Like most people on the internet, we love ranking things. When it comes to visiting Disney parks, one of our favorite activities is to compare and contrast. (We've even ranked all the Disney parks and ranked all the rides at Walt Disney World) Each park has its strengths and weaknesses, and parsing those out helps us figure out what it is we appreciate about Disney parks.
In this post, I rank the iconic castles of the Disney parks. I don’t rank all the castles in Disney parks, as Magic Kingdom contains several other than Cinderella Castle (Belle and Beast’s; Ariel and Prince Eric’s for example).
It should go without saying that this list is subjective. I’ve tried to explain how each castle succeeds and fails in my mind, and I even had to shuffle the list as I wrote. At the end of the day, though, this comes down mostly to personal preference.
Honorable Mention: Fortress Explorations, Tokyo DisneySea
If we really counted it as a castle, Fortress Explorations would be the top of the list. Quite simply, besides maybe Harambe in Animal Kingdom, this is the single best space in a Disney theme park.
For starters, it has stunning exterior design. Even without the inside space, it’s one of the most beautiful features in a Disney park. It’s a coastal citadel, carved into the land around it. Best of all, it captures beautifully the main theme of Tokyo DisneySea—the relationship between humans and the sea.
The inside of the Fortress is somehow even more impressive. It features a great bar/restaurant, Magellan’s, and the single best space to explore in a Disney park. You can wander around the castle for hours, stumbling across a Foucault Pendulum, illusions, stunning art, games, and a host of other displays all celebrating the history of exploration.
Oh, and it's the home base of S.E.A., which pretty much makes it the most important spot in Disney parks for a certain brand of hardcore fan.
With that very honorable mention out of the way, let's get to the rest of the list, counting down from number six!
Something about the castle just bothered me in a way it didn’t in Disneyland. It could have been the contrast with the mountains in the background, which some find charming. It also probably had to do with the fact that it wasn’t an original—it just didn’t make sense to build this icon in 2005 the way it did in 1955.
In essence, the castle’s diminutive, copied presence is a metaphor for the park. Like the park, it is small, underwhelming, and poorly conceived. This might be too harsh, but it’s the opinion that ultimately won the day. Hong Kong Disneyland and its castle are getting a huge makeover.
5. Enchanted Storybook Castle, Shanghai Disneyland
Something had to come in fifth, and the Enchanted Storybook Castle at least somewhat deserves it. The gargantuan castle is something of an eyesore. Like the rest of the park, it does a good job of demonstrating that bigger is not always better.
While the large castles in Florida, Paris, and Tokyo all serve as “weenies”—directional focal points guests can use to orient themselves in the park—the Enchanted Storybook Castle, despite its enormous size, fails this simple task.
The castle looks similar from multiple angles, which causes problems in the gigantic park, where a wrong turn can take you quite out of your way. What’s more, the size of the park makes the castle less impressive. It never looks small, but it also doesn’t quite impress from a distance.
That said, up close it is an impressive structure. It houses two attractions, a restaurant, and a shop. We’re big fans of making the castles functional spaces, preferably in ways that are accessible to all who wish to explore. Shanghai Disneyland’s castle earns high marks in that regard.
And while I might not love its overall appearance, it does have some beautiful elements. The shape of the castle is quite cool, with a multitude of pinnacles, edges, corners and curves.
T-3. Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom
Sleeping Beauty Castle is a great centerpiece, but Cinderella Castle is the better icon. From the moment you enter the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella Castle commands the scenery. Main Street U.S.A., with some help from forced perspective, truly builds toward the castle in a way that isn’t possible in California.
Throughout the park, you’ll frequently spot the castle, allowing it to effectively serve the purpose of “weenie”. Cinderella Castle set a benchmark for theme park icons that gave us other great icons, including Spaceship Earth and the Tree of Life.
So what does Cinderella Castle get wrong? I strongly believe the castle should be an open place, and Cinderella Castle is not that.
You can walk through the middle of the castle to get from the park’s hub into Fantasyland, and the sides of this hallway are decorated with beautiful mosaics, but that’s a little limited given how large the structure is.
The other three spaces inside the castle are: Cinderella’s Royal Table, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, and the Cinderella Castle Suite. Two of these are expensive to gain access to, and the third is the most exclusive spot in any Disney park.
If you're a fan of Cinderella's Royal Table, I'd understand bumping this one up. I’m not, and I’d like to see the space used for something else. In a time when Disney is squeezing every up-charge out of people it can find, it would be nice if the castle were a space truly open to all guests.
T-3. Cinderella Castle, Tokyo Disneyland
Tokyo Disneyland corrects what I consider the singular flaw of Florida’s Cinderella Castle—its lack of an attraction. Cinderella Castle in Tokyo Disneyland hits the mark with “Cinderella's Fairy Tale Hall.” The walkthrough attraction tells the story of Cinderella in the high quality fashion expected of the Tokyo Parks.
If we could somehow transplant this structure into Florida, it would take the top spot on the list. But I dock points from Tokyo’s Cinderella Castle for something that isn’t so much its fault—the covered Main Street, U.S.A.
With a covered Main Street, U.S.A., Cinderella Castle doesn’t serve as the same focal point when you first enter the park. Instead, it’s revealed a bit later as you proceed through Main Street, U.S.A., at which point it’s left to look a little lonely in the open space.
Is it fair to fault the castle for this? Definitely. In designing it, the Imagineers knew what they were working with, and they chose to keep this same design. A good castle plays well with the space around it.
In the end, the differences between the two Cinderella Castles even out, and I wind up placing them in a tie for third.
2. Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland
Throw out everything I just said, and I’ll somehow try to explain how Sleeping Beauty Castle gets this second spot.
While it’s entirely obvious to us now that a castle makes a great icon, back in 1955 this was a new concept. Disney Princesses weren’t even much of a thing. The castle was originally intended to be “Snow White’s Castle”—named after a character who spent much of her story in a hut in the woods. But I digress…
There’s no truly original theme park icon on this list other than Sleeping Beauty Castle. It’s not imposing, but back in 1955, it didn’t have to be. There was no Space Mountain or Matterhorn. The park wasn't that tall.
In 1955, there was only the question of how to create something people would remember, something that would bring magic to life as the actual and conceptual center of the park. And Sleeping Beauty Castle accomplishes those goals.
While it originally contained empty space, Walt fixed that and had the space repurposed to a walkthrough attraction. Sleeping Beauty Castle’s welcoming, open setup is the standard that all castles should be held to.
1. Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, Disneyland Paris
It’s unique. It’s imposing. It’s beautiful. It’s open for you to explore. And it has a dragon. What more could you ask for? Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, the Disneyland Paris interpretation of Sleeping Beauty Castle, is our favorite Disney castle.
Le Château had several advantages from its conception. First, it benefited from experience. The castles that fill the second through fourth spots on this list had all been built already, providing Imagineers with a foundation for greatness.
Second, it benefited from location. Imagineers knew they had to come up with something different in order to impress European guests. Castles are entirely novel in the United States, but they’re ubiquitous in Europe.
Third, it benefited from timing. Cinderella Castle, impressive as it is, had already been copied once. Copying it again, especially in a park closer to Florida than Tokyo Disneyland, would seem a bit silly.
The product of these advantages is a truly special castle. From the outside, the castle is impressive enough. It has a sort of eclectic, unbalanced feel, with a natural touch in its integration into the landscape that surrounds it.
But as they say, it’s what’s on the inside that really counts. Disneyland Paris excels in the use of space, and Le Château is no exception. The inside of the castle is a joy to explore, both for the Sleeping Beauty display and the different views of the park. But if you dig a little deeper, you find what the castle is hiding…
A dragon! Underneath (okay, really to the left, but still) the castle is an audio animatronic dragon. It’s a pretty cool feature, and the safety standards of Paris are different enough from the U.S. that it will take your eyes a surprising amount of time to adjust to the darkness of the cave. All of this adds up to a visit to the dragon being a necessary part of every visit to the park.
And thats's it! It was maybe something of a controversial pick for number one, especially for those who are eternally loyal to the American parks, but really, what's important is that (once the Hong Kong Disneyland calendar is rebuilt) all the castles are beautiful, special places. Each truly deserves its iconic status!