Disney movies – especially classics like Sleeping Beauty or the very popular Frozen – tend to consist of more fantasy than reality. Based on fairy tales and folklore, they provide audiences with an hour and a half-long escape into mythical worlds.
But many of the settings featured in some of the most popular Disney movies are based on real castles and palaces, actual towns and real countries. Did you know, for instance, that the creators of Frozen were inspired by the region of Trøndelag, in Norway? Or that the legendary Sleeping Beauty castle – which is also prominently featured in the Disney parks – is based on an actual castle in Germany?
So forget theme parks, and imagine yourself walking amongst the real-world settings that inspired the places in some classic Disney animated movies. It’s possible to roam the same castles and towns that some of the most beloved Disney characters themselves supposedly lived in… if you know where to find them. No need to wish on a star to discover the answer to this question: below are a few of the real-world places that inspired Disney.
10. Arendelle from Frozen: Trøndelag, Norway
The highest grossing animated film of all time, Frozen, was set in a snow-covered land called Arendelle. This land, stuck in an eternal winter because Queen Elsa couldn’t control her propensity to turn things to ice, was actually based on the region of Trøndelag in central Norway. In 2012, a team from Disney visited Norway and drew inspiration from this region when designing the fictional land of Arendelle. Trøndelag is known for its unique people and way of life, quaint villages set amongst sleepy mountains and of course reindeer (which are also featured in the movie). Traditional clothing from this region also seems to have inspired the costumes that the characters wear in the animated film. According to the Trøndelag tourist website, elements from Nidaros Cathedral and the Royal residence at Stiftsgården in Trondheim, Norway, also appear to have made it into the film’s imaginary world. Many other Norwegian references are also in Frozen, including fjords, architectural features of the churches and even a merchant selling a traditional lutefisk.
9. Belle’s hometown and the Beast’s palace: Alsace and the Loire Valley, France
The town that Belle so desperately wanted to escape in Beauty and the Beast is clearly based on the distinct architectural style and charm of real-world villages in the region of Alsace in France, near its border with Germany.
Furthermore, the main setting of the movie, the Beast’s castle, was inspired by the Renaissance-style Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley of France. Although it was never completed, this real-life castle is a large, imposing palace that is open to the public. Its many dark rooms and overwhelming size and architectural style make it easy for visitors to imagine the Beast actually roaming its halls.
8. Paradise Falls in Up: Angel Falls, Venezuela
In Disney’s Up, the movie’s main character, Carl, attempts to find someone who he presumes is lost in the jungles of South America. The fictional location of Paradise Falls in South America, where Carl visits, is actually based on Angel Falls in Venezuela. This real – yet seemingly otherworldly – location in Venezuela is in Canaima National Park.
The area is filled with high rock mountains with very high, narrow waterfalls that cascade down ancient sandstone rock called tepui. The waterfalls are stunning and it’s difficult to believe they aren’t actually the figment of some artist’s imagination. No wonder this area is considered to be a sacred place by the people native to the land. The most famous of the tepui is called Angel Falls, which is also the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall (979 meters high).
7. Simba’s land in The Lion King: the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya
The Serengeti is a vast plains region located in northern Tanzania that extends to Southwestern Kenya. The Kenyan part of the Serengeti is more commonly known as the Maaasai Mara. This spectacular region is known for its large lion population: it is one of the best places in the world for visitors to observe lions in their natural habitat.
No wonder Disney decided to use it as their inspiration for the vast wilderness and wildlife that is so predominantly featured in the movie The Lion King, which is another one of Disney’s most successful animated films of all time. In addition to lions, the Serengeti is home to dozens of different mammals and many other species of animals and plants, including the region’s trademark Acacia trees. The landscapes, flora and fauna of this magnificent area make for a unique and memorable backdrop throughout The Lion King.
6. Sleeping Beauty’s Castle: Bavaria, Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is the inspiration behind the castle featured in the classic Disney movie Sleeping Beauty, as well as the fairy tale castle that is a focal point in the Disney theme parks. This real-world German castle was built in the 19th century on a hill in southwest Bavaria. It was originally commissioned by the reclusive king, Ludwig II, as a retreat. Fortunately, this romantic architectural marvel survived the two World Wars thanks to its remote location. Aside from being a big inspiration to Disney, the castle has also been featured in many other films. Nowadays, visitors can enjoy the castle and its grounds; it’s open to the public and is one of the most-visited tourist sites in the region.
5. Aladdin’s Palace: Taj Mahal in India
One of the most recognizable buildings in the world, the Mughal-style Taj Mahal in Agra, India, was built in the 17th century. It was built by an emperor who was grieving the loss of his third wife, a Persian princess who died in childbirth. The emperor created it as a place of asylum, a retreat from the world, with a principal mausoleum for his wife and many surrounding buildings and gardens. The white stone of the building was as stunning back then as it is now. No wonder Disney took inspiration from this unique building when designing a palace for Aladdin. Aladdin’s fictional palace is the home of the Sultan, Jasmine and Aladdin. It has the same white walls of the real Taj Mahal and many of the same architectural features.
4. The Princess and the Frog: New Orleans, LA
The Princess and the Frog takes place in 1920s New Orleans. This unique and beautiful city is featured throughout the film. The main character, Tiana, cooks gumbo with her father in an opening scene. When she is older, she works as a waitress in New Orleans. The decision to set this classic story in New Orleans stirred up controversy when the movie was first released: critics said that the movie and its setting had overtones of voodoo and slavery (which was especially poignant since the main character, Princess Tiana, is black). For better or for worse, however, the real city’s picturesque architecture and streets, particularly the French Quarter, are featured throughout the film.
3. Royal Palace in Tangled: Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France
Tangled is Disney’s retelling of the classic story of Rapunzel. For the princess’ home, Disney drew inspiration from the island community of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. The island is located near the country’s northwestern coast. In real life, this is an old fortified island, and its many towers, abbey, monastery and castle halls certainly look like a place where fairy tales could take place. The Italian Romanesque style abbey is an especially popular tourist attraction.
2. Lilo and Stitch: Kauai, Hawaii
Disney based the settings in Lilo and Stitch on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. This movie was actually one of only a few Disney animated films that take place in present day. Current features of small towns in Kauai were incorporated into the movie, including the serene beauty of the location but also the more solemn details in the towns that indicate that the region was going through a rough economic patch at the time the film was made (in the early 2000s). Although details that are common throughout Hawaii are featured in the movie, Disney animators seem to have taken particular inspiration from the town of Hanapepe.
1. Brave: Scotland
Scotland is, of course, the inspiration for Disney/Pixar’s Brave, the story of a rebellious young Scottish girl. Scotland is a land of history and legends, so it seems natural that Disney/Pixar would have wanted to do a movie that took place in this brooding, mythical land. The essence and feel of the mountains, forests, and animals of Scotland were featured throughout this movie. Even the color palette of Brave strongly resembles the muted tones of the country, with its misty hills, green forests and overcast skies.