The haunting story behind the castle that inspired Disney

Everyone has come to know and love the image of the castle that plays before all your favourite Disney movies, the soaring fantasy structure surrounded by magical fireworks. Very few, however, are aware of the dark history that lurks within the walls of the real castle which inspired Walt Disney in the first place.

The Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most majestic constructions not only in Germany, but in the whole of Europe—though it is far from a fairy tale. Many years ago, the so-called Mad King Ludwig II created the castle as an escape into eccentric fantasies, but he was later declared mentally insane before dying in mysterious circumstances, leaving many unanswered questions in his wake.

If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, the big castle where the fireworks go off is Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which bears a striking resemblance to this castle in Bavaria, Germany.

Before he built Disneyland, Walt Disney and his wife reportedly toured Europe, including a stop at the magnificent Neuschwanstein Castle.

He was so impressed with the structure that he used it as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the centrepiece of Disneyland and now the ubiquitous logo of Walt Disney Pictures.

Meanwhile, in the Bavarian mountains

Neuschwanstein Castle (“New Swanstone Castle”) remains a dramatic Romanesque fortress with soaring fairy-tale towers, situated near Munich and the Austrian border.

Built in the late 19th century, the castle perched on an Alpine crag was reputedly dreamed up by a young boy Ludwig II, who had imagined building a castle above his childhood home, Castle Hohenschwangau.

Some backstory on King Ludwig II

King Ludwig II born 1845

Born in 1845, Ludwig was more interested in the arts than he was in ruling, becoming known for his dramatic flair and developing an early obsession with German composer Richard Wagner.

He became king at 18, when his father suddenly passed, Ludwig was thrust into power. One of his first official orders of business was to invite his musical idol Wagner to Munich for an opera festival.

He was more than a little obsessed with Wagner. And Wagner was taken with him. “Today I was brought to him. He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world,” wrote the composer. “You cannot imagine the magic of his regard: if he remains alive it will be a great miracle!”

He was engaged for a short time and he reportedly wrote to his fiancée, “The main substance of our relationship has always been … Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.”

His reign was difficult. Two years after becoming king, Bavaria suffered a humiliating defeat in the Seven Weeks’ War. It was then, historians believe, that Ludwig decided to retreat into a fantasy kingdom in the Alps.

Naturally, he dedicated it to Wagner. The medieval architecture was designed as a love letter to Wagner’s work, the walls decorated with frescoes depicting scenes from the legends used in the composer’s operas.

It was ambitious to say the least. Ludwig apparently wanted 200 well-appointed rooms, a hall for opera performances, ornate walled gardens, and even a “knights’ bath” similar to those used by the Knights of the Holy Grail.

Despite all the nostalgic artistic references, the castle was to be technologically advanced, including lighting, flush toilets, and central heating.

The first stone was laid in 1869. Ludwig had reportedly told Wagner that he planned to move in within a year, but construction was still ongoing when he finally moved into the first completed section 15 years later.

He became increasingly reclusive. It’s said he slept all day and wandered the castle at night, hiring musicians and actors for private concerts and operas, but keeping the castle completely private otherwise.

Rumour has it that during Bavaria’s snowy winters, he’d reportedly go out for rides in an elaborate sleigh, sometimes in medieval costume. He had immersed himself in an alternate reality which catered to his every operatic fantasy.

The real world was crumbling around him and by 1885, the unfinished castle was wildly over budget and when Ludwig couldn’t repay his foreign debts, the banks seized property and threatened to bankrupt Bavaria.

On June 12, 1886, King Ludwig II was diagnosed as mentally unfit to rule, and he was incarcerated in Berg Castle.

His mysterious death – On June 13, 1886, Ludwig was found dead, at only 40 years old, drowned in the shallow waters of Starnberg Lake. It could have been a convincing suicide case, except for the fact that his psychiatrist was found dead next to him.

It’s said his doctor took him on a walk, last seen together at about 6:30 pm. A few hours after they were supposed to have returned, but instead they were both found drowned in the waist-high water of Starnberg Lake. The king’s watch had reportedly stopped at 6:54 pm.

Strange elements to the case: According to Katerina von Burg’s ‘Ludwig II of Bavaria: the man and the mystery,’ the autopsy indicated he couldn’t have drowned since no water was found in his lungs. The psychiatrist’s body showed blows to the head and neck and signs of strangulation.

Ludwig’s alleged insanity is still up for debate. Prominent German brain researcher Heinz Häfner has challenged the assertion that there was clear evidence for Ludwig’s insanity.

Ludwig may have been a better king than his father. According to Häfner, Ludwig conducted government business far more quickly than his predecessor and was still working in the days leading up to his mysterious death. That said, he had his haters. Ludwig angered his relatives, nearly drove his country to financial ruin, and embarrassed the Bavarian monarchy at every opportunity.

There were strong suspicions of his sexuality. He was eccentric by nature and whispers surrounded his reign as he was known to have relations with men, and repeatedly postponed his wedding until ultimately calling it off.

He loved a good mystery. One of Ludwig’s most quoted sayings was, “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.”

His death left big questions, but it left even bigger debts, and the castle was still yet to be finished.


The castle remains one of the most popular destinations in Europe, with about 1.3 million visitors per year.

Enter the irony. The very castle which contributed to the king’s financial ruin has today become one of the most profitable tourist attractions for the Bavarian state, paying for itself many times over.

Try looking at Disney the same, Maybe don’t tell the kids about this one.


“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and falling over.”
– Richard Branson, founder Virgin Group


Happiness is…knowing you do not have 200 rooms to clean as you would have if you had a Bavarian fairy castle


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