It’s one of the most famous castles in the world.
At the start of every Disney movie, it appears on the screen, complete with Tinkerbell and the opening bars of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.
That song then stays stuck in your head until Elsa sings ‘Let It Go’ or The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ starts up.
What most people don’t know is that the Disney Castle is real and has a very sinister history.
Before he built the Disney empire, Walt Disney toured Europe with his wife. One of their stops was the magnificent Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps of Germany.
According to How Stuff Works, Disney was so taken with the castle that it became the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, now the logo of Walt Disney Pictures.
Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Europe, welcoming more than 6,000 visitors on a busy summer day. But the man who dreamed up the fantastical castle never intended it to be open to the public. It began as an architectural love letter to the German composer Richard Wagner and devolved into a refuge for a reclusive king who slowly lost his grip on reality.
King Ludwig II was born in 1845. As a young royal, he enjoyed dressing up and play-acting. He assumed the throne when he was just 18.
Unprepared for any serious political leadership, one of the first things Ludwig did as king was to invite his musical idol Wagner to come to Munich for an opera festival. Wagner was also obsessed with German medieval legends and even wrote an opera version of the Lohengrin story in 1850.
Wagner, who was in dire financial straits, eagerly accepted Ludwig’s invitation, and the young king became one of the composer’s chief patrons. When they met, Wagner didn’t know what to make of the otherworldly Ludwig.
Wagner couldn’t have predicted it, but just two years later in 1866, Bavaria and Austria suffered a humiliating defeat to Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War and Ludwig was stripped of all real power. It was then, historians believe, that Ludwig decided to retreat into a fantasy kingdom in the Alps dedicated to Wagner, an alternate reality in which he could play out his operatic daydreams full of Christian knights and magical swans.
To bring his fantasy castle to life, he enlisted the help of a theatrical set designer and scene painter from Munich named Christian Jank to make some appropriately dramatic drawings.
Ludwig, a deeply pious Christian, had begun to identify himself more and more with the Arthurian hero Parzival, another knight in quest of the Holy Grail.
In the castle, a space originally planned as an audience room for receiving guests was turned into a high-domed Throne Room without a throne. Instead, its gilt walls and murals would serve as a “Hall of the Holy Grail.”
By 1885, the still unfinished castle had gone wildly over budget. Ludwig’s ministers, in an attempt to protect state assets, accused the king of insanity and removed him from the throne.
Ludwig’s ultimate fate is also shrouded in mystery. Days after Ludwig was deemed insane by the state-appointed psychiatrist and locked up in a drab castle, he was found dead, apparently drowned in waist-deep water. Ludwig’s death at only 40 years old would have been ruled a suicide if not for one gruesome detail — his psychiatrist was floating dead next to him. No one knows exactly what went down.
The castle was named Neuschwanstein (German for “New Swan Stone”) after Ludwig’s death as an homage to the tragic and eccentric figure known as the “fairy-tale king”.
Think about that the next time that logo flashes across the screen…
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