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Twelve examples of Disney architecture that border on make-believe

Over the past 100 years, Disney has created postmodern hotels, art-deco cinemas, futuristic monorails, fairytale castles and a deconstructivist concert hall. To mark the brand’s centenary on 16 October, we round up its 12 most interesting buildings.

The castle created by imaginer Herbert Dickens Ryman remains the enduring symbol of Disney, incorporated into its logo and forming the centrepiece of its theme parks.

However, the castle is just one of the entertainment corporation’s many significant architectural contributions.

Postmodern hotels and offices by leading architects including Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki and Robert AM Stern seek to align with the spirit of Disney, while the organisation has also commissioned buildings in a wide range of other styles.

In the Florida town of Celebration, developed by Disney, a modern town hall by Philip Johnson stands alongside a pared-back post office by Michael Graves, with a nearby art-deco cinema by Cesar Pelli.

Disney also funded perhaps the world’s best-known deconstructivist building – the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry in Los Angeles.

Read on for 10 of the most interesting examples of Disney architecture:

Monorail, Disneyland, John Hench
Photo by EditorASC

Disneyland Monorail by Bob Gurr (1959)

Designed by a team headed by American amusement-ride designer Bob Gurr, the 2.5-mile-long monorail first opened in 1959 and was one of Disneyland’s signature attractions.

The first daily-operating monorail train system in the western hemisphere was created at a time when monorails were thought to be a viable form of future mass transit.

Connecting Tomorrowland and Downtown Disney, the line is still in operation today – although monorails did not become widely adopted in the USA.

Cinderella's Castle by Herbert Dickens Ryman
Photo by Matt H Wade

Cinderella’s Castle by Herbert Dickens Ryman (1971)

Artist Herbert Dickens Ryman created the artwork for the original Disney theme park, which included the Sleeping Beauty Castle.

He later designed the Cinderella Castle, which stands 56 metres-tall and was completed in 1971 at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

One of the most recognisable symbols of Disney, a version of the castle has appeared within the corporation’s logo since 1985.

Spaceship Earth at Epcot
Photo by Katie Rommel-Esham

Spaceship Earth by Wallace Floyd Design Group (1982)

Designed as the centrepiece of the Epcot park in Florida, this distinctive, silver geodesic dome contains a 15-minute ride that takes visitors back through time.

Supported on three chunky legs, the building has a similar structure to the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal that was designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller, but unlike the earlier pavilion is a complete sphere.

Walt Disney World Swan resort by Michael Graves
Image courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design

Swan and Dolphin Resort by Michael Graves (1990)

Designed by Michael Graves Architecture & Design, the vast Dolphin and Swan hotels sit opposite each other on either side of a lake near the corporation’s theme park in Orlando.

Built from geometric shapes and topped with giant dolphins and swans, the pair of hotels contain over 2,200 guest rooms, huge conference facilities and 16 food and beverage outlets.

Orlando headquarters of Disney by Arata Isozaki

Disney Team Building by Arata Isozaki (1991)

Also located near the theme park, Disney’s headquarters in Orlando was designed by Arata Isozaki and Associates for 1,200 employees.

The colourful building contains two four-storey wings either side of a central, hollow cone-like form that acts as a giant sundial.

Team Disney building in California by Michael Graves

Team Disney building by Michael Graves (1991)

Now officially called the The Michael D Eisner Building after the brand’s former CEO, the corporate headquarters for The Walt Disney Company stands on the site of its film studios in Burbank, California.

One of several buildings designed for the company by Michael Graves, the postmodern building’s most distinctive feature is the seven dwarfs holding up the roof.

The characters were included as a reference to the company’s first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the success of which paid for the studio lot.

Feature Animation Building by Robert AM Stern
Photo by Peter Aaron/OTTO

Feature Animation Building by Robert AM Stern Architects (1994)

Located near the Team Disney building alongside Disney’s film studios in Burbank, California, the 22,000-square-metre building is the headquarters for Walt Disney Picture’s Feature Animation Studios.

Stern designed the building to recall futuristic buildings often depicted in early animated films, while the building’s most distinctive feature is a large magicians hat above its entrance. Based on the famous hat that Mickey Mouse wore as the sorcerer’s apprentice in the film Fantasia, it gave the building its nickname – the “hat building”.

Town hall in Celebration, Florida, by Philip Johnson
Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri

Celebration Town Hall by Philip Johnson (1996)

Created as part of the town of Celebration, which was developed by The Walt Disney Company near its Orlando theme park in the 1990s, the Town Hall was one of several buildings created by leading architects in the settlement.

Masterplanned by Robert AM Stern and Jaquelin T Robertson the Florida town, which was later sold to a developer, contains buildings in a range of styles that give it a Disney-esque atmosphere.

US architect Philip Johnson‘s contribution was a postmodern take on a traditional colonnaded building, with columns replaced by 52 thin pillars for a town-hall like building on the town’s main square. The settlement’s actual town hall is located three blocks away.

US Post Office in Celebration Designed by Michael Graves

Celebration Post Office by Michael Graves (1996)

Tucked alongside the Town Hall on Celebration’s central square, Michael Graves’s small post office has its entrance in a rotunda-like corner tower punctuated by a rounded window.

Alongside the tower, the grey- and terracotta-coloured post office occupies a shed-like building fronted with a short colonnade.

Cesar Pelli cinema

Celebration cinema by Cesar Pelli  (1996)

Another of Celebration’s signature buildings, this art-deco cinema was designed by Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli, who was best known for skyscrapers.

The extremely distinctive lakeside building was fronted with a pair of spires that are a nod to the futuristic ideals of the 1950s.

Disney's BoardWalk by Robert AM Stern
Photo by Peter Aaron/OTTO

Disney’s BoardWalk by Robert AM Stern Architects (1996)

Located between the Swan and Dolphin Resort and Epcot at the company’s Orlando resort, the BoardWalk was designed to evoke the feeling of an 20th century American resort town.

The building, which was designed to appear like look like a series of interconnected structures, contains 378 hotel rooms, 528 Disney vacation club suites along with conference families and numerous cafes and restaurants.

Photo by Carol M Highsmith

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry (2003)

Occupying an entire city block in downtown Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall was funded by a gift from Lillian Disney – Walt Disney’s wife.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the concert hall is clad in swooping metal-clad panels and is one of the best-known examples of the deconstructivist style.


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