

The castle walk-through closed shortly after 9/11, in the ensuing weeks when terrorism fears gripped the nation. While no reason was given at the time for the shuttering of the largely unsupervised self-guided tour through the iconic symbol of American pop culture, Disney now admits the tired and dated 1970s remodel of the attraction needed a rest — pun intended. In either case, the walk-through remained closed for the better part of this decade — long enough for the casual visitor to forget it ever existed and far too long for the die-hard fan.

[ . . . ]

The A-ticket attraction resulted in what Baxter called “the zenith of our artistry,” with much of the future “magic” to be found later in the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean taking embryonic form in the castle walk-through.

“That was the first application in Disneyland of some artistically brilliant and technically stunning special effects,” Baxter said.

[ . . . ]

By 1977, the original castle walk-through had run its course and Imagineers ripped out the guts of Earle and Anderson’s work to install a version of the story more faithful to the movie. The ill-advised move replaced the hand-painted cutouts with costumed figurines that looked like Barbie dolls. The inferior substitutes didn’t hold up well over time.

“In 2001, we took a long, hard look at it and we said, ‘Gee, you know, this doesn’t live up to what people remember in the movie,’ ” Baxter said, being as charitable as possible.

With the 50th anniversary of the movie on the horizon, the decision was made in mid-2007 to re-create the walk-through by mapping the 1950s hand-painted scenes onto turn-of-the-millennium computer-generated cutouts.

But after the closure of the walk-through in 2001, layer upon layer of additions — fireworks displays, faux snow-making machines, elaborate Christmas decorations — had chewed up precious real estate inside the castle.

By the time Imagineers stepped back inside the castle in 2007, they found the walk-through in disarray. Like excavators on an archaeological dig, Baxter and company discovered complete sets from the 1957 version still intact behind untouched 1977 scenes. In other places, air conditioning ducts snaked through long-abandoned scenes. They wondered how some sets — 20 feet tall in places — were ever shoe-horned into the castle’s tight confines.

[ . . . ]

Over the ensuing 18 months, Baxter and his team set about deciding what to remove, what to leave intact, what to reinstate and what to improve. And how to strike a delicate and seamless balance between the original concept and the new elements.

“We’ve definitely got everything and then some of what was there before,” Baxter said. “I don’t think anybody will be disappointed that it’s not what they remembered.”