Much has changed in the 55 years since Walt Disney died – not just in the fortunes of his brand, now one of the world’s most influential corporations, but in the characters it creates and the values it promotes.
So, when the company went about building a new fairytale castle at Hong Kong Disneyland, it took into consideration something that would have barely factored into discussions when its first resort opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955: diversity.
The new Castle of Magical Dreams, completed in November and reopened in February after Hong Kong’s Covid-19 restrictions loosened, nods to the wider variety of female characters now featured in Disney movies. Unlike the Cinderella Castles in Florida and Tokyo or the Sleeping Beauty Castles in California and Paris – all of which were partly inspired by the 19th century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany – the design represents not just one heroine but over a dozen.
The new structure was built atop the existing Sleeping Beauty Castle, the centerpiece of Hong Kong Disneyland since the resort opened in 2005. As such, Princess Aurora still holds a special place in the new castle, with a tower dedicated to the “Sleeping Beauty” protagonist standing the tallest.
But the other 12 towers pay homage to a variety of different princesses, queens and heroines, including historical or folk figures fictionalized by Disney, like the Chinese warrior Mulan and the Native American figure Pocahontas. (Anna and Elsa from “Frozen” share a tower between them).
Diversity is also reflected in the eclectic architecture, which sees rose gold domes mixed with embossed turrets and spires. Disney’s so-called “Imagineers” – the artists, designers and engineers behind the theme parks – incorporated the characters’ storylines into the design of each tower, such as an apple lattice pattern in Snow White’s (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”), scalloped detailing for Ariel’s (“Little Mermaid”) and a water lily motif for Tiana’s (“The Princess and the Frog”). Elsewhere, the structure boasts gold-tipped finials, stained-glass rose windows and columns with hand-carved embellishments.
Hong Kong’s original Sleeping Beauty Castle was directly inspired by the first Disneyland resort in California. This castle had been dreamed up in the 1950s by Walt Disney, who envisioned an amusement park for the entire family, complete with a replica of an old-fashioned American main street and distinct “dreamlands.”
To honor its founder’s vision, Disney decided to preserve Hong Kong’s Sleeping Beauty Castle when it embarked on a major expansion in 2016 – instead of demolishing it entirely, designers built atop and around it.
“The original castle is a foundation of Disney, so we wanted to build upon that,” said Hilcia Pena, a senior architect at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in a video interview.
The result is a palimpsest of sorts, where versions of many castles – the California original, Hong Kong’s 2005 replica and the brand-new Castle of Magical Dreams – come together as one. After the multi-year, 10.9 billion Hong Kong dollar ($1.4 billion) expansion, which also saw the park welcome multiple new attractions, the re-imagined castle is over twice the height of the old one.
According to Pena, this means that the castle is no longer dwarfed by the mountainous landscape of Lantau, the island where Hong Kong Disneyland is located. Imagineers even used helium-filled balloons to help them visualize the height of the prospective structure in relationship to its backdrop. They then used 3D technology to model how the old castle and new castle would connect.
One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to build on top of the existing castle while keeping the park open to visitors. The team landed on modular construction, which sees individual parts of a building, or “modules,” constructed in a factory before being transported to the site. In this instance, the castle was built from 15 large parts, each prefabricated, painted and assembled off site. Individual towers and other components were then shipped in and craned into place over a period of three months.
Together, the towers form a mosaic of cultures through color, symbols and patterns, with each offering different elements of their respective characters’ worlds. Jasmine’s fuchsia tower is embellished with an Arabic fabric pattern and crowned with a turquoise dome. Mulan’s tower is embossed with a cherry blossom motif. And Merida’s tower is replete with Celtic patterns, a reference to the four clans in the 2012 movie “Brave.”
Each tower culminates in a gold-tipped finial unique to each character: a golden seashell for Ariel and an enchanted rose for Belle. Meanwhile inside, guests will find 13 columns topped with details dedicated to the protagonists’ friends, like Ariel’s Flounder and Sebastian, Merida’s triplet brothers and Moana’s pet pig Pua and rooster HeiHei.
“We’re understanding different parts of the world, so we can’t just focus on one group, or one princess or one location,” said Pena. “Our stories continue to grow, and we get to learn about different cultures around the world. So how do we put that into the buildings and stories we try to tell?”
The only direct depictions of the 14 heroines are found inside, where Imagineers designed bronze statues of each one. Their evolution – from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, whose lives rely on a man’s kiss, to assured and empowered characters like Merida and Moana – tells a story about how Disney has repositioned itself over the years. But even the older characters’ statues have been designed with contemporary values in mind.
“Instead of portraying them in a very submissive way, we portrayed them (all) as powerful women in a very engaging pose,” said Amanda Chiu, a producer with WDI Asia, pointing to the depiction of Ariel standing proudly as she exercises her newfound freedom and Jasmine riding solo on the magic carpet.
In line with the characters’ origins, Imagineers drew inspiration from Europe, China and the Pacific Islands. “A European castle has one style and the same detailing everywhere,” said Pena. “This one has different architectural styles – even the domes are very different in style.”
It is fitting, perhaps, that such an eclectic castle exists in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s more diverse cities. “Hong Kong is a city of rich cultural fabric and cultural diversity,” said Chiu, who was born and raised in the territory.
As well as taking inspiration from around the world, Disneyland Hong Kong was also built according to the principles of feng shui, an important aspect of design and architecture in parts of Asia. Based on an ancient Chinese system, the ancient practice involves positioning objects or buildings in relation to one another and their surroundings to encourage happiness and good fortune. In 2005, for instance, the angle of the resort’s front gate was shifted by 12 degrees in the belief that it would keep positive energy, or “chi,” flowing through the park. Feng shui also informed the design of the new castle.
“Feng shui is about the balance of the five elements,” said Chiu, referring to wood, fire, earth, metal and water. “We want to draw on that harmony and apply that to castle.”
Wood and earth are symbolized by the castle’s landscaping – a mix of living plants and artificial foliage – which helps it blend in with its surroundings; fire will be used in pyrotechnic shows at night; metal can be found in the towers’ gold finials; and water is used in the castle’s moat and dancing fountains. “All of these elements come together in good harmony,” Chiu added.
While still rooted in tradition of sorts, Hong Kong’s Castle of Magical Dreams nonetheless symbolizes Disney’s attempts to modernize. With an increasingly global customer base, and several resorts in Asia, diversity might not just be a matter of values but good business, too.
This article has been updated to reflect the USD currency conversion of Hong Kong Disneyland expansion to $1.4 billion.