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Beauty, eh?

While I was deep in my own non-blogging slumber, an exciting announcement was made concerning the return of a lost and long-lamented Disneyland attraction. On July 17th, in honor of Disneyland’s 53rd birthday, Disney Imagineers Tony Baxter, Chris Merritt and John Gritz announced that the now-shuttered Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough would reopen later this year. The attraction, which previously operated from 1957-2002, will be restored and upgraded to coincide with next year’s 50th anniversary DVD re-release of 1959′s Sleeping Beauty.

One of Eyvind Earle’s conceptual paintings for the original Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough. Photo courtesy Disney.

The original Castle Walkthrough was a design afterthought, opening two years after Disneyland debuted in 1955. The Castle was neither designed nor intended to house an attraction, yet Walt constantly noted that guests desired to explore the structure. Walt selected Imagineer Ken Anderson to come up with something to fill the limited amount of empty space in the castle, and after a perilous site tour during which Disney, Anderson and set designer Emile Kuri were beset by the feral cats and attending fleas that had infested the castle interior, Anderson began to work with artist Eyvind Earle on designs for a series of dioramas depicting scenes from the film.

Eyvind Earle concept for the banquet sceneEarle’s conceptual art for the banquet scene. Photo courtesy Disney.

The attraction that opened on April 29th, 1957, was a very simple A-Ticket affair. Visiting guests walked past eleven dioramas which combined paintings and painted plywood flats with visual illusions and limited motion effects. Anderson, who at the time was working on very early concepts for what would become the Haunted Mansion, used the opportunity of working on the Castle Walkthrough to prototype various special effects that would be used on a much larger scale in the later attraction. Earle’s artwork made the Walkthrough consistent with the distinctive look of his work on the film, but the fact that Sleeping Beauty was not completed until two years after its namesake attraction meant that there was not a perfect match between the scenes depicted in the dioramas and the subsequent film.

Malificent ModelDisney Imagineer Chris Merritt holds the original Maleficent cutout from the 1950s-era diorama in the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Her pet raven Diablo’s wings move. Photo from LaughingPlace.

Time passed and tastes changed, and in 1977 the attraction was remodeled and redesigned. Gone were the flats and Earle designs, and in their place were more detailed dioramas featuring three-dimensional sculptures with more complicated animation. The effect was not unlike the animated window displays from Main Street’s Emporium, as the new dioramas were designed by the same team responsible for those vignettes. While the new dioramas were more elaborate and true to the plot of the film, they lacked Earle’s unique visual flair and roughly resembled Ken and Barbie dolls in fancy dress costume.

Ken and Barbie get busy with the smoochin\'The 1970s version of the diorama was far less stylized and more dimensional. Photo from Yesterland.

Even more time passed, but this time there was also a change in management and corporate ethos. Park attendance dropped off due to decreases in quality and innovation, and subsequently plummeted in the wake of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks. Soon after, the Castle Walkthrough was closed without comment and placed on the list of attractions “Under Refurbishment”. Speculation somewhat ridiculously posited that this was due to “security” concerns, but a far more likely culprit was corporate greed and a desire to cut staffing costs. Another plausible, though unsubstantiated, reason is that major refurbishment would require bringing the Walkthrough into line with modern ADA guidelines and Disney was far too cheap for that (witness Skyway). Disney would not comment on the reason for the closure, and eventually the pretense of “refurbishment” was abandoned as the attraction was removed from Disney’s official lists. Slowly the Walkthrough faded into history.

As Disney prepared for next year’s Platinum Edition DVD of Sleeping Beauty, Tony Baxter and his team at WDI were asked to put together a virtual re-creation of the attraction to put on the disc. As research materials were gathered and the re-creation pieced together, parties within the company began to discuss the restoration of the actual attraction. Thankfully, times have changed at Disney and the project was greenlit (I’ll point out that Baxter’s team, who also put together a ride simulation for the Little Mermaid DVD, are now two-for-two for getting shelved ride concepts greenlit by resurrecting them digitally). Imagineers have been working to reopen the attraction, which will incorporate modern technology with Earle’s original visual style to create a new series of dioramas.

Imagineers unveil the working model for the new Castle tourAndy Siditsky, Tony Baxter, Chris Merritt and John Gritz unveil the working model of the new Castle tour. Photo from LaughingPlace.

The attraction was announced on July 17th to an appreciative crowd at the NFFC 2008 convention at Disneyland’s Opera House. Fans were pleased; the announcement heralds the welcome return of another lost attraction, as Disneyland takes another step on the long road to reaching its former pre-Pressler glory. With the return of the Submarines and now the Castle Walkthrough, Disneyland is slowly regaining the capacity it once held before rides began to be closed to save costs. The next frontier for this revival is, of course, Tomorrowland, but those plans remain shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the re-opening of this attraction is that as a very modest A-Ticket affair, it is not the very splashy, hype-heavy type of attraction that theme parks gravitate towards these days. Rather it’s the kind of small, unheralded attraction that gave the Disney parks in particular their unique texture in years past, and what helps separate them from the “megacoaster in a parking lot” school of themed design. For years I was afraid that Disney had forgotten that they could actually build things that weren’t highly marketable E-Tickets, so this announcement is a nice change of pace. Here’s to the restoration of Disneyland – one piece at a time.

Read Disney’s press release

View video and images from the NFFC announcement at LaughingPlace

An excellent history of the attraction at MousePlanet

Tour the Castle Walkthrough at Yesterland and MousePlanet

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