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What’s your favorite Disney movie location? Is it Belle’s charming French village or Elsa’s snow-capped mountains? Real European destinations and landmarks inspired these Disney film recreations. Here are the most magical Disney locations to include on your next international itinerary.
Like many great film producers, Disney is inspired by real-life destinations. Then, through the art of Disney magic, these places are transformed into the movie and theme park locations we’ve grown to love and enjoy with our kids.
Where to Find Real Life Disney Destination Inspiration
Many of Disney’s real life locations are in Europe and visiting them is fun and exciting for Disney fans. You gain a true appreciation for the creative talents of the Disney imagineers when you look at these sites from different angles and compare them to their imaginary counterparts. If you’re planning a trip to Europe with your kids, you might want to include one (or more!) of these places that inspired Disney artists.
1. Alsace, France
Who could forget the scene when Belle visits the quaint little French village in “Beauty and the Beast” before running into Gaston? The village that inspired it all is Alsace in France. Alsace is made up of a handful of cute French towns, but rumor has it, the village of Riquewihr is where inspiration struck Disney!
The historical towns are made up of half-timbered houses and surrounded by castles to give you that very Frenchy-vibe. Disney animators did not have to try too hard to reinvent the scene. The houses are so colorful in real life that they easily resemble the ‘class’ of residence and retailers back in the 16th century. If you find Riquewihr too crowded, there are other places to visit with the same beauty, such as Colmar and Mulhouse.
Fly into Strasbourg airport or Zurich Airport (in Switzerland) and hire a car to get to Alsace…it’s that easy! For the perfect French dining experience, try a French brasserie like Maison Rouge.
2. Oslo, Norway
Do you want to build a snowman? You will probably freeze if you visit Norway, so be sure to pack some warm clothes for the whole family. The inspiration behind Anna and Elsa’s castle is found in Akershus Fortress in Oslo. There are guided walking tours of the Fortress where you can learn all the secrets and stories behind the 500-year-old castle. Admission is free.
Other Disney Destinations in Norway
But before leaving Norway, be sure to hit up two to other places in Norway which are also the inspiration to the hit animation. St. Olaf’s Church is located in Balestrand Norway, a small but cute church to visit dating back to the 19th century. Disney animators were inspired by this little church and chose it as the setting for Elsa’s coronation! Balestrand is 7 hours by car or one hour by plane. The nearest train station to Balestrand from Oslo is Flam and there are 5 trains operating on this route daily.
TravelingMom Tip: Although not the inspiration to the film, if you are in Austria – the Stubai Valley has an ice-grotto that is open for kids to explore. It feels exactly like the ice-city when Elsa turns everything to ice. It’s really COOL!
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3. Bavaria, Germany
Nothing says Disney more than the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. Known to both locals and tourists everywhere, the design of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle seems almost identical. Others argue it reminds them of the Cinderella Castle. To us, it looks like the Disney location inspiration for both!
Apparently before the construction of the Disneyland castle began in Anaheim, Walt Disney visited Neuschwanstein castle on a European tour. He was captivated by the majestic setting and beautiful hues of the fairy-tale-like castle.
The castle is located less than one hour from Munich, the popular city known for the annual Oktoberfest beer festival. Good news…Neuschwanstein also has an in-house brewery!
There is an admission fee for adults to visit the inside of the castle – but admission is free for children under 18.
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TravelingMom Tip: Arrive early because daily admissions are limited.
4. Montreux, Switzerland
The Disney location inspiration for Prince Eric’s castle from The Little Mermaid is in the quiet town of Montreux in the French-speaking side of Switzerland. Chateau de Chillon sits on Lake Geneva in the region of Vaud. Although Switzerland can be a little bit expensive compared to other European cities, it has a lot of cheese and a lot of chocolate – so it is worth the visit.
The region is also very close to Lavaux, a UNESCO world heritage site, known for wine. The best way to get to Chateau de Chillon is by train or car from Geneva airport, which will take you a little over an hour. There is a small beach right next the castle – just like in the movie, so be sure to get up close and personal for that perfect Insta-moment with your kids.
There’s an admission charge to see the inside of the Chateau, but the best view is from the outside, so you can save some money.
5. Paris, France
Finally! A Disney destination in a big city that’s easy to get to.
Visit Notre Dame, even if The Hunchback is not your favorite character. The cathedral looks exactly the same as the one in the Disney movie because it is! The church is a classic example of French Gothic architecture with its stained glass windows and stone gargoyles.
Repairs are underway at the cathedral following the devastating 2019 fire, but you can still visit Notre Dame when you are in Paris with the family. The structure is still there. It’s located in a cool Parisian neighborhood with French boutiques and restaurants nearby. The closest train station to Notre Dame is St. Michel.
6. Dornie, Scotland
Disney’s design team visited the glens and Highlands of Scotland for the movie Brave, which features the rebellious red-headed princess Merida who wants to break away from the rules of everyday life.
Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness are on the Disney Cruise line itinerary that visits the Isle of Lewis, which was the Disney location inspiration for animators working on Brave. However, the medieval ruins and the 13th century castle known as Eilean Donan is what we all know from the animation – medieval interiors and that spooky and slightly eerie feel the Disney imagineers captured so well. You can reach Eilean Donan Castle by taking Stagecoach to the town of Dornie and walking to the castle.
TravelingMom Tip: Clan MacRae’s grand table at the center of the banqueting hall. It served as the model for Merida’s royal family gathering.
7. London, England
Big Ben in London is one of the not-to-be-missed iconic sights to see in London. It’s right up there with a double-decker bus and bright red phone booth.
The magical scene from Peter Pan when he and the trio of Darling children fly over London before landing on the clock arms of Big Ben is so very British.
Big Ben is in the city of Westminster in the heart of London. The nearest underground station is Westminster but you can also reach it from Waterloo Station during your self-guided tour of London.
8. Athens, Greece
Hercules is a well-known myth recreated for all Disney fans. Although the plot is slightly different from what Greek mythology actually states, many of the locations in the Disney film pay homage to the real Mediterranean islands and of course the historical architecture.
Phil’s Island is based on the island of Rhodes, and throughout the movie you will see classical Greek structures like the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, the Acropolis and Temple of Zeus.
Getting around Athens by metro is easy. For the Temple of Zeus – there is an admission fee but here is a money saving tip: If you want to hit all of the above, get the Athens City Pass. It allows access to all of the worthy structures and things to see in Athens.
9. Normandy, France
A French artist gathered inspiration from romantic oil paintings of an 18th century artist named Fragonard to recreate Tangled. But he also had in mind the Renaissance Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. Its turrets are perfect for fairy tale Rapunzel to let down her golden hair.
Apparently, as the production started, he added in touches of medieval and French Renaissance influences like the small round towers which can be found at Chateau de Chenonceau and even the triangular composition of Century City Twin Towers in Los Angeles. Wow – what a mix of modern and old, right!? Visiting Mont Saint-Michel is best done from afar with the water reflecting off the castle and island, which show the iconic scene in the movie Tangled.
The island is located off the coast of Normandy which is 3 hours by train from Paris.
10. St. Gallen, Switzerland
Not officially known as the spot inspiring a Disney film, we think of this destination as a secret insider tip unique to TravelingMom followers… so take note! The UNESCO world heritage site in St. Gallen in Eastern Switzerland is home to a grand cathedral and abbey with a history dating back to 719. Inside you will find a rare collection of books in what looks like the library scene from Beauty and the Beast. Imagine floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall of books with so much history and wonder! The library’s books and manuscripts are very rare so you have to wear giant slippers inside!
There is a small entrance fee to visit the library. Even though you can’t take photos inside, it’s still worth visiting. To round off your trip to St. Gallen be sure to visit the chocolate museum and factory at Maestrani – it is Switzerland after all! And if you love indoor water parks – check out Santis Hotel and Park for a cool water slide and sporting complex to keep both big and small kids entertained!