Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo

How Cinderella’s Castle Became the Latest Battleground in the Culture Wars

Is it changing from something aspirational and inspiring to something darker and even dangerous?

By Robert Plunket November 3, 2023

It’s the most famous and most-photographed building in Florida, maybe the world. So effectively has it fulfilled its role as the setting of fantasy and wonder that millions of people get a warm feeling just looking at it. And as the corporate symbol of the most successful entertainment company ever, it is loaded with the happy gravitas of squeaky-clean family entertainment.

It is Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World.

When Navy Lt. Ron DeSantis married television anchor Casey Black in 2009, there it was, clearly visible—though it was a gray rainy day—just behind the happy couple as they exchanged their vows at the Grand Floridian Resort’s wedding chapel. For 52 years, since Disney World opened in 1971, the castle has been the epicenter of what is known, without a hint of irony, as the happiest place on earth.

But as America’s culture wars intensify, the castle’s reputation is being called into question. Even the happy groom has turned on it. How sound are the values it has been teaching? Is it changing from something aspirational and inspiring to something darker and even dangerous? And what is that man in a dress doing in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique?

A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse on Main Street U.SA. with Cinderella's Castle in the background.

A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse on Main Street U.SA. with Cinderella's Castle in the background.

A fairytale castle has always been central to Walt Disney’s vision as a businessman and an artist. The first one appeared in 1937 in Snow White. Disney’s first full-length animated film, it established the fledgling company as a major player in the movie business. Since then—13 princesses later—a castle has become the central setting of the Disney oeuvre.

Most of those castles remain images in a movie, with each one helping define the princess’ situation and background. Mulan’s looks Asian, Jasmine’s is based on the Taj Mahal, Elsa’s is made of ice and Ariel’s is underwater.

A few are important enough to be created in real life at the various Disney parks around the globe. Sleeping Beauty occupies the one in Anaheim, California; Belle from Beauty and the Beast lives in the one in Paris. In Shanghai, the castle is a sort of princess sorority house, with imagery and references to all 13 of them. In Tokyo, Cinderella and Aurora share the castle, while in Orlando, Cinderella gets the place all to herself, making her the senior princess in the Disney hierarchy and her castle the most iconic and—most fans agree—the most beautiful.

Týn Church in Prague was one of the inspirations for Cinderella's Castle.

Týn Church in Prague was one of the inspirations for Cinderella's Castle.

Neuschwanstein in Germany also provided inspiration for Disney.

Neuschwanstein in Germany also provided inspiration for Disney.


All the castles bear a family resemblance that goes back to the 1937 design of the castle in Snow White. It was dreamt up by a Disney artist named Herbert Ryman. He based it on a whole list of European castles; they include the Alcázar of Segovia, Hohenzollern Castle and Neuschwanstein in Germany, Craigievar Castle in Scotland, Týn Church in Prague and, most importantly, the great French chateaux of the Loire Valley: Chenonceau, Chambord and Chaumet. Today many of these buildings are more famous for the Disney connection than as great architecture in their own right.

Walt had a word for his castles. They were “weenies.” During the early planning stages of Disneyland, the original Disney theme park in California, it was Walt’s habit to get home from work and park in the garage of his house in Holmby Hills. He would enter through the kitchen and grab a weenie from the refrigerator. He liked a weenie before dinner. As he wandered around the house, he noticed that his poodle, Lady, followed him everywhere. Or rather, she followed the weenie everywhere. A light turned on in his head.

That’s what the park needed. Weenies. Visual magnets that would draw people toward them, control traffic, orient visitors and thrill with a promise of excitement. You had to go to that place. The pull was just too great.

Disney World is full of weenies. Each “land” has one (Spaceship Earth at EPCOT, the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom, the Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios), but Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom is definitely the primary icon, the weenie to beat. You see it even before you enter the main gate.

The key to a good weenie is singularity. It must characterize the space yet at the same time stand out within it. It has to create an impression so powerful that its draw overwhelms the smaller attractions along the way, and it must divulge just enough information to captivate the visitor yet still leave questions unanswered. Good weenies have sharp contours, large relative size and complex shapes and are designed for high use. They’ve existed throughout history and often had a religious element. Notre-Dame is a weenie, as is the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza.

Cinderella's Castle is 198 feet high, 2 feet under the height that would require a flashing red light to keep planes from hitting it. Popular legend says it’s made of fiberglass and can be dismantled in a hurricane. Actually, it boasts solid-steel frame construction, with 10-inch-thick concrete walls. It has a moat (no, the drawbridge does not rise) and 27 towers. The exterior is adorned with a well-crafted assemblage of trim, accents, swags, banners and tapestries, in a reasonable approximation of French Renaissance motifs.

The Disney World castle is substantially larger than the original that was built in Anaheim in 1955 and looks even larger because of the use of forced perspective. The “bricks”—actually concrete over steel—get smaller the higher up they go, as do the windows. The colors also lighten. The towers and turrets pointing toward the sky provide a constant jolt of energy. It’s energetic in a way few buildings are.

The castle does indeed contain a mystery. What’s inside it? As it turns out, not much. There is a tunnel-like passage on its lower level that offers murals that tell Cinderella’s story. Hidden away, you’ll find a break room for performers, various spaces full of electronic gear, three elevators and a hotel suite. The suite was designed for the Disney family but mostly sits empty. No one ever gets to see it—and believe me, I tried. From photographs, it appears to be an average-sized set of hotel rooms decorated in an overblown medieval style with lots of meticulous details, mosaics, furbelows and flourishes. Unfortunately, it also seems a little dark.

Still, it would be hard to imagine a busier building. With 58 million visitors a year, the castle is constantly being photographed, admired and just plain stared at. Live performances take place on its various terraces. It’s the centerpiece of the nightly fireworks show and is occasionally tweaked to promote something or other. At its 25th anniversary, it was redecorated with candy appendages, rather like a gingerbread house. (People hated it.) For one night in 2004, it was covered with toilet paper to publicize Stitch’s Great Escape!

At Cinderella's Castle, you can dine with the famous princess (for a price).

At Cinderella's Castle, you can dine with the famous princess (for a price).

But it is also Cinderella’s home, and you can dine with her—for a price. Cinderella’s Royal Table is one of the most expensive restaurants in the Magic Kingdom. She will greet you on the lower level of the castle and pose for pictures. Then she directs you up a curved stairway (or gilded elevator) to the restaurant itself, a large banquet hall-like room with Gothic vaulting, flags and coats of arms, and a wall of leaded-glass windows. It’s open for breakfast ($65), lunch ($79) and dinner ($79), and reservations are hard to come by.

Children’s meals are about half the price, and they sell a lot of them. It’s a family restaurant, not fine dining. There are no tablecloths, and many of the diners are wearing mouse ears. Some of the children become a little overstimulated and run around screaming. Luckily for the parents, they serve cocktails, even for breakfast. The food is adequate, but not gourmet—gussied-up tenderloin and shrimp dishes. Desserts include build-your-own cupcakes. But what turns the meal from “overpriced” into “performance art” is the princesses.

On any given day, five or so of them will be in residence. Each is introduced and enters to great applause. They circulate from table to table, making small talk and posing for pictures. What makes this fascinating is the talent of the princesses. They have been made up to look exactly like Ariel or Snow White or Mulan. They have also mastered the characters’ mannerisms and hand gestures and poses. It’s a tricky job. They must talk to everybody, in character, deal with rambunctious children and tipsy parents, never strike a false note and never stop smiling.

The last event many evenings at Disney World is the Kiss Goodnight, which takes place shortly after the park closes. “When You Wish Upon a Star” swells through the cleverly concealed sound system and all eyes go to the castle, which is equipped with a lighting system that can provide a range of more than 16 million colors. The castle begins to change color, going from shades of deep blue to deep purple to violet. Then, with a final burst of lights, a sonorous voice bids guest farewell after another enchanting day.

This is a building that actually says good night.

As far as beautiful buildings go, the castle may be the only one in the Magic Kingdom.

As far as beautiful buildings go, the castle may be the only one in the Magic Kingdom.

The architecture establishment has never figured out what to do about Disney World. Some experts love it. James Rouse of Harvard said it was “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today.” Many of Disney's innovations are considered brilliant, such as the entire sublevel underneath the park for maintenance and circulation. Shopping centers and airports have copied its hub-and-spoke layout, not to mention the weenie as anchor store at the mall. But as far as beautiful buildings go, the castle may be the only one in the Magic Kingdom.

That may be because Walt hated architects. He thought they wanted to build monuments to themselves, not something for the people. Instead, he put together his own team of art directors, animators, illustrators and writers. He called these people “Imagineers” and they have become famous in their own right.

You’re always seeing reference to them as you stroll around Disney World. You know they designed the rides and attractions, but you are probably unaware that the popcorn smell in the air was also their idea. It’s coming from a nearby invisible “smelletizer.” And that big empty wall you just passed? You didn’t even notice it. The Imagineers invented a special color, “Go Away Green,” to make it virtually invisible.

The Imagineers’ design philosophy is set forth in a document called “Mickey’s 10 Commandments.” It contains mandates like “Walk in your guests’ shoes”; “Communicate with color, shape, form and texture”; “Tell good stories, don’t give lectures”; “Avoid overload.” They follow this manifesto in everything that goes on in the park—not to mention on Disney cruise ships and in hotels—and it works brilliantly. Still, this is not the language of the Yale School of Architecture.

At Yale, buildings are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and “authentic.” At Disney, they’re anything but. They are even conceptualized differently. For Disney, the important part is the interior. What happens inside the building is figured out first, then a building is designed to contain it. “There is no ‘architecture’ at Disney World,” one critic sniffed. The famous American architectural critic and writer Ada Louise Huxtable called it “packaging.”

But if the attractions are not architecture, some notable Disney buildings are. When Michael Eisner took over as head of Disney in 1984, the company commissioned some remarkable structures for its properties just outside the park. Michael Graves designed two hotels, the Dolphin and the Swan, which have become icons of postmodernism. They are topped with 40- to 63-foot-high statues of their namesakes, done in a coral-and-aqua color scheme.

Another famous designer, Robert A. M. Stern—ironically, the former head of the Yale School of Architecture—was given several hotels of his own to create. He was also designated as master planner of a new Disney town, Celebration. Located about seven miles from the Magic Kingdom, Celebration is full of noteworthy architecture by famous names. Philip Johnson designed the welcome center, Cesar Pelli did the movie theater, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were assigned the SunTrust Bank.

But they haven’t let the famous architects get inside the gates of the Magic Kingdom. That’s still strictly for the Imagineers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis

In the years after his Disney wedding, DeSantis became somewhat of a princely figure himself. Young, handsome and a former Naval officer, he went into the noble profession of public service. He was elected to Congress in 2012 and then, after a very close race, he became Florida’s 46th governor in 2018. Reelected by a landslide in 2022, he began to be mentioned as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Disney was also busy during those years, but for the first time in its storied history, cracks were beginning to show. It expanded tremendously, buying up much of its competition, including Pixar and Marvel. When the company acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it gained control of the Star Wars franchise. The purchase of 21st Century Fox made it the largest entertainment company in the world. It even tried to buy Twitter, but executives decided it didn’t “feel Disney.”

In fact, what "felt Disney" and what did not was becoming an issue. The content of many of its films had been criticized over the years for being out of step with a changing American culture. Where were the LGBTQ+ characters? Where were the people of color and other minorities?

Even the princesses were being attacked, and from all sides. The left found Snow White too passive and much too concerned with her appearance. Cinderella was a victim with no goals or talents, and as for Sleeping Beauty, well, she was comatose. Disney countered with a new kind of princess, one who goes forth to find herself, not a prince. The idea worked, and Mickey and the Imagineers had a new commandment: “Be inclusive.” At the theme parks, gender-based language was eliminated. It was no longer “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.” It was now “Dreamers of all ages.” Not everybody liked the changes, and Disney started getting into fights with its fans.

Then came March 2022, when Gov. De Santis signed the Parental Rights in Education act. The bill limited teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in Florida schools. Although critics castigated it as the “Don’t Say Gay” act, many conservatives were delighted.

Disney has nearly 80,000 employees in Orlando. It’s said to be the largest one-site employment force in the world. Many of those employees are gay or gay-friendly. This is, after all, musical theater. They pressured then-Disney chief executive officer Bob Chapek to criticize the bill and thus began the epic battle between the country’s greatest provider of family entertainment and a clever, ambitious politician.

Insults and threats were hurled back and forth. The governor even speculated about building a prison next to the park. As this image settled into the public’s mind, conservative activists discovered that there’s a place in the castle called the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique where, the activists declared, Disney was turning little boys into little girls.

Children getting pampered in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique

Children getting pampered in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique

Image: Gigi Ortwein

What they actually do in the boutique (its name derives from the phrase the Fairy Godmother utters before she transforms Cinderella’s rags into a ballgown) is dress children ages 3 to 12 as princesses or knights. The process can take several hours and is not cheap. Packages range from $100 to $230, reservations must be made and it is often the high point of a youngster’s visit. The vast majority of guests are girls, not surprisingly. They get their choice of four different hairstyles, makeup, nail polish, a tiara and one of 13 full-length dresses to choose from. The boys get a toy sword and a puffy shirt.

And, yes, sometimes a boy wants to become a princess. When this happens, he is accommodated. This upset some people. (Presumably, girls sometimes want to be knights, but so far, this has not sparked outrage.) Some people are even more upset by a video of one of the young men who works at the boutique as a Fairy Godmother’s Apprentice, the person who is in charge of the child’s “pampering and primping.” As part of its embrace of inclusivity, Disney allows employees to dress as the gender they choose. And this apprentice is a man wearing makeup—and a dress. You’re certain he’s a man because he has a thick black mustache. To many, this seemed a clear sign that Disney has gone too far.

@kourtnifaber A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep 👑 ✨ #disneyland #bibbidibobbidiboutique #corememory ♬ original sound - Kourtni

And so America’s culture wars have stormed Cinderella’s Castle. The governor has explained his choice of wedding venue. He did it out of deference to his future wife and in-laws, he said. Besides, he and his bride were busy people, and the Disney package they bought took care of everything. “All we had to do was show up,” he said. And he made one thing quite clear. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were not invited. (That costs extra.)

Fairytales don’t always end happily ever after. An element of discord has entered Florida’s most famous building. Cinderella’s Castle has been many things in its life—movie prop, dream fantasy, tourist trap, corporate symbol—and now it’s become something else: a part of modern American history and the latest skirmish in the culture wars.

Not bad for a weenie.

Robert Plunket is an architecture critic, magazine journalist and novelist. After his first novel, My Search for Warren Harding, was reissued by New Directions this spring, he was profiled in The New York Times and The New Yorker.

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