A Walk Inside Sleeping Beauty Castle

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Sleeping Beauty Castle was another example of a Walt Disney innovation. Disneyland opened in 1955 but the animated feature film, Sleeping Beauty did not premiere until nearly four years later in 1959. Only three or four times in the last half-century has a Disney theme park opened an attraction before the film was released.

The castle wasn’t specifically designed to be Sleeping Beauty’s castle. In early planning and written material, it is designated as “The Medieval Castle” and then “Fantasyland Castle” and even “Robin Hood Castle” to theme in with the Disney live action film. This may explain why some of Robin’s merry men hung out in front of the castle in the early years. On his weekly television program In December 1954, Walt himself even referred to the castle as “Snow White’s Castle.”

However, by that fabled day on July 17, 1959, it was Sleeping Beauty Castle and it became an icon not only for the theme park itself but an icon almost as recognizable as Mickey Mouse to represent the entire Disney Company. The early guidebooks indicated that Princess Aurora was in the castle and “slumbers in her magnificent bed chamber” still waiting for Prince Phillip to free her from Maleficient’s evil spell (even though a live action Sleeping Beauty was very active on opening day in the castle courtyard with Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and other Disney characters).

The legendary Van France, who along with Dick Nunis created Disney University and the original training programs for Disneyland cast members, was there in the middle of all the chaos when Disneyland opened that first day.

“Most of the day, I was outside the park on traffic detail, but I did go inside to check on things. I ran into [C.V.] Wood at the entrance to the Administration Building. This usually cool, calm and collected man was out of character. We had forgotten to lock the doors to Sleeping Beauty Castle. Internally, it was nothing but an incomplete shell. ‘Van,’ he yelled, ‘there are people up in that castle. Get them out before they kill themselves.’ Sure enough, here were some people at the top of the castle enjoying the show. They had found an open door and had climbed up on the construction platform. I found Larry Tyson, our finance director, who stood guard at one door, while we carefully helped the people down from their precarious perch before they killed themselves,” France said with a chuckle.

If you watch the live telecast of the opening ceremonies (“Dateline: Disneyland”), you can clearly see the waving guests on the balcony of the castle.

Walt was keenly aware of what his guests wanted. He watched where they walked, what they did with their trash, and what they called things and all of those observations helped fine tune an already outstanding entertainment experience in the early years of the park.

It was definitely clear that the guests wanted to go inside the castle. So he called upon his fabled “jack of all trades,” Imagineer Ken Anderson, to take a little visit to the park with him. Coming along was Disney Legend Emile Kuri who had designed the interior of the Nautilus for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and had contributed significantly to the design of Disneyland’s Main Street.

Ken Anderson remembered that fateful day for Disney Historian Jim Korkis and the complete interview appears in the latest edition of “Walt’s People” Volume Six.

Here is that story told in great detail that has been summarized over the years in a number of different sources:

“One of the most entertaining things that happened was in Sleeping Beauty's Castle. I had already finished Snow White, Peter Pan, Toad and all those things were all done.

“Walt came to me. Walt said, ‘Hey, come with me. There's nothing in the castle, no room in the castle at all but I want you to look at things.’ He wanted something in the castle and wanted me to come up with something.

“The castle was full of maybe 100 or so feral cats. All these wild cats were living there. We climbed up this ladder to get to the first floor which was 18 feet up. It was a high first floor. We were looking around.

“Another man who came with us loved to follow Walt around. He was a good man named Emile Kuri. He had an all white suit. Always wore beautiful clothes. Always white. I think he even had white underwear and socks. He was all white. He knew he had nothing to do with this thing Walt and I were talking about so he just stepped over to the side and there was a big box with a gunny sack in it where the cats had all slept in this thing.

"He lifted this thing. Walt was talking to me about what he wanted me to do. ‘I want you to put Sleeping Beauty in here. You can do it. It's little but you can do it.’

“Emile pulled this sack out and I was looking at him and he went from white to gray. There he was standing in a gray suit. He burst into these terrible yells and jumped over the railing.

"I looked and Walt was all gray and I was turning all gray. We were crawling with fleas. So many fleas you wouldn't believe it. Thousands and thousands of fleas. Emil was jumping around and slapping himself pretty hard that it made this noise.

"Don't panic, fellers. Don't panic. I'll get somebody up here with the wagon," said Walt and he picked up a phone and called and I heard him yell, "Walt Disney! That's who!" Somebody must have said, "Walt who?"

"Send up a car right away!" yelled Walt and they sent up this motorcycle with a sidecar for just one person and that was Walt.

“Emile and I stood in the entrance of the castle and Walt got into the motorcycle and yelled back at us, ‘Don't get into the crowd!’ and he was off to wardrobe.

“Wardrobe was a long ways from where we were. We were supposed to wait for somebody to come but we couldn't wait because we were jumping around and slapping these fleas. We ran through the crowd leaving fleas behind us all the way. We got to wardrobe and got our clothes washed and changed. We were wearing spacemen suits for a week. We got all cleaned up.

“Walt enjoyed it. He laughed at us.

"You didn't get through the crowd, did you guys?" he asked.

"Oh, no, Walt."

"Then how the hell did you get here?"

“One big leap, Walt, what do you think?”

By the way, Walt arranged for bathing, grooming and eventual relocation of the “castle cats” and found them new families despite the recommendations of some of his staff to find a more speedy and permanent solution.

To help explain the story of Disney’s version of “Sleeping Beauty” to the guests, to promote the upcoming film and to allow guests an opportunity to go inside the castle, a narrow walk through diorama of miniature scenes was designed by Anderson.

Since the film wasn’t complete, some of those scenes bore no resemblance to the final film even though Production Art designer Eyvind Earle, responsible for the distinctive look of the film in production, himself did some of the artwork for the dioramas. (Some of those can be viewed here). Sadly, Earle’s work was replaced when the exhibit was re-designed in 1977.

This “A”-ticket walking tour up narrow winding stairs in the dark showcased miniature dioramas concentrating on key moments in the story. Illuminated manuscripts in leather bound volumes helped guests follow the storyline as they walked from one end of the castle to the other over the archway. There was music and sound effects including an “echo” effect at one point. As a child, I enjoyed it tremendously but today as a large adult, I wonder if I could negotiate the experience with the same zeal.

The dioramas were dimensional plywood cutouts that had some elements of movement. For instance, Maleficient had Diablo the Raven on her shoulders and his wings slowly flapped thanks to a small motor mechanism. It was very similar to the sets and figures in the original Fantasyland dark rides.

The scenes were:

  1. Burning of every Spinning Wheel in the Kingdom (a series of flats with a lighted burning effect down in the courtyard similar to an effect later used in “Pirates of the Caribbean”)
  2. Three fairies watching over the little Princess night and day (the fairies would appear to float over the cradle using the “Pepper’s Ghost” technique later used in the “Haunted Mansion” ballroom scene)
  3. Maleficient’s curse comes to pass (when the princess touches the spinning wheel)
  4. Main Hall with sleeping spell cast on family and friends
  5. Princess Aurora asleep under the curse
  6. Meet Maleficient’s demons (where the guest could peak through keyholes to see the goons. This was a last minute addition since the original plans indicate that the guests at this point were to wander outside onto the rear balcony for a view of Fantasyland but that never happened.)
  7. Demons flying throughout air from Maleficient’s Castle to King Stefan’s Castle
  8. Bottomless Pit (Echo Chamber. Guests would lean into a shallow area and hear their words repeated faintly over and over thanks to a special recording mechanism with a continuous tape loop passing over one recording and several playback heads giving an eerie echo illusion.)
  9. Maleficient celebrates the triumph of evil
  10. Waltz of the Spinning Wheel (there was a turntable with spinning wheels on it surrounded by mirrors, making it seem like an endless number of spinning wheels just like the endless hallway in the Haunted Mansion)
  11. Love’s First Kiss (when the prince leaned over and kissed the cutout of Aurora she fluttered her eyelids and opened her eyes)

To fit in all of these scenes, interior space of the two Fantasyland shops on the ground floor of the castle were reduced and portions of their ceilings lowered to help accommodate the stairwells. Cast member access had to be redesigned since it was still necessary for special celebrations to have costumed cast members and trumpeters appear on the battlements.

Imagineer Dick Irvine told Imagineer Randy Bright that he felt the dioramas looked like department store window dressing but praised Anderson for “great illusions and beautiful sketches.” At this time, Anderson was working on a proposal for the Haunted Mansion and incorporated some of those effects that he was researching into the displays.

The official dedication of the new walk-through took place on Sunday, April 29, 1957 at 3 p.m. with the Disneyland Band playing “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the courtyard.

Walt, of course, was there to give the dedication speech. Jack Lindquist, who would later become the president of the park but at the time was involved in marketing, wrote Walt’s speech and remembered it as one his favorite experiences recently for writer Scott Wolf’s incredible Web site devoted to interviews with Disney people. (You can read several of Lindquist’s interviews here.)

Lindquist remembered, “One of the first times I got the chance to work directly for [Walt Disney] was the opening of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Yeah, the walk-through and dedication and Shirley Temple was going to be a part of the ceremony and I had the chance to write the speech for Walt. So I sat down at a typewriter and said, "OK, now what the [heck] should I say?" So I wrote something, sent it up there and I'd heard from most everybody that Walt will change everything. So I was waiting for it to come back, I never heard a thing. He came down the day of the dedication and I met him over at City Hall about an hour before the dedication, and he took the speech out of his vest pocket and said, 'Who wrote this?' I thought oh boy, next thing he'll say is,'You're fired.' So I said, 'I did."' He said, 'Oh.' And didn't say a word. Put it back in his pocket, went to the opening and he read it and didn't change one word. So I was very pleased and proud of that.”

Yes, the other person dedicating the new attraction was actress Shirley Temple, dressed as a princess wearing a gold crown and a red velvet cloak and accompanied by her three children: oldest daughter Linda, son Charles Jr., and youngest daughter Lori. They stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and apparently enjoyed some time at the park that day before the dedication ceremony.

By this time in her life, Shirley Temple had been to Hawaii with her daughter and had met the true love of her life, Charles Alden Black. He didn't even know who Shirley Temple was, and had never seen one of her movies. They soon married and Shirley Temple Black and Charles had two children of their own: Charles Jr. and Lori. Shirley retired from the entertainment limelight and spent the next years taking care of her children and husband.

However, in 1958, Shirley Temple came back as the host of a children's theatre television show called Shirley Temple's Storybook, later named The Shirley Temple Theatre. In these appearances, Shirley would introduce the show for the evening, and it was usually an adaptation of a fairy tale and sometimes Shirley would even act in them herself.

After Walt spoke to the crowd briefly, he introduced Shirley Temple Black who told the story of Sleeping Beauty. Then, with Walt, she cut the ribbon to open the attraction and went inside. Later, she waved to photographers and guests from the upper balcony.

Pictures of Shirley and her family at the dedication and with Walt can be found at this fun Web site devoted to displaying some extraordinary old photos of Disneyland.

Real Disneyphiles also remember this was not the first meeting of Walt and Shirley Temple. On February 7, 1939, little Shirley had presented Walt with an honorary Academy Award (one big Oscar, seven little ones) for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Another interesting oddity is that a live-action television version of Sleeping Beauty was shown on Shirley Temple’s Storybook on June 8, 1958 (Season 1, Episode 8) with actress Anne Helm portraying the princess. Helm is probably better remembered for her brief liaison with Elvis Presley although she did become a writer and illustrator of children’s books.

To tie-in with the new attraction, Disney produced a lavishly illustrated 25 cent booklet telling the story of Sleeping Beauty that could be purchased at the park. “A Free Envelope if you desire to mail this ‘Sleeping Beauty Castle’ booklet is available upon request at the Arts Crafts Store in the Castle courtyard. Additional copies with envelopes 25 cents per book” claimed a perforated “for easy removal” coupon in the book.

Surrounding a color photo of Walt kneeling on the lawn in front of the castle with three small young boys was an introduction credited to Walt himself:

“Imagination is the mold from which reality is created. Centuries ago men of vivid imagination created the fairytales which live to this day, even though in many cases the authors’ names have been lost in the mist of antiquity. Of all these stirring legends of princes and princesses, of witches and fairies, and of the triumph of good over evil, none has ever been so inspirational to me as ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ From the time I started making motion pictures I dreamed of bringing Sleeping Beauty to life through the medium of animation.

"But its scope defied us until recent years when our creative talent and technical advances made its production possible. Sleeping Beauty is the most beautiful and exacting picture we have ever made—and without doubt our costliest. It has been a definite challenge but thanks to our talented staff of artists and technicians, it has been met.

“And now as a result of our vast research and motion picture production efforts, Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland has been completed. Through the medium of key scenes from our film, we have symbolized its timeless enchantments. Here behind these castle walls, in these towers and courts, may be seen the joys and tears of the beautiful Princess Aurora, mingled in her great adventure with the powers of good and evil. We hope the magic spell of these scenes and sounds will revive in every beholder’s heart some image of his own most precious dreams—the dreams from which all enduring fairytales are made.”

Titled “Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle,” this thin, but beautiful booklet tells the story of Sleeping Beauty in three pages and five beautiful color renderings that look to be concept art for the final dioramas. There is an additional page talking about the film itself and a centerfold of Prince Philip meeting Briar Rose from the film. The booklet is offered quite frequently for sale.

The Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough was redesigned in 1977 to increase the sophistication of effects now that Audio Animatronics made those simple effects look ancient. In addition, it was felt that the displays should more closely mirror the actual finished film. New dioramas replaced the Earle originals. The 1977 dioramas were more three-dimensional and much more detailed and closely resembled the displays that decorated the windows of the Main Street Emporium.

The reason for that “look” was it was created by the same team that did those Main Street display windows. Bob Davis, Jim Dieli and Gene Calmelot from Disneyland’s Marketing Division were the artists who watched the films and came up with the set design and possible animation. According to Disney publicity at the time, “Gene, who was with the Studio’s Animation Department during the production of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, lent his creative mind and hands to this project” of refurbishing the Sleeping Beauty Castle walk through. The actual creation of the sets and figures were in the hands of Eric Gatley and a team of craftsmen who then turned it over to Disneyland’s Maintenance Division who completed the sets under the supervision of “Disney artists.”

The new scene pattern was:

  1. Subjects attired in medieval costume approach King Stefan’s castle to honor the newborn princess
  2. Maleficient bestows her gift in the form of a curse
  3. The three fairies conspire as the spinning wheels burn
  4. A forest sanctuary for Princess Aurora
  5. Aurora dances with a make-believe prince
  6. Maleficient admonishes her army of goons
  7. Aurora caught in a spinning wheel spell
  8. Prince Phillip battles the fire-breathing dragon
  9. Sleeping Beauty awakens with love’s first kiss
  10. The kingdom celebrates

This version was extensively photographed for future generations and there are several locations that try to re-create the experience including here and here.

Over the years, additions were made to try and upgrade the attraction from the introduction to fiber optics, to changes in lighting to shimmering new fabrics for the sets and figures.

On October 7, 2001, the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-Through was closed "for refurbishment." While Disney management was satisfied with Disney fan speculation that the reason of the closure was for security purposes after the terror of Sept. 11 that happened that year, the real truth was more mundane. While the castle gave the illusion of a rock structure, it was in fact made of wood that had not been maintained since the park opened just like the fabled Fantasyland carousel that required major attention. In addition, the popularity for the quiet experience had waned greatly over the decades.

Disneyland never announced the permanent closing for the attraction but gradually the signage of refurbishment disappeared and no one talked about it

While remnants of the 1977 dioramas are still there, they have not been well protected and some areas of the attraction have been cut away to accommodate the needs for laser show equipment and such for the nightly fireworks show.

However, the purpose of today’s column is not to fondly remember yet another lost attraction from Walt’s original park but to speculate about its future. Rumors of construction crews moving in and out of the fragile landmark have proven true. The 50th anniversary "Sleeping Beauty" DVD, due out in October 2008, will include a computer-animated re-creation of the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough.

To tie-in with the upcoming DVD release, a new experience for guests is being designed behind those famous wooden walls will embrace the Eyvind Earle artwork of the original. True love’s first kiss will once again awaken a sleeping beauty. And guests once again will get a chance to venture inside the castle.

Just like Princess Aurora herself, the walk through attraction has been slumbering for many years waiting for a prince to battle the dragon of finances and awaken the attraction for new generations.