23 real-life locations that inspired Disney

From Arendelle to Agrabah, did you know that many of the kingdoms in Disney films are actually based on real places? Our map recreates the Disney universe using their actual locations. 

Explore the real world of Disney by clicking on the flags below to reveal the castles, cities and landscapes featured in your favourite childhood films, and scroll down for side-by-side comparisons!

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Agrabah

Disney’s Aladdin is set in the fantasy world of Agrabah. In an interview with E! News in 2015, co-directors of the 1992 film – Ron Clements and John Musker – revealed that composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken intended for Aladdin to be set in Baghdad, Iraq. However due to the Gulf War, this changed. Musker then shuffled the letters a bit and came up with Agrabah. 

There has also been speculation about the Sultan and Princess Jasmine’s palace. Many believe it resembles the Taj Mahal, set in Agra, India. Perhaps this also influenced the name of Agrabah! Both the animation and 2019 live action remake also give a nod to Jordan. The narrator in the opening scene of the animation references the River Jordan, while the latest release was filmed there. 

With lots of different sources of inspiration to consider, our map centres Agrabah around India with surrounding desert spread across Iraq, Iran and Jordan. You can also find the mysterious and magical Cave of Wonders.

© Disney 1992

Pride Rock

The Lion King is the tale of Simba, a young prince raised to rule over Pride Rock. Producer of 1994 animation, Don Hahn, revealed the iconic film was originally titled ‘King of the Jungle’. This was to reinforce the metaphor ‘it’s a jungle out there’, and Simba must survive the jungle. However, the story is actually set in the savannah and inspired by the Serengeti plains, thus the name was changed. 

The plot does involve a jungle though, as following Mufasa’s death (apologies for any spoilers or sad reminders), Simba is exiled by his cunning Uncle Scar. He then meets Timon and Pumbaa, who live care free in the jungle. Looking at our map, is it possible Timon and Pumbaa were living in the same jungle that a certain Tarzan does?

Pride Rock
© Disney 1994

The Jungle Treehouse

The jungle treehouse is the home of Tarzan’s parents, who retreated to the jungle after their ship capsized in the ocean. His parents were also rumoured to be the King and Queen of Arendelle (aka Elsa and Anna’s parents in Frozen), who were on their way to a wedding in the Kingdom of Corona (Tangled) but never made it. Stranded, they made it to shore and gave birth to baby Tarzan, before falling victim to the claws of a jaguar and leaving Tarzan to find a new family with the locals.

Based upon Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Tarzan of the Apes’, the 1999 Disney animation tells the story of Tarzan, the boy raised by gorillas. Though no specific location is mentioned, it alludes to West Africa due to the scenery of beaches and lush vegetation. However, some reports say that the gorillas who raise Tarzan are mountain gorillas, who are native to Uganda and Rwanda, suggesting the Disney-inspired jungle spreads across central to western Africa. 

The Jungle Treehouse
© Disney 1999

Paris

Paris is featured in many Disney films, from old classics like The Aristocats, to newer Pixar animations like Ratatouille. But arguably the most famous is the story based on Victor Hugo’s tale of Quasimodo. The Hunchback of Notre Dame all draw on Parisian landmarks such as the Eiffel tower and Notre Dame.

Belle also lives outside of Paris in her ‘provincial town’. She’s spotted reading her book in the beginning of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it zooms out over Paris.

Disney seemingly reaffirmed that the Quasimodo and Belle existed in the same Parisian universe, where the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast prominently features Paris. As Belle looks into the magic mirror, she is transported to her parents’ Parisian flat, which has a view of Notre Dame in the distance.  

Paris in Disney
© Disney 1999

Beast's Castle

If Belle lives in Paris, then the Beast’s Castle can’t be too far away. Her father Maurice stumbles upon the castle in a forest, located outside of town. 

Coincidentally, the castle that inspired Beast’s castle is also located just outside Paris, in Chambord. The Château de Chambord has similarities, with its countless spires and windows. 

Beast's Castle in real life
© Disney 1999

The Shipwreck

This shipwreck that we see at the beginning of The Little Mermaid, is believed to be that of the King and Queen of Arendelle (Frozen) who were sailing to the Kingdom of Corona for a wedding. But the ship is suddenly struck by lightning before catching fire and sinking to the ocean floor. 

But what caused the lightning? It was most likely none other than the sea witch Ursula, known for concocting thunderstorms and having electrokinetic abilities. 

Ursula
© 1989 - Walt Disney Studios

Imperial City

The Forbidden City is a stunning palace lying in the heart of Beijing. It dates back to the early 1600s, built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Its prestige and architecture make it one of China’s most noteworthy landmarks to date.

While not an exact replica, the Disney palace is very similar to that of Forbidden City. It features a large courtyard, red walls and traditional Chinese architecture. Historically, the timeline of Mulan takes place slightly earlier (a millennium actually), but it does end it plenty of damage to the Emperor’s Palace. Who’s to say it wasn’t reconstructed years on?

Mulan in real life

London

Before Peter Pan whisks Wendy, John and Michael to Neverland, he visits the Darling household while the parents are out. With some fairy dust and plenty of happy thoughts, they fly out of their bedroom window and make their way across London. Stopping at Big Ben en route, Peter points to the second star to the right indicating the direction for Neverland.  

The animation is based on JM Barrie’s classic novel. Barrie was inspired by a home in Kensington Park Gardens, which was home to the Llewellyn Davis family. Apparently, the Scottish writer was out walking one day when he met the young boys playing outside. He chatted to them and soon became a family friend, entertaining the children with stories about their youngest brother. His name was Peter. 

London in Peter Pan
© Disney 1953

Incan Kingdom

A backpacker favourite and one of the most instagrammable places on your bucket-list, Machu Picchu is Peru’s iconic landmark resting 2,430 above sea level in the Andes Mountains. The dry-stone walls are the remains of the Inca civilisation, believed to be built in the mid 15th century. Visitors can explore bridges, temples and terraces alongside roaming llamas at the historic site. 

The Emperor’s New Groove draws on many Peruvian influences. One of the most evident is the empire shape, which mimics the mountainous village of Machu Picchu.

Emperor's New Groove in Real Life
© Disney 2000

Arendelle

Arendelle is perhaps one of the most dramatic and spectacular kingdom of the Disney universe. The production team travelled to Scandinavian countries to source their inspiration, with the majority coming from Norway.

The castle of Arendelle was modelled after the Akershus Fortress, while Elsa’s ice palace was inspired by ice hotels. St Olaf’s Church in Balestrand provided the name for the beloved snowman character, and Borgund Stave Church served as the stimulus for the triple-nave style architecture evident in the film.

You can also see how the Disney animators used the landscape of Norway to create the epic scenes. Sognefjord, for example, has dazzling waterfalls and soaring cliffs.

Arendelle in real life
© Disney 2013

New Orleans

New Orleans holds a special place in the heart of Walt Disney. The producer was so in love with the Crescent City, he considered making his second park there (which ultimately ended up in Florida). Instead, he instilled New Orleans-themed square in the California site. 

But New Orleans is also the location of the Disney favourite ‘The Princess and the Frog’. Tiana is a young girl who lives in the bustling city who dreams of having a restaurant one day. She stumbles across a frog, who is actually Prince Naveen under the spell of the evil Dr Facilier, and is magically turned into a frog herself. The two of them embark on a journey around the city and bayous to find a voodoo priestess to turn them back. The plot and imagery both celebrate New Orleans, illustrating Disney’s fond relationship of the city. 

New Orleans
© Disney 2009

Sydney

Another city that appears in more than one Disney animation, Sydney is home to lots of world-famous landmarks. The city and Opera House make an appearance in The Rescuers Down Under, as Miss Bianca and Bernard fly over it on Wilbur, their albatross-aeroplane, as well as Cars 2, which features the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

But the film it is most associated with is Finding Nemo. The lovable tale of a clownfish separated from his father sees him ending up in a dentist overlooking the harbour – before he’s rescued back to sea of course!

Sydney
© Disney 2003

East Australian Current

Just off shore of Australia lies the East Australian Current. Disney features the current in Finding Nemo, where turtles Squirt and Crush help guide Marlin and Dory to Nemo.

Disney depict the East Australian Current as a super speedy highway for all kinds of sea animals making their way across the East of Australia.  

East Australian Coast
© Disney 20003

Virginia

The 33rd animated feature film by Disney was based around true characters Pocahontas (which was actually her nickname meaning ‘playful one’ and her other names being Amonute and Matoaka) and John Smith. Some reports claim that Smith wrote how Pocahontas saved his life, throwing herself on him in front of other Powhatans. However, other reports claim this simply could not have happened. 

One of the other characters that likely existed was Kocoum, who Pocahontas was betrothed to in the Disney animation. Some sources say that she did actually marry him, and quickly became pregnant.

According to historians, Powhatans lived in small wigwams called yehakins made of woven mats. The settlements were small and were scattered among the trees. The film features stunning landscape from waterfalls to willow trees, showing the natural beauty of pre-colonial Virginia.

Pocahontas real life
© Disney 1995

Mount Olympus

Hercules is one of the Greek gods of Greek mythology, son of Zeus and Hera. Disney’s animation witnesses Hercules being kidnapped from Mount Olympus and forced to live on Earth with mortals. His one goal is to return to the land of the gods by proving himself a true hero. 

The film takes us around Greece, from Athens to Thebes to Phil’s Island and to Mount Olympus. It draws inspiration from lots of iconic places, such as the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus and the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Phil’s Island was also reportedly inspired by the island of Rhodes. 

Mount Olympus refers to the highest mountain in Greece. However, the Disney portrayal is much more dreamy, shown as a kingdom made of clouds connecting to Earth by golden gates.  

Mount Olympus Hercules
© Disney 1997

Motunui Island

The story of Moana follows a young girl, who lives on the fictional island of Motunui. Moana embarks on a mission to save her island, sailing out to sea to return the heart of Te Fitti to Maui. Along the way, she meets plenty of crazy characters and lots of monsters! 

The production team travelled to the Polynesian islands, taking in the stunning beaches and green mountains. While Motunui is inspired by a medley of Polynesia, much of the culture depicted in Moana derives from Samoa. Moana is set 2000 years ago and, although based on an imaginary place, has a real history and culture that the production team wanted to get right. 

Moana in real life
© Disney 2016

Rio de Janeiro

The Brazilian city is celebrated in the sotry of Blue, the macaw. The film was produced by a Disney subsidiary company, Blue Sky Studios, who brought the sparkle and vivacity of Rio de Janeiro alive. 

The plot follows the endangered macaw, who was captured by smugglers and later rescued by his human friend Linda. Never learning to fly and growing up very domesticated, Blu is surprised one day to encounter another macaw, Jewel, who changes his life forever. 

Following Blu and Jewel on their epic adventure, the film features many of the city’s iconic landmarks, such as Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana and Sugarloaf Mountain.

Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio

King Stefan's Castle

The castle located in Bavaria, Germany is arguably the epicenter of Disney’s world. The logo shown at the beginning of every Disney movie was reportedly inspired by Neuschwanstein Castle, and the infamous Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland, Paris and Cinderella Castle in Disneyworld, Florida.

There are many similarities between the Neuschwanstein Castle and the films too, with the gleaming white walls in Cinderella and countless pointed turrets and spires in Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps the two Disney princesses are in some way related. After all, they both possess the power to communicate with animals, both have fairy godmothers looking out for them, and both have the same golden, blonde hair and bright blue eyes!

King Stefan's Castle Disney
© Disney 1950 and © Disney 1959

The Queen's Castle

Spain marks the spot that inspired the ‘most successful Disney movie ever’. New research by PlayLikeMum analysed Disney films by metacritic scores and box office takings, and revealed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) topped the charts, beating the likes of Fantasia (1940), 101 Dalmatians (1961) and The Lion King (1994) which filled the respective second, third and fourth spots. 

Snow White is known for being a German fairytale, first published by The Brothers Grimm in 1812. However, Disney added some Spanish flavour to the tale, using the Alcázar Castle, Segovia to draw up the Queen’s Castle. The name translates from the Arabic word for ‘fortress’ (al-qasr). Coupled with its position mounted high upon rocks, the castle-fortress has a strong and dominating presence.

Similar to the film, it sits near forestry where you might find a quaint cottage built for seven dwarfs in! The Segovia mines are also nearby, which is perhaps where those dwarfs whistle ‘high-ho!’ on their way to work!  

Queen's Castle in Snow White
© Disney 1937

Hawaii

Lilo and Stitch delightfully channels the spirit of Hawaii. ‘Ohana’ is the crux of the culture, translating to ‘family’ and ‘welcome’, referring to embracing not only close relatives, but neighbours, communities and friends. Undeniably, the story of Lilo and Stitch, which follows the relationship of a lonely girl who befriends an alien desperate for love, truly grasps the essence of ‘ohana’. 

Disney also invoked Hawaii in the film through studying the buildings and flora and fauna. They decided to use watercolors to replicate the island, integrating many of the buildings, shops, bridges and coastlines they had seen on their trip. Details like homemade mailboxes and rust on bridges were included to give the film authenticity.

Lilo & Stitch in real life
© Disney 2002

Kingdom of Corona

Corona is the home of Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled. As a baby, she is kidnapped by Mother Gothel who locks her away in a tall tower in a forest outside of Corona. After many years, Rapunzel grows desperate to go beyond the tower, and finds a way to escape and head her castle. 

Corona is also part of the leading fan theory that links the kingdom of Arendelle and Corona to the same universe. The King and Queen of Arendelle (Frozen) were on their way to a wedding in Corona and had to sail there due to Kingdom being an island. Unfortunately, they never made it to the wedding and instead got lost somewhere in the Atlantic before landing ashore in West Africa – where they built a treehouse and gave birth to a son, Tarzan!

Corona is an island, said to be inspired by Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It’s one of France’s most recognisable landmarks (after the Eiffel Tower of course), and is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. The medieval island is temporarily cut off from the mainland during high tides, however becomes connected again by the bay.

Kingdom of Corona in Tangles
© Disney 2010

DunBroch

Scotland is full of castles, from magical and medieval to clifftop, towering turrets. But Disney seems to have chosen Eilean Donan Castle and Dunnottar Castle as their sources of inspiration for the fantasy film Brave. The result was something that looked remarkably different from traditional Disney castles, where the production team veered from gleaming Germanic castles towards something stronger and grittier. Inside, the castle also has Celtic and Pictish designs around. 

It’s not just the castle that’s inspired by Scotland. The production team were also influenced by the Calanais Standing Stones on Lewis Island, the Braemar Gathering archery, and Glen Affric. According to Visit Scotland, the Pixar team behind Brave were so inspired by the Scottish landscape, that they altered their story to incorporate what they had seen on their trip!

Brave in real life Disney
© Disney/ Pixar 2012

Atlantis

Disney’s 2001 film dives deep to explore the mysterious city of Atlantis. Set in 1914, the adventurous Milo comes into possession of a sacred journal. He assembles a crew of explores to follow the book to find the lost empire. The story was apparently inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘A Journey to the Center of the Earth’ (1864), and the work of Edgar Cayce to form the plot.

The animation drew on Mayan and Southeast Asian architectures to bring Atlantis to life. However, the circular layout and overall look of Atlantis was adapted by Plato’s writing, which positioned Atlantis 60 miles northwest of Gibraltar, near Cádiz. Recent findings have also suggested this to be the spot, as large stone anchors were discovered in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Atlantis
© Disney 2001