Though fantastical, many of the most popular – and sometimes lesser known or hidden – theme park icons and architectural styles are inspired by real-world buildings. Many are forced perspective recreations of their real counterparts while others utilize multiple architectural styles and building references mixed into one final design.
Unbeknownst to Guests, while they are walking through theme parks, they are also quite possibly experiencing a history book of architectural styles ranging from Medieval castles to modern iconic architectural styles from the Mid-twentieth Century.
From Louis Le Vau, the Architect of Versailles, to modern architects such as Richard Neautra and Frank Lloyd Wright; theme park architecture captures and incorporates a vast array and confluence of styles and design motifs lifted from actual built structures all utilized to tell the story of their respective themed designs.
Theme Park Icons Inspired by Real Architecture
Sleeping Beauty Castle – Disneyland
Walt Disney and his Imagineers based the architectural styling of Sleeping Beauty Castle, in Disneyland, on the fairytale-like Neuschwanstein Castle in the German Alps. Much like Disney’s first castle, Neuschwanstein has a unique history and origin story. Both castles are filled with highly detailed architectural interior and exterior design motifs.
Disney borrowed several architectural design cues from Neuschwanstein. The most prominent being the single, tall spire with a small turret atop – a feature that would be carried throughout all Disney ‘castle’ park iterations around the globe. The front facade of Neuschwanstein is transposed to the rear elevation of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle – though originally it was planned to be the front, Hub-facing elevation. Other details shared between the two castles are the short and squatty lower turrets around the base of each castle’s battlements.
Neuschwanstein Castle is open to visitors traveling to Germany. The German castle is currently going through an extensive renovation, but limited guided tours are available to the general public. Be sure to check out the castle’s website for hours and ticket & reservation details.
Cinderella Castle – Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World
When Disney announced their ‘Florida Project’, it was fitting its first theme park – the Magic Kingdom – would be a park with a castle designed by famed Imagineer, Herbert Ryan. Unlike its sister castle in Anaheim, that for all intents and purposes is based on one castle, Cinderella Castle is a unique blend of French and European castle architecture spanning across multiple centuries.
One can ‘read’ the historical references found on Cinderella Castle, starting at the base embattlement, with the earlier more Medieval European castle architectural details and as you tilt your eyes upward, you are quite literally coming forward in time in French and European castle architectural styles. By the time one reaches the top of Cinderella Castle, you see highly ornate and gilded details with Gothic and Baroque influences.
Here are some of the real castles and architecture that inspired Cinderella Castle:
- Neuschwanstein in Germany
- Fontainebleau in France
- Tyn Church in Czech Republic
- Château de Chenonceau in France
- Château de Pierrefonds in France
- Château de Chaumont in France
- Château de Chambord in France
With a larger budget and an increase in the park’s size, Cinderella Castle in Florida is approximately 100 feet taller than Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. To put that into perspective, Sleeping Beauty Castle is roughly as tall as the first, lower rows of spires around the embattlement – or base – of Cinderella Castle.
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Unlike Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland, Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom has habitable spaces within its confines. At the base, is the Guest check in lobby to Cinderella’s Royal Table Restaurant one level above, a backstage access and dressing area for entertainment Cast Members, and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. In its upper reaches lives the Cinderella’s Royal Table Restaurant with views out the rear facade onto Fantasyland. In the uppermost part of the castle is a small space originally planned to be an apartment for Walt Disney.
The Disney family apartment was never realized since Walt passed prior to the Magic Kingdom’s opening in 1966 and Roy O. Disney – Walt’s brother who completed WDW – passed away just two months after its official opening in 1971. In the early years, the uppermost habitable space was used as a Cast Member office space. In 2006, Walt Disney Imagineers – led by Principal Interior Designer Kathy Carver – transformed the bland office space into the current Castle Suite as part of the “Year of a Million Dreams” giveaway. Winning contestants could win a night’s stay in the suite, a unique experience to date not replicated at any Disney theme park around the world.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Situated at the end of Hollywood Boulevard in Disney’s Hollywood Studios lives the Disney recreated Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. An original day-one structure that draws Guests into the park – much like their castles or the geosphere at Epcot – acting as an architectural focal point and one of the icons for the park.
Unlike many of Disney’s themed buildings that use forced perspective – intentionally scaling the entire or portions of a building to meet the scale of surrounding area – the Chinese Theater is actually a full-scale recreation of the original theater located in Hollywood, California. Walt Disney Imagineers used the original blueprints of the real Chinese Theatre to recreate their version at the Hollywood Studios theme park.
The original Grauman’s Chinese Theatre opened in May of 1927 and was the brainchild of architect Raymond Kennedy and real estate mogul C.E. Toberman. Grauman was no stranger to thematic, atmospheric theaters. Prior to the Chinese Theater, he developed the ‘Million Dollar Theatre’ in downtown L.A. and the iconic ‘Egyptian Theatre’.
Disney’s replica, like the original in Hollywood, is approximately 90 feet tall boasting its two iconic red columns on either side of the prominent 30 feet tall dragon sculpture and a forecourt area flanked by 40 feet tall walls adorned with Chinese ornamentation. Shortly after its opening the original Chinese Theatre became the hottest location to premier new films during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In honor of that era in Hollywood’s history, Disney’s Chinese Theatre originally housed ‘The Great Movie Ride’ attraction that immersed Guests into some of the most popular movies to come out of Hollywood. However, in 2023 Imagineers updated the attraction completely replacing it with the ‘Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway’ attraction.
Hollywood Tower Hotel – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Disney’s Hollywood Tower Hotel was an iconic addition in the 1994 expansion to the Hollywood Studios – at the time named Disney-MGM Studios – that resides at the end of Vine Street. The ‘hotel’ houses ‘The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’ dark ride, an attraction who’s story is inspired by Rod Serling’s television series ‘The Twilight Zone’ that puts Guests into an abandoned freight elevator that seems to have a mind of its own as it hurls riders up and down a 130 vertical drop.
The architecture of the Hollywood Tower Hotel is in the Spanish Colonial Revival style popular in California in the early 20th Century. The hotel’s interior and exterior is inspired by two historic California landmarks, the Biltmore Hotel designed by architectural firm Shultze & Weaver which opened in 1923 and the Aurthur Burnett Benton – with later additions by Myron Hunt and G. Stanley Wilson – designed Mission Inn.
The ‘lobby’ of Disney’s fictitious hotel is directly inspired by the vaulted interior one can see today in the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Both are adorned with Moorish architectural details and iconography, though Disney’s has many more cobwebs and an interesting set of permanent ‘guests’.
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa
Situated on a plot of land on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon near the Magic Kingdom, originally slated to receive an Asian-inspired resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is a Victorian-themed hotel that opened in 1988. Disney Imagineers and architecture firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo (WATG) were inspired by Florida Victorian-era beach resorts.
If the distinctive red roof of the Grand Floridian seems familiar, that’s because Imagineers looked to two iconic real-world hotels for design inspiration. One, is the historic beachside Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, California. The other is the (green roofed and Victorian styled) Belleview-Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida.
The Hotel del Coronado originally opened in February 1888 and was designed by architect James W. Reid. At the time, it had one of the largest electrical power plants in the state that provided power to the local community up until the 1920’s. The Florida counterpart used for inspiration was the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel in Florida which opened in 1897 and was built by Florida railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant. The hotel featured Tiffany stained glass and was constructed of native Florida heart pine wood.
As with Disney’s Grand Floridian, travelers can still stay at the famed Hotel del Coronado, which currently is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton. The hotel is a popular destination for visitors to the San Diego area and hosts many conferences and weddings.
Brown Derby – Universal Studios Orlando
When one thinks about old Hollywood architecture, they cannot forget the Googie Architecture prominent in Southern California. Googie has its roots in Streamline Moderne Architecture popular in the 1930’s. Googie was popular with roadside businesses and used as a means of visually advertising from passing travelers in automobiles. This style was easily recognizable from a distance to travelers acting as a giant billboard – think Randy’s giant donut still in existence today – for advertising their particular trade and wares.
The term ‘Googie’ comes from Googie’s Coffee Shop, once located in Hollywood, designed by famous architect John Lautner. During the 1940’s and 50’s, Googie would transform into the more common jet-age and Space Age motifs using geometric forms, upswept roofs, boomerang shapes, and other architectural elements indicating speed, movement, and futuristic design.
The Brown Derby Restaurant was not a single, stand-alone building. Few realize the Brown Derby was a chain of restaurants in and around Los Angeles with the first location opening in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard. The original Brown Derby featured the iconic large, ‘Googie’ style hat as the eye-catching feature. Various other, later Brown Derby locations incorporated different styles of architecture such as Spanish Mission.
Due to several of the Brown Derby’s locations being near working movie studios, they were frequented by big named stars of the era, such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, etc. An interior iconic feature of the Brown Derby were its caricature drawings of famous people located on the restaurant’s wall of fame, most were drawn by artist Jack Lane from 1947 through 1985.
Two other notable firsts are reported to have originated from the Brown Derby restaurants. One being the Cobb salad reported to be named after owner Bob Cobb. The other famous item is the Shirley Temple non-alcoholic drink. The drink was invented in the 1930’s at the Brown Derby, but according to Temple she never cared for the beverage and never sought legal naming rights to it.
Today, the Brown Derby has made its appearance in theme park history in two different locations. One, at Universal Studios Florida with a direct, partial replica of the original Brown Derby restaurant functioning as a hat store. Down the street at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Imagineers incorporated their version of the famed restaurant – utilized as an actual full service restaurant in the park – incorporating the later Spanish Mission style of architecture found in some of the other versions of the original restaurant chain.
Stave Church – Norway Pavilion, Epcot
Stave church architecture dates back to medieval Europe, more specifically they can be found in the north-western regions of Europe and Scandinavia. With their use of wood post and lintel construction and exterior cladding, these Christian churches were prominent in Norway – during the Viking Age – dating back to as early as the 1100’s.
Though not a day-one pavilion in Epcot, the Norway pavilion opened in May of 1988 making it the last pavilion dedicated to a country to be built at Epcot. Situated at the entry to the Norway pavilion, is a scaled representation of a Norwegian Stave Church.
Similar to its historic predecessors, Disney’s Stave Church’s exterior is fully clad in wood – both the facade and roof shingles – with wood post and beam construction. Unlike its Christian church counterparts in Scandinavia, Disney’s stave church functions as a small gallery that features rotating exhibits highlighting Norwegian and Scandinavian culture and history.
Doge’s Palace – Italy Pavilion, Epcot
Disney Imagineers looked to Venice, Italy for inspiration for their Italy Pavilion in Epcot, at Walt Disney World. From the iconic Campanile de San Marco – bell tower – to the Doge’s Palace, both are located in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice.
Check out our more in-depth article on the real-world Italian Architecture that inspired the Imagineers who created the country’s pavilion in Epcot.
Koutoubia Mosque of Marrakesh – Morocco Pavilion, Epcot
The Koutoubia Mosque, with its 253 feet tall minaret, was originally built in 1147 in Marrakesh, Morocco. The highly decorated minaret is considered an icon and important landmark for the city of Marrakesh. Located approximately 700 feet away is the city’s Jemaa El Fan souq – a prominent marketplace that has existed since the city’s establishment. The mosque is an important example of Almohad architecture, a type of Moroccan mosque architecture.
Based on those two important features alone, it’s understandable why Disney Imagineers utilized these two existing structures, as well as other Moroccan architectural styles and buildings, for inspiration when designing the Morocco pavilion in Epcot.
Due to the pavilion’s history and close ties with the Moroccan government at the time it was built, real Moroccan artisans were brought to the United States to help carve and complete Disney’s recreation in World Showcase. Guests visiting the pavilion can wonder through highly adorned and decorated buildings containing shops and restaurants. The scale of the Morocco pavilion is more human in demeanor and its interior and exterior proportions giving the feel to visitors they are wondering the streets and back alleys of Marrakesh.
Horyuji Temple – Japan Pavilion, Epcot
Unlike the tight quarters in the Morocco pavilion at Epcot, the Japan pavilion’s scale and feel is open and broad reaching. At the edge of the World Showcase lagoon in front of the pavilion is a replica of the Itsukushima Shrine and a vermillion colored torii – or a gate of honor representing a Japanese calligraphic character.
On the left side of the pavilion one cannot miss the five-level pagoda who’s stages represent in ascending order the elements from which Buddhists believe all things in the universe are created: earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. Disney’s pagoda, standing 83 feet in height, is inspired by the real eighth-century Horyuji temple in Nara, Japan.
The remainder of Japan’s pavilion is sprinkled with gardens in which Guests can stroll through – gardens inspired by the Kyoto gardens with Disney incorporating a replica tea house restaurant based on the Katsura imperial villa.
Other notable structures in Disney’s celebration of Japan is the ‘entry castle’ structure modeled after the Shirasagijo – or White Egret Castle – overlooking the city of Himeji. The remaining large structure on the right side of the pavilion is the Shishinden, or Hall of Ceremonies, that was originally a part of the Gosho Imperial Palace complex in Kyoto which at Epcot, on the upper level, houses a formal restaurant and on the ground level resides a large retail store featuring all things Japanese.
Park Entry Gates – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Originally conceived as a ‘movie pavilion’ in Epcot – planned to be located between Journey Into Imagination and the Land Pavilion – the fully realized Disney-MGM Studios would eventually become Walt Disney World’s third gate; a third theme park added in 1989 to Walt Disney World in an effort to compete with the then-new Universal Studios theme park down the street in Orlando.
For the Disney Imagineers, the Disney-MGM Studios – now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios – would be a return to a ‘human scaled’ theme park taking master planning and design proportions from Disneyland. The park was an architectural and thematic homage to old Hollywood celebrating movie making from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, with a backlot featuring movie making magic of the late 80’s and early 1990’s as well.
Park Guests enter the park through Disney’s recreation of architect Welton Becket’s Pan Pacific Auditorium entry facade. Originally built in 1935 in Southern California, the auditorium had been abandoned and fell under disrepair by the late 1980’s. The original Pan Pacific Auditorium was lost to a fire started by vandals in 1989 – ironically the same year the Disney-MGM Studios opened.
The Pan Pacific Auditorium is a classic example of Streamline Moderne architecture. Streamline Moderne architecture is a subset style of Art Deco Architecture that emerged in the 1930’s. It is inspired by sleek aerodynamic designs of early airplanes and automobiles prevalent at the time, and it in turn later inspired other forms of transportation such as steam liner ships, and steam locomotives. The architectural style evokes a sense of movement difficult to successfully achieve in static architecture utilizing long horizontal lines, curvaceous forms, and often nautical design elements
Streamline Moderne was the first architectural style to incorporate electric lights into architectural structures, using lighting as an accent to highlight portions of the architecture at night. This style of architecture stripped away heavy ornamental detailing of previous architectural styles – like those seen in the Victorian-era – and replaced sharp architectural design elements with simple, curves. Ornamentation was replaced with smooth concrete, glass, and on some commercial buildings in this style neon lights were used to highlight architectural features.
50’s Prime Time Cafe – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Taking a stroll down the front main and side streets at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is like walking through a coffee table book on Modern Architecture. From Art Deco buildings from the 1930’s and various locations up to the 1950’s, one can see how the Disney Imagineers leveraged an entire palette of Southern California architecture, with most of the facades being direct lifts or replicas of popular buildings from that timeframe.
One of our favorites – often overlooked by the more popular architectural facades seen on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street at the Hollywood Studios – is the block of buildings including the 50’s Prime Time Cafe. Situated at the end of the block, the Prime Time Cafe is directly adjacent to the ‘Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular’ venue.
The 50’s Prime Time Cafe takes it architectural inspiration from several famous architects working in Southern California during the 1940’s and 50’s. Buildings such as architect Richard Neutra’s Lovell House and architect Pierre Koenig’s famous Stahl House are prevalent throughout the Cafe’s facade. From the modern, clean horizontal lines, to the apparent flat roof and International Architectural Style influences, the Cafe is a great example of Imagineers incorporating Mid-Century Modern commercial and residential design into the theme park’s story.