Calling all Disney fans. How would you like to visit some of the enchanted destinations portrayed in Disney films, and bring a fairytale to life ? Dawn Clancy of Far and Wide writes:
“When the creative masterminds at Disney set out to bring a fairytale to life, they travel as far as Southeast Asia, Bavaria and Venezuela for inspiration. Their goal? To make each Disney movie, whether animated, 3D or live-action, as magical and memorable as possible.
You could say it all started with Walt Disney when he traveled to Europe and discovered the enchanting Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, a landmark that influenced the castles in two of Disney’s most iconic movies, “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Since then, animators and location scouts have routinely globe-trotted around the world to select the perfect places to inspire their fantastical settings.
And the incredibly cool part? Whether you’re a diehard Disney fan or just a curious traveler, you can visit many of these historic landmarks and awe-inspiring locations yourself.
From “Cinderella” to “Coco,” the following Disney films might lead you to an enchanting destination you’ve never considered before.”
“Beauty and the Beast”
In Disney’s 1991 animated version of “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle’s “poor provincial town” was inspired by the cobbled streets and timbered houses of Riquewihr, a quaint medieval village tucked away in the eastern region of France.
In 2017, when Disney released the live-action version of the iconic fairytale, the creative team instead modeled Belle’s village after Conques, a town in the south of France.
Fans of both “Beauty and the Beast” versions will be happy to know that the towns of Riquewihr and Conques are only a quick eight-hour drive away from each other. So if you’re keen on exploring both, we recommend booking an extended vacation.
Beginning around the eighth century BCE, the Monte Albán, located in current-day Oaxaca, Mexico, was the cultural center of the Zapotec and Mixtec people. In 2017, the remains of this once vast complex of tombs, plazas and square-topped pyramids served as the blueprint for the Land of the Dead, the mystical world featured in Disney/Pixar’s hit film “Coco.”
During the film’s production, director and co-director Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina traveled to Oaxaca to gather inspiration for the film. “Families welcomed us into their homes and taught us about the foods they enjoy, the music they listen to, their livelihoods and their traditions,” Unkrich said. “Most importantly, we witnessed the importance they place on family.”
Through research and extensive study, animators created a spectacular, magical, brightly colored version of the ancient complex, while emphasizing its significance to Mexican culture.
“The Little Mermaid”
When rebellious mermaid Ariel has her wish for freedom granted, she meets and falls in love with Prince Eric, whose fairytale castle was inspired by the Chateau De Chillon on Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Animators mimicked not only the chateau’s setting on a rocky islet, overlooking the water, but design details like the colorful flags atop its towers.
In its heyday during the 12th century, the Chillon castle played a crucial role in controlling trade in the region. These days, it reigns as the most visited historic monument in all of Switzerland. Not only is the castle accessible from both Geneva and Lausanne, but it is also known for being a family-friendly destination.
Carl Fredricksen’s childhood sweetheart and wife Ellie had dreamed of traveling to South America to live on Paradise Falls. After her death, 78-year-old Carl decided it was time to make her dream come true. So he tied 20,000 multi-colored balloons to the roof of his house and headed for South America.
The ups and downs of that journey are featured in the 2009 Pixar/Disney film “Up” — aka the kids movie that made millions of grown adults openly weep.
Ellie’s Paradise Falls was inspired by the real-life Angel Falls located in Venezuela. After trekking through the South American jungle, director Pete Docter and his team of animators agreed that Angel Falls, the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world, flanked by spectacular tabletop mountains, was the perfect model for the aspirational falls featured in the film.
Getting the falls just right on film required considerable commitment. Co-director/writer Bob Peterson recalled that the six- to seven-hour climb to Angel Falls was “like your worst nightmare.”
“The Princess and the Frog”
For his 40th birthday, John Lasseter, the co-founder of Pixar and the former chief creative officer at Disney Animation, boarded a plane with four of his friends and headed for New Orleans. After falling in love with the city, Lasseter knew he wanted the next animated feature he worked on to be set in NOLA.
Soon after, Lasseter’s dream came true when he was given the green light to make “The Princess and the Frog,” a remake of The Brothers Grimm classic, “The Frog Prince.”
Set in 1920s New Orleans, “The Princess and the Frog” (which featured Disney’s first black princess) was heavily influenced by the Big Easy. Its bayous and famed French Quarter both make appearances in the film, and there’s even a song devoted to the destination’s charms, appropriately called “Down in New Orleans.” (“Grab somebody/Come on down/Bring a paint brush/We’re painting the town/There’s some sweetness goin around/Dreams do come true in New Orleans.”)
It’s hard to say whether or not you should visit New Orleans and then watch “The Princess and the Frog,” or do it in reverse. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
“The Good Dinosaur”
To create the Clawtooth Mountains for the animated film “The Good Dinosaur,” the creative heads at Pixar relied on the Teton Mountain Range in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“We went on a huge research trip to Jackson Hole,” Denise Ream, the film’s producer, told Empire Magazine. “We ended up going down the Snake River on a raft, right into the back of the Teton Range. It was a place we felt that a dinosaur could feel small and threatened by nature.”
Humans, too, will feel small among the majestic Tetons that inspired the film. (Note the uncanny similarities shown here, from the snow-capped peaks to the river cutting through the range.)
The design team for Disney/Pixar’s “Brave” traveled through Scotland hunting for inspiration for their film, set in the Scottish Highlands during the Middle Ages. There they discovered the 13th century Eilean Donan Castle, featuring a design that helped them create the lush interior of DunBroch Castle, home of the movie’s tomboy hero Merida.
Elements of the DunBroch Castle — including its staircases, towers and turrets — were designed in Eilean Donan’s image, while the castle’s dining room was modeled after the Donan Banquet Hall.
Disney released its first film version of “Mary Poppins” in 1964. In it, the titular nanny, played by Julie Andrews, sings a song about an old woman who sits on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London feeding the birds.
The song and the movie have helped turn St. Paul’s into an extremely popular tourist destination, though of course it had plenty to recommend it long before the movie came out.
Located in the heart of London, St. Paul welcomes visitors and “Mary Poppins” fans to sit on the church stairs once occupied by the “little old bird woman” of the song. Alas, while taking pictures is encouraged, feeding any nearby birds is not.
Have you ever wondered where video game characters go once the game is over? In the 3D animated feature “Wreck-it Ralph,” Disney attempted to answer that question by crafting a narrative about a video-game bad-guy on a hero’s quest.
In the movie, after the arcade they’re in shuts down for the night, video-game characters gather to socialize in the cheekily named Game Central Station, an obvious parody of Grand Central Station (also called Grand Central Terminal) in New York City.
With its arched windows and sweeping ceilings, Game Central Station vividly evokes its inspiration, with a few clever twists. Panhandlers are characters from unplugged games, for example, and the trains that pull in to the station are styled like the video games of the characters they carry. Most importantly, instead of tourists and locals on the go, the station is filled with iconic characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Ms. Pacman.
The fake terminal sounds like a lot of fun, truthfully, but there’s also much to enjoy at the real Grand Central Station, built in 1913 and featuring gorgeous Beaux-Arts architecture.
“One Hundred and One Dalmatians”
Queen Mary’s Rose Garden in Regent’s Park, London is home to over 12,000 different varieties of roses. But did you know it’s also the garden where the dalmatians Pongo and Perdita first meet-cute in the original 1961 “One Hundred and One Dalmations”? Funnily enough, that classic scene took some artistic liberties — dogs aren’t actually allowed in the real Queen Mary’s Rose Garden.
The park’s Primrose Hill, featuring gorgeous views of London, also makes an appearance in the movie, when Pongo and Perdita alert other dogs to help them in their effort to find their dognapped puppies.
The animated version of Regent’s Park perfectly captures the real deal, down to the creek-spanning arched bridge (green in the movie; brown in real life) and willow trees. It’s just as lovely to see the park in person.
When French-born artist and animator Laurent Ben-Mimoun was hired to work on Disney’s “Tangled” (an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel), he was tasked with designing the castle and the surrounding town where Rapunzel and her family lived. For inspiration, he turned to The Mont-Saint Michel in Normandy, France.
A Gothic-style Benedictine abbey surrounded by a medieval village, The Mont-Saint Michel is a small island that sits off the Normandy coast. Its history dates back to 708 AD, when in a dream, Bishop Aubert of Avranches was ordered by the Archangel Michael to build the abbey. Since then The Mont-Saint Michel has witnessed the pages of history turn, making it an essential piece of French history.
The animated take on the castle includes some exaggerated features — the hill it sits on is higher, for example — but is mostly a faithful rendition, down to the reflection of the structure in the water below.
“Lilo & Stitch”
“Lilo & Stitch” was a Disney animated comedy released in 2002 about a young Hawaiian girl named Lilo and her adopted alien dog, Stitch. In the film, Lilo’s home was inspired by the small and sleepy town of Hanapepe, located on the island of Kauai.
As they always do, animators spent a significant amount of time in town in order to fully capture the destination. It’s safe to say they not only got Hanapepe’s physical features right — rolling green hills, swaying palm trees, the ocean as backdrop — but nailed its small-town, aloha spirit.
Today, despite the town’s connection with Disney, Hanapepe has hardly turned into a tourist trap; in fact, it remains one of the lesser-known destinations on Kauai. In addition to its thriving art scene, farmers market and salt ponds, the town’s star attraction is a swinging wooden bridge constructed in 1911.
You’ll also find a mural outside the old Aloha theater, emblazoned with the words, “Welcome to Historic Hanapepe Town, Home of Lilo & Stitch.”
“Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”
Before construction on Disneyland in California began, Walt Disney headed to Europe for inspiration. While there, he visited and fell in love with Neuschwanstein Castle, located about a two-hour drive southeast of Munich in Germany.
The castle would be used as the model to create Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, the classic centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom. Moreover, it would also serve as the inspiration for the fairytale castle in the animated films “Cinderella,” released in 1950, and “Sleeping Beauty,” in 1959. With its hillside perch and elegant spires and turrets, the animated versions of the castle are uncannily similar and beautifully rendered.
Interestingly, the Neuschwanstein Castle was the creative brainchild of King Ludwig II, an eccentric ruler who was obsessed with the works of German composer Richard Wagner. As a result, the Neuschwanstein Castle held no strategic purpose, but instead was built by Ludwig to pay homage to his musical hero.
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire”
Set in 1914, Disney’s animated film “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is a story about a young cartographer named Milo Thatch who finds a sacred book he believes will lead him to the lost city of Atlantis.
It’s generally assumed that the tale’s original author, Plato, placed the city of Atlantis somewhere in the Strait of Gibraltar. But when Disney’s creative team was tasked with reimagining the lost city, they pulled architectural inspiration from buildings all over the world, including Angor Wat, the Buddhist complex located in northern Cambodia.
As shown in these images, the animated Atlantis is not an exact replica of the Buddhist complex, but rather took inspiration from some of its key features, including its imposing, aging stone sculptures.
As the film’s Art Director David Goetz explained, “If you take and deconstruct architecture from around the world…that’s what our Atlantis looks like.”
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”
In 1937, Disney released its first full-length animated film, the still-beloved “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
In the movie, the Evil Queen works out the details of her evil scheme to poison her beautiful stepdaughter in the dark corners of her castle. It’s believed said castle, perched on a hill and featuring sharp slate spires, was modeled after the Alcázar de Segovia castle located in the historic city of Segovia in Spain.
With their soaring ceilings and ornate fixtures, the castle interiors also closely resemble one another. Sadly, though, the real castle doesn’t have its own magical mirror.
In 1997, Disney took a crack at Greek mythology and released its version of “Hercules,” an animated feature about the struggles of the immortal-turned-mortal son of Zeus.
In the film, Hercules travels to the Temple of Zeus to pray and ask for guidance. While there, the statue of Zeus comes to life and Hercules learns that he is indeed the son of the father of all Gods.
Alas, the real Temple of Zeus in Athens is now in ruins, but it’s intriguing to explore what’s left — including 15 of 104 original Corinthian columns.
The movie provides a glimpse into what this towering feat of ancient engineering looked like before age took its toll.
Disney released its animated version of “Aladdin” in 1992. Twenty-seven years later, in 2019, the company released a live-action remake of the classic story about a street kid whose luck changes with the granting of three wishes.
Like the original version, the 2019 remake is set in the fictional city of Agrabah. But this time, filmmakers didn’t have to animate a real-life location; they could use it as live-action backdrop. And the site they chose for much of the filming was the Wadi Rum Desert, one of Jordan’s most popular tourist destinations.
When doing press for the film, star Will Smith sang the praises of the filming locale. “What happens with actors when [they] travel to locations, [is that] everything changes inside of you,” he said. “When we landed in Jordan, all of a sudden you begin to embody the feelings of the characters.”
Wadi Rum, a UNESCO-recognized site, is known for hiking, camping, stargazing and dramatic landscapes comprised of sandstone mountains, rocky caverns and dunes. Sadly, finding a lucky genie swirling around in a bottle is highly unlikely.
The creative team behind Disney/Pixar’s “Cars” relied heavily on historical landmarks along Route 66 to create the world of the film’s protagonist, a fame- and fortune-chasing racecar named Lightning McQueen.
While traveling west to California, to compete in a life-changing race, McQueen gets lost and ends up in the slow-paced, small town of Radiator Springs, Texas. While there, he meets a cast of quirky characters, including Ramone, a 1950s Impala low-rider who owns an eponymous paint and body shop in town.
That shop was inspired by the U-Drop Inn, a relief station constructed in 1936 to serve Route 66 travelers. Today the Inn stands as a historical landmark and visitor center in its original location in Shamrock, Texas.
It was Mike Wazowski’s childhood dream to grow up and become a professional scarer, a monster who lurks in kids’ closets waiting to emerge once it’s bedtime and the lights go out. And when he’s old enough, Mike, a green-skinned one-eyed monster, enrolls in Monsters University, eager to learn the tricks of the scaring trade.
When Pixar’s animators were developing their cartoon university, they visited numerous campuses, including UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and MIT, to ensure the school they imagined for the film was realistic. Robert Kondo, the film’s art director for set design and shading, told “Business Insider” that the result was a fantasy campus mixing California and East Coast university traditions.
“The Three Caballeros”
Long before Disney and Pixar joined forces, Disney, in 1944, released its seventh animated feature, called “The Three Caballeros.” In the film, Donald Duck, who’s celebrating his birthday, receives three presents, each one from a different Latin American friend.
One of Donald’s presents comes from his friend José Carioca, a colorful Brazilian-born parrot who takes Donald on a wild ride through Bahia, located on the northeast coast of Brazil.
Today, Bahia is recognized for its beautiful beaches, including Praia dos Nativos, where visitors can sink into the sand alongside celebrities. Taipu de Fora is a beach worth visiting if you’re keen on snorkeling, and Praia de Moreré is home to a variety of wildlife, including whales, dolphins and monkeys.