Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail—Aby Warburg
It’s summer, and certainly time for a vacation. Perhaps you find yourself in that icon of Americana, Walt Disney World. Look up. There, the centerpiece of Magic Kingdom rises: Cinderella Castle. Disney officials cite the architecture of Versailles and Loire Valley chateaus as sources for the castle’s design. Popular legend, however, has it that chief designer Herbert Ryman drew heavily from Ludwig II’s Bavarian Burgenromantik folly, Neuschwanstein Castle. There are more than a few blue-topped turrets to support this claim.
Few Magic Kingdom guests notice a series of murals as they pass through Cinderella Castle’s breezeway on their way to Fantasyland. Despite an extravagantly hued patina that gleams from five panels, each 15 feet high and ten feet wide, the glittering walls receive scant appreciation from visitors drawn to the park’s other offerings. Yet it is precisely such details that differentiated Disney from competing entertainments at the outset. Depicting key moments in the Cinderella fairy tale, the mosaics could be dismissed as froth for a site in which everything is subject to embellishment. However, their placement in Cinderella Castle supports the Neuschwanstein comparison.
Constructed during the latter half the 19th century, Schloss Neuschwanstein afforded Ludwig the opportunity to express his devotion to his artistic hero Richard Wagner on a grand architectural scale. Wagnerian imagery—itself so ingrained in Western culture as to read as “generic fairy tale”—was integral to the decorative plan of the castle interior. Large-scale murals in the Hall of Singers and Throne Room depict story cycles from Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal. Floors, too, are intensely decorated in mosaic, perhaps by the August Wagner workshop active in Germany at the time.
Ludwig’s projects can be further connected to Disney beyond their shared decorative program of excess. Royal architecture was historically constructed for the purpose of political identity-building; palaces were meant to display and embody the physical expression of the leader’s wealth and power. But Neuschwanstein was never meant to serve such purposes.
Instead, it was built as a personal playground for the reclusive king—one in which he could escape to an immersive Wagnerian utopia of heroic knights and tragic, love-addled ladies.
Magic Kingdom visitors, too, are inserted into a make-believe world. Designed to the last inch as an architecture of awe, its role is to convince guests that they have been transported to a magical elsewhere. Disney World performs successfully when the brand disappears and visitors surrender to the fullness of Fantasyland (or a perfected future of Tomorrowland, or the nostalgic ideals of Main Street). One could do worse than to have designers take cues from a passionately idealistic—if famously mad—king whose creations are now sites not of governance, but tourist attractions.
Just as curious as the historic citations of the castle are the artists who worked to create its murals. Creating an immersive experience relies on attention to detail, down to “forgotten” spaces like the Cinderella breezeway. The mosaics are based on the designs of Dorothea Holt Redmond, whose visual vocabulary was steeped in theatricality aimed at audiences considerably more sophisticated than the fairy tale set. As a novice designer and illustrator for film, Redmond was required to have her workspace physically separated from male coworkers who objected to her gender. Her credits went on to include Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments, and an extended period creating designs for the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. Known for her striking watercolor set renderings and designs, Redmond’s brooding trees, tactile patterning, and surprisingly staged angles in the Cinderella mosaics quietly hint at the artist’s decades in film that preceded her designs for Disney.
A team of six took two years to complete the mosaics under the leadership of Prussian-born mosaicist Hanns Joachim Scharff. A German foreign service officer, Scharff was drafted during World War II, where his fluent English landed him a position interrogating downed British and American airmen. Only Disney could have employed a former Luftwaffe interrogator whose tradecraft techniques included sharing tea, swimming excursions, and long walks in the woods with POWs who would later extend their friendship to their former captor. Emigrating to America, Scharff returned to the artwork he all too briefly studied in his youth, founding the mosaic studio—still active today—that produced the Cinderella story cycle.
Small worlds aside, some advice for those who would brave vacations in this happiest of places: Escapism is thoroughly human and is, occasionally, safely indulged. But take a moment to note where the details fall. While spotting carefully orchestrated moments of utopia risks breeding cynicism, it can also reap the quiet, less-expected rewards of wonderment at the Real.