Updated March 25, 2017. See the addendum.
The gateway to Fantasyland is Sleeping Beauty Castle. In many ways, it’s not just the castle from Disney’s animated feature Sleeping Beauty — it’s every castle from every fairy tale ever told. In fact, during much of the time Disneyland was under construction, it was known only as Fantasyland Castle.
Inspired by the nineteenth century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Sleeping Beauty Castle features architectural touches from other sources as well. One unexpected detail is the Viollet-le-Duc Spire, an ornate flèche (arrow-like spire) to the right of the tallest tower as you face the drawbridge side of the Castle. It is named for Gothic Revival architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), who restored many medieval structures in Paris.
That spire goes unnoticed by most visitors — but writer Ray Bradbury noticed. Bradbury became acquainted with John Hench and other Imagineers while working with them on Spaceship Earth, the geodesic sphere attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida. After a vacation in Paris, Bradbury visited Disneyland — then he went home and called John Hench.
Bradbury later recalled his conversation with Hench: “I said, ‘I just noticed something about Sleeping Beauty Castle. There’s a spire there that I saw last on top of Notre Dame and the Palais de Justice in Paris. How long has that been there on Sleeping Beauty Castle?’ [Hench] said, ‘Twenty years.’ I said, ‘Who put it there?’ He said, ‘Walt did.’ I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because he loved it.’ I said, ‘Ah! That’s why I love Walt Disney. It cost a hundred thousand dollars to build a spire you didn’t need, eh?’ The secret of Disney is doing things you don’t need and doing them well, and then you realize you needed them all along.”
Walt wanted his Castle to sparkle, so he insisted that the Castle spires be clad in genuine gold leaf. His brother Roy refused to allow the unnecessary extravagance, so Walt waited until Roy was away on business before having the spires gilded. Only one spire was left unsheathed in gold (it’s covered in patina bronze). It’s said that Walt left one spire unfinished to symbolize his desire that Disneyland never be completed, but always improving.
I would encourage you, the next time you visit the Park, to take a few moments and really look at the Castle — and its golden spires.
Update, March 25, 2017:
A friend on Twitter questioned some of the information in this blog post. He doubted (a) that the spires of Sleeping Beauty Castle are clad in genuine gold, and (b) that Walt left one spire unfinished as a symbol of “his desire that Disneyland never be completed, but always improving.” So I did some additional research and I am still convinced that, yes, the spires are covered in genuine 22-karat gold. I agree with my Twitter friend, however, that Walt never did and never would deliberately leave any part of Disneyland unfinished in order to make a symbolic statement. Here’s the result of my research into the question of the gilded spires:
Urban planner and MiceChat.com columnist Sam Gennawey is the author of The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream (Birmingham AL: Keen Communications, 2014). There he writes that Imagineer Herb Ryman added a “special touch” to the Castle: “22-karat gold-leafed spires. Walt had authorized the expense while Roy was away on vacation” (page 80). A Disney Company website, MagicalKingdoms.com, also states, “Sharp eyes will notice such details as . . . 22-karat gold-leafing adorning the spires” of the Castle (see “Disneyland Resort: Sleeping Beauty Castle”).
For at least fifteen years, tour guides on the official Disneyland guided tour, “Walk in Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps,” have been telling Park visitors that the castle spires are covered in genuine gold leaf. Guides also say that Roy opposed the gilding of the spires, so Walt approved the expenditure while Roy was on a trip. The guides add that when Roy returned and discovered what Walt had done, he was furious and the two brothers didn’t speak to each other for more than a month.
Gold is maintenance-free because it doesn’t corrode, so Walt’s “extravagance” might have been a prudent and frugal decision. As of today, the price of gold is about $1,250 an ounce, but in 1955, gold sold for about $35 an ounce. While inflation has boosted the price of most other goods and commodities about 900 percent since 1955, the price of gold has increased almost 3,600 percent. So in 1955, gold leafing was cheap, compared with today’s gold prices, and probably seemed like a brilliant, cost-effective building material to Walt, and a sound investment in preventative maintenance.
We also know that, in 1966, Walt approved genuine 22-karat gold leaf trim for Mary Blair’s whimsical, whirling decorations for the façade of “it’s a small world.” This was reported by Chris Strodder in The Disneyland Encyclopedia (Solana Beach CA: Santa Monica Press, 2012, page 225), and by Jim Fanning in The Disney Book: A Celebration of the World of Disney (New York: DK Books, 2015, page 173). Walt also approved the gilding of the spires and roof of Cinderella’s Castle in the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction, as reported by Sam Gennawey in The Disneyland Story, page 117.
I can understand why some people would doubt the story about gold on the Castle spires, but the Disney Company reports it as fact, as do a number of credible Disney historians. Personally, I’m convinced it’s true.