Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is the centerpiece, the icon, and the symbol of Disneyland. Every Disney Park built since 1955 has a castle at the center, but only the original has a full-on storybook attraction inside those stone walls. A lot of people don’t seem to notice it, so it feels kinda secret. The high style, midcentury gothic Sleeping Beauty Walkthrough is one of my favorite places in the park.
When Disneyland first opened, knights on horseback gathered in front of the castle. They blew their horns, the drawbridge lowered, and a sea of children ran over the moat and through the gateway to Fantasyland. I would have run through and tried to shimmy up the castle walls (What’s up there? So pretty!), but there was no reason to try to get inside that day—it was just an unfinished stage set.
Today, the castle houses a glorious salute to the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty, with 14 scenes from the film fleshed out with special effects, animation, and moving figures, all set inside a tricked-out medieval fortress with turrets and pinnacles and everything.
Former child star Shirley Temple cut the ribbon for the first version of the attraction two years after the park opened. It was a walk-through exhibit inspired by illustrated manuscripts and carried out in the captivating modernist style of Eyvind Earle, who painted most of the backgrounds for the movie. You can see 65 of Earle’s original paintings in an exhibition at the Forest Lawn museum through the end of this year.
The highly stylized attraction was remodeled with bland sets and dull dolls in 1977 and then closed in 2001. It sat locked up for seven years until it was completely rebuilt in Earle’s style just in time for the 50th anniversary of the movie.
The latest version has lots of haunting effects and scary thrills—you’ve entered a dark castle where a demonic witch is trying to kill a teenage girl and her boyfriend, after all. Peer through windows in the castle corridors, and watch the story of Sleeping Beauty play out. In one window, countless spindles twirl in the dark, multiplied ad infinitum with mirror effects.
“As a kid you could get transfixed standing in front of this window,” Imagineer Tony Baxter explained during the retrofit. “And you could see spinning wheels going forever just around and around and they had a cycle of music. It’s like really bizarre.”