10 Real Places That Inspired Disney Movies

By: Freelance Contributor

Everyone loves a good Disney movie, but how do they come up with their locations or inspirations for movies? We found the real-life versions of the movie sets to go with the flicks, compiled them into a simple list of 10, and discovered that lots of Disney movies drew their characteristics from actual locations. Including timeless pictures like “Lady and the Tramp” made in 1955, which was actually inspired by Walt Disney’s boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri. Walt was spot on bringing fairy-tales to life, and our childhoods thank him for that. The locations hand-picked by the movie production teams go from dramatic castles, to enchanted forests to natural formations, and we love it. Disney movies always seem to bring our inner child out. The contrast between real and imagination is a delight for all ages. It seems everyone has a favorite Walt Disney movie. Is yours on our list?


10. Kauai, Hawaii

Kauai, Hawaii is a prime vacation destination. It is one of the least commercialized islands in all of Hawaii. With over 60 beaches scattered around the island there are plenty of activities to indulge in. It’s common to see waterfalls in most areas of Kauai. The canopy of Kauai includes sharp peaked mountains, tropical rainforests and emerald valleys. Some parts of the island are only accessible by air and still untouched by civilization. Kauai is majestic and breathtaking, and it is the inspiration for the Disney movie “Lilo and Stitch”. The town is a little place on the beautiful island of Kauai called Hanapepe. Off the beaten path, it looks like a place time forgot. Reminiscent of the old American west, tin roof homes and wooden sidewalks with the occasional sleeping dog pretty much describe the place. In the film, Kauai is jumbled geography with Stitch’s space craft landing on the north shore and the little town on the south shore. The film’s production manager was looking for a homey inspiration and found it in Hanapepe’s rusty old bridges and homemade mailboxes. For a different kind of an adventure, this little town may spiral you right into a Disney movie, and welcome you to stay awhile.

Hanapepe Kauai Hawaii

9. Chateau de Chillon, Switzerland

Sitting high on a rock, nestled along the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland is a magical castle right out of a fairy-tale. Chateau de Chillon is an authentic medieval site going all the way back to Roman times. Over the years, three noble families have maintained the castle to keep it well preserved today. Every year, almost a half million tourists visit the Chateau de Chillon, coming to see the grand elegance of the past. The castle remains as the property of the Canton of Vaud. Over time, the Chateau de Chillon has been used for a warehouse, an armory, a hospital, a prison and now as a tourist attraction. Lord Byron, the famous English poet, has even etched his name into the walls of this fortress. Other famous people of the past have left their signature works there as well. For all “The Little Mermaid” lovers, this castle was the inspiration for the movie. In a blown out version, it becomes Prince Eric’s seaside castle. The rooms inside the famous movie castle also resemble Chateau de Chillon in some aspects.  One of Disney’s most beloved kids’ movies enchants the kid in all of us with its real-life set inspiration.

Chateau de Chillon

8. Chateau de Chambord, France

The grandest chateau ever known sits in France and remains one of the best examples of France’s architectural history. The distinctive Chateau de Chambord blends French Renaissance architecture with classical Renaissance structures. This huge castle’s image has been widely used to sell everything from alarm clocks to alcohol, and it’s the most visited chateau in the Loire Valley, entertaining over 700,000 visitors each year with its size and charm. Its haunting beauty sits on a sprawling estate once used only for hunting, with the former owner rarely visiting his own home.  The impressive staircase where Leonardo De Vinci is believed to have put one of his drawings is the biggest attraction at the Chateau de Chambord. For first time viewers of this grand setting, they’ll be taken back just by the castle’s sheer size, the gardens, and the surrounding water moats. This is a gigantic palace you could easily get lost in. In the Disney animated film of “Beauty and the Beast”, The Chateau de Chambord was the inspiration for the Beast’s castle. This is the castle of every little girls ‘princess imagination’. From the outside, it is easy to see why it has all the makings for a Disney movie setting.

Chateau de Chambord

7. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

As if the Scottish highlands were not enough to take your breath away, add the iconic Eilean Donan Castle to the mix and you have some of the most majestic scenery in all of Scotland. This glorious castle sits on an island in the middle where three grand sea lochs meet, surrounded in highland scenery. Throughout history, family feuds have caused this undying castle to be rebuilt or restored time and time again. It lay in ruins for almost 200 years before an interested party brought it back to its original beauty. Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and toiled on the restoration for 20 years; opening it to the public in 1932. The rooms inside this castle are filled with furniture and artifacts from Scottish history. The Eilean Donan castle is a part of the Kintail National Scenic area and has a recorded population of 1, making it a virtual uninhabited setting of haunting possibilities. The Disney Pixar movie “Brave” is set in the Eilean Donan Castle and the Scottish Highlands. A variety of scenes in the movie illustrate the castle beautifully. Many other movies have been filmed here as well, and it remains one of the grandest castles in Scotland today.

Eilean Donan Castle


6. Festival of Lights, Thailand

The Festival of Lights in Chiang Mai is called ‘Yi Peng’. During the festival people light over a thousand lanterns and send them into the sky all while making a wish. The sky is soon transformed into a mesmerizing and surreal wave of lights floating away. The Festival of Lights is considered a religious ceremony paying honor to Buddha. Upon their launch, the paper lanterns resemble graceful glowing jellyfish idly floating through the sky. The date of this festival changes year to year and usually happens with only a few weeks’ notice. It is meant as a time for ‘tham bun’ (Thai for making merit). Also during this sacred time, the Chiang Mai people will decorate their homes, temples and gardens with ‘khom Fai’, small, intricate shaped paper lanterns that take on all different forms. This ritual is quickly finding its way into other areas of the world, as people love the idea of releasing wishes and honoring the sky in commemoration of a loved one. Based on the Festival of Lights is the Disney movie “Tangled”. In the film, Rapunzel’s parents release sky lanterns every year to commemorate the loss of their own daughter. “Tangled” also uses other locations as inspiration for this as well.

Festival of Lights, Thailand

5. The Taj Mahal, India

The Taj Mahal is noted as being one of the great eight wonders of the world with architectural beauty that has never been surpassed. Built by the Muslim ruler of India, Shah Jahan, it is a beautiful living monument dedicated to his queen, Mumtaz Mahal. They call the Taj Mahal (meaning Crown Palace) an ‘elegy in marble’. This is a loving expression of a dream the great Emperor had and now the lower chamber of the Taj Mahal houses the tomb of Queen Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built over a period of twenty-two years with construction finally completed in 1653 and is built of entirely white marble. The stunning palace glows at dawn, sunset, and by the moon. On a foggy morning, The Taj Mahal looks as if it is suspended when viewed from the other side of Jamuna River. Every detail about the Taj Mahal is a wonder filled mystery. Even though the movie “Aladdin”  is based in the Middle East, primarily Jordan, which is thousands of miles from the beautiful Taj Mahal; it was still the inspiration for the glorious Sultan’s palace in the animated movie The uncanny resemblance is spot-on in this all-time favorite Disney classic.

Taj Mahal

4. Notre Dame Cathedral, France

The Notre Dame Cathedral Paris (Our Lady of Paris in French) is a Gothic cathedral of the Catholic archdiocese of Paris, of Andre Cardinal Vingt-Trois. This Romanesque architectural building is considered one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture in the entire world. It was saved from destruction by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, France’s premier architect. The intricate stained glass and grand sculptures represent a heavy influence of naturalism. The Notre Dame Cathedral Paris was one of the first buildings in the world to implement the flying buttress (arched exterior supports).  Since then, much architecture has been designed with this exact form. During the intense, radical phase of the French Revolution of the 1790’s, the cathedral suffered desecration and much of the religious imagery was damaged. Notre Dame Cathedral has been restored to much of its original state and remains one of France’s greatest attractions for viewing. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” takes its Disney interpretations from this gorgeous cathedral, located on the Seine. The famous gargoyles of the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris are even actual characters in the movie. The gargoyles are now a committed, popular item available for purchase in all sorts of forms from jewelry to house décor.

Notre Dame Cathedral

3. The Forbidden City, China

Between the years 1490 and 1911, The Forbidden City in China was an imperial palace to twenty-four emperors. It is now a museum sporting over 9,999 rooms with a room being described as a space between four pillars. The palace is surrounded by a well-guarded moat and at one time in history, intruders were discouraged from entry by watchtower guards using bows and arrows. There are five entrances to the gate – the central one was strictly reserved for the emperor. The empress was allowed to pass through it only once -on her wedding day. The best view of the Forbidden City is seen atop of Coal Hill in Jingshan Park. This hill was made from the excavation dirt from the moat which surrounds the Forbidden City. According to Chinese Feng Shui, the evil spirits of the north are kept from entering. The design of the Emperor’s home in “Mulan” takes its inspiration from China’s Forbidden City. Interestingly, the timeline of the movie is set during China’s Han Dynasty, from around 200 B.C.to 200 A.D.; while the Forbidden City was built about 1,200 years later.

Forbidden City

2. Route 66, USA

America’s love affair with Route 66 continues to interest people around the world. The famous route runs over two thousand miles all the way between Chicago and Los Angeles. Ingrained in a timeline of contemporary America is archetypal roadside scenes. Small towns across the country display old time middle-of-nowhere trucks stops and great neon sign displays with shameless self-promotion still alive on this famous road. Back in the great depression it was referred to as ‘the mother road’, as named by John Steinbeck in the movie “Grapes of Wrath”. New interstate highways pushed the road aside as it fell out of popular use and it’s now called Historic Route 66. Still, the quirky road attracts road trippers looking to travel by many famous landmarks and attractions. Route 66 passes through true American nostalgia leaving people yearning for the good old days which the fascinating old road represents. The diversity of landscapes, people, and cultures make Route 66 an undeniable and unforgettable journey into the American experience. Disney’s adventure movie “Cars” draws heavy influence in the story from Route 66; both in design and plot. In the background of one scene, a set of mountains found on Route 66 stands proudly to honor the old road.


1. New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans, Louisiana is considered the melting pot of people, cultures, music and food. It is one of America’s most historically-rich destinations. Good times are perpetual in New Orleans with Bourbon Street and the annual Mardi-Gras celebrations. The city is notoriously famous for its quirky, unique take on life and death; both of which are celebrated in their own way. This setting has a supernatural vibe, with ghost and vampire tours and the always interesting Voodoo Museum. The catastrophic hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, leaving many residents without homes. Slowly, New Orleans has been rebuilt, returning to its previous title as America’s party city. It has a history of French and Spanish influence, as seen in the architecture, religions, and fusion of foods. Tourism is the staple of the New Orleans economy, with visitors from all over the world coming to join in the famous activities. It has a Creole culture, a jazz feel, and a deep embedded civil war history. Even with struggles, New Orleans remains a city of happy endings. All of New Orleans is featured in the movie “The Princess and the Frog”. From the Mississippi River Delta to the French Quarter, every part of the story is recognizably New Orleans. This Disney movie gives New Orleans a reason to celebrate.