Sleeping Beauty castle walk-through to reopen at Disneyland
When the Sleeping Beauty castle walk-through “reawakens” after a seven-year slumber, Disneyland visitors will find a faithful re-creation of the original 1950s attraction that blends equal parts retro artistry, low-tech wizardry and ageless curiosity.
While all the characters from the original animated movie are represented — the sleeping beauty Aurora, the valiant Prince Phillip and the three kindly fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather — the castle walk-through really belongs to the wicked Maleficent. More than half the scenes inside the castle belong to the villainess. In fact, we never actually see the castle’s namesake princess awake. (Read a scene-by-scene breakdown of the re-created Sleeping Beauty castle walk-through.)
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 original castle walk-through opened in 1957, two years after the theme park debuted and two years before the movie premiered. For 20 cents, visitors walked through a labyrinth of staircases, past a series of dioramas that told the story of “Sleeping Beauty” — essentially a life-size three-dimensional pop-up storybook preview of the animated movie.
Each tableau employed a series of smoke-and-mirror illusions — multi-layer scenery, forced perspective views and ghost effects — to create the impression of the detailed and elaborate hand-painted set coming to life.
“They had to use extreme forced perspectives to make these things feel much bigger than they were,” Baxter said. “It meant that they were bending depths and using mirrors to trick your eye into thinking you were looking a great distance.”
Walt Disney tapped animation artist Eyvind Earle, who would later work on the “Sleeping Beauty” movie, to design the walk-through scenes. Earle teamed with Imagineer Ken Anderson, who turned the walk-through concepts into architectural drawings.
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.
Like any work in progress, the 1957 walk-through featured story concepts that never made the movie and omitted crucial scenes that ultimately made the film’s final cut.
The climatic battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent’s dragon was nowhere to be found inside the castle. And the penultimate kiss that awoke beauty was inexplicably missing — not to appear until six weeks after the walk-through’s opening (at Walt Disney’s insistence).
Instead, the castle walk-through story ended with a shadowy silhouette of Maleficent that brought children to tears and traffic to an abrupt halt in the narrow stairwells. So much for happy endings. (The spectral antagonist lasted only a few months before disappearing for good.)
Other gags worked much better — with identical bottleneck-inducing results. A series of medieval dungeon doors offered visitors the enticing opportunity of peeking through a keyhole. The clever illusion took your own eye and superimposed it on the faces of imprisoned goons. The mesmerizing effect stopped stooping visitors in their tracks — further backing up queues in the cramped castle. As a result, the popular scene was boarded up within a year.
Another early concept — involving visitors walking outside the castle to peer over the turrets and parapets — never made it past the planning stages.
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.
Disney archivists tracked down the original 1957 concept art and blueprints, but deciphering the complicated layouts proved daunting — like trying to figure out a half-century-old multi-layered jigsaw puzzle. Only one photo existed of the original walk-though — a thumbnail-sized slide from an old Viewmaster toy.
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.”
The castle walk-through is scheduled to reopen in mid-December — just in time for the crush of holiday crowds in the park. And, of course, the Christmas promotion of the re-released 50th anniversary “Sleeping Beauty” DVD. The DVD extras include a virtual castle walk-through with explanations by Baxter of how Disney Imagineers created the special effects.