Prime Inspirations: The Palace of Fine Arts – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure

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This occasional WDWNT column hopes to highlight the borrowed buildings of the Disney Theme Parks and their direct antecedents. We hope to encourage appreciation and discussion of Park architecture, and to showcase the power of the original buildings and their emulations.


The Prime Inspiration for the building acting as the entryway for The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure is The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, CA. But, in the attraction’s current form, it may be a little difficult to recognize the similarity.

To find the common thread in the design you might want to look back at the building’s first incarnation as the entryway for the film based Attraction, Golden Dreams.

Although the original look of the building was more true to its Northern California inspiration, Golden Dreams passed from the scene in 2009.
The Palace of Fine Arts, resides in a beautiful park setting in the Marina District of San Francisco.

To show that San Francisco had indeed risen from the ash and wreckage of the 1906 earthquake and fire, civic leaders planned a World’s Fair for 1915 marking the opening of the Panama Canal.

The Palace of Fine Arts was only one of ten featured “palaces” at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. Designed by Bernard Maybeck, who took his inspiration from Roman and Greek architecture, he created a fictional ruin from another time. It could be considered an early piece of what we now think of as “Entertainment Architecture.” Many of Maybeck’s buildings still stand in his long-time home city of Berkeley, CA.

Festival Hall sm
A Postcard of Festival Hall. Another of the spectacular buildings of the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

The Palace of Fine Arts was so beloved that a Palace Preservation League was founded while the fair was still in progress and the building was retained.

But by the 1950s the simulated ruin was in fact crumbling. Originally intended to only stand only  for the duration of the Exhibition, the building was framed in wood and then covered with Staff, a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber. (So called Staff Shops that exist backstage at theme parks and movie studios get their name not from the people that work there, but from this “temporary,” easy to work with building material.)


In 1964, the Palace was completely rebuilt with permanent, lightweight concrete.

The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure building at Disney California Adventure opened on June 3rd, 2011.

A panoramic photo of the Palace of Fine Arts standing alone in 1919. Photo: James David Givens (Library of Congress)





About the author

TimPat McRaven

Deejay Middlebrow is an American disc jockey who has been selected by a secretive group to curate the Radio Free Disneyland Podcast.