Prime Inspirations: Sleeping Beauty Castle Spire – Viollet-le-Duc Spire at Notre Dame

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.

There were big questions to be answered when Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle was being designed. One was what to call it. It really didn’t have a name. The Fantasyland Castle was as good as it got for awhile. Another big question was: What is Disneyland?

Artist and future Disney Legend Herb Ryman was a traveled man. His approach to the castle design was borrow quite literally from “Mad King Ludwig’s”, famed fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Others on the team advised against it and at the last moment before Walt was to appear to sign off on the model, Hyman flipped the top of the model around reveling a different view.

“That’ll work.”

A standard was adopted in that moment. Disney theme parks would employ architectural quotation, rather than wholesale imitation.  But apparently Walt had a quote of his own to contribute, from a controversial addition made to a world famous building half a world away.


Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle became an icon before the first Guest walked up Main Street U.S.A. For a time it was also the very public face, with Walt Disney, and Mickey Mouse, of the growing Walt Disney Productions. The Disneyland and Wonderful World of Color television shows featured literal and fanciful depictions of Disney’s first physical castle in their title sequences.Walt Disney Worlds breathtaking Cinderella Castle, later became the torch bearer.

Ryman also designed Cinderella Castle, a towering tribute to the fallen Pharaoh. A mix of French flourishes and fantasy elements, it can also be seen from far into the resort, reassuring guests in the arrival pattern. The design was so definitive, it was cribbed for Tokyo Disneyland.

The Disneyland castle is a diminutive mix of French and Germanic influences.  Ryman, who joined Disney from Twentieth Century Fox, designed a true product of the Film Art Director’s trade. Elements of “fake depth” are evident in the tower on the right side which is significantly smaller than the forward tower, which visually dictates the scale. The smaller tower, and the “bridge” that runs from it, create depth. Depending on the level of the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, the “bridge” can be perceived as a decorative element, or a full scale bridge carrying the royal inhabitants in the distance. Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland is welcoming. It induces curiosity. The closer you get to it, the smaller it seems to become. The buildings at the end of Main Street U.S.A. cradle the view and offer a forced perspective that makes the building look even grander.

Viollet-le-Duc Replica

On a visit to Disneyland, recounted in Sam Gennawey’s fine book, The Disneyland Story, Author Ray Bradbury saw a familiar spire on the side of the castle. He described it as “a duplicate of the convoluted and beauteous spire Viollet-le-Duc raised atop Notre-Dame 100 years ago.” Bradbury phoned the Dean of Disney Design John Hench and asked, “John, how long has Viollet-le-Duc’s spire been on the side of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle?” Hench replied, “Thirty years.” Bradbury remarked that he had never noticed it before and asked who put it there? Hench said, “Walt.” When asked why, Hench said, “Because he loved it.”

Viollet-le-Duc's Spire

During the early 1830s, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was at the forefront of popular sentiment in France for the restoration of medieval buildings. Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations at Notre Dame de Paris, brought him national attention. His other main works include Mont Saint-MichelCarcassonne, and Chatueu de Pierrefonds.

Viollet-le-Duc’s “restorations” frequently combined historical fact with creative modification. For example, under his supervision, Notre Dame was not only cleaned and restored but also “updated”, gaining its distinctive flèche (from the French for arrow) that Walt was so enamored with. Also, the legendary stone gargoyles who seemingly guard the cathedral from their lofty perch were added at this time. Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations were thought by many to be overly showy and in some cases not representative of the buildings’ true medieval character. Still, his mark was made on some of France’s most distinctive historical architecture.

chateau de pierrefonds
Viollet-le-Duc did the restoration work on the Chateau De Pierrefonds.


Ray Bradbury also said, “In Disneyland, Walt has proven again that the first function of architecture is to make men over, make them wish to go on living, feed them fresh oxygen, grow them tall, delight their eyes, make them kind.”