We probably wouldn’t have Disneyland and Walt Disney World if not for an eccentric Bavarian king…
Theme parks seem like a fairly modern concept. After all, there was a reason why Walt encountered so much resistance when he pitched the concept for Disneyland. Amusement parks were considered dirty, unseemly places, and the idea of an otherworldly fantasyland escape sounded like a fool’s errand for any sane businessman. Even when Disneyland proved a staggering success after a rocky opening, Walt remained a visionary who often baffled his contemporaries.
Ironically, he had much in common with an unlikely predecessor who was just as enigmatic, creative, and ambitious as he was…
King Ludwig II of Bavaria was also a man ahead of his time. He was barely 18 years old when he came to the throne in 1864—just under 100 years before Disneyland opened. Ludwig could have been one of Disney’s characters for all his striking characteristics—he looked the splitting image of a brooding Prince Charming, tall and handsome with dark hair and keen, piercing eyes. His most controversial strength was a vibrant imagination, to the point that he obsessed over epic tales, heroic sagas, and role-playing. He’s best known not for his political career, but rather for his penchant for building opulent fairy-tale castles across the Bavarian countryside. If you have been on Soarin’ at Walt Disney World’s Epcot, you may be familiar with his most famous creation…
Schloss Neuschwanstein—the real life fantasy castle that inspired Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella Castle.
Despite gaining the controversial moniker of “The Mad King”, Ludwig’s castles have come to be celebrated as some of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions (and the inspiration for an amazing board game). Indeed, theme park fans have much to thank the enigmatic king for…
By the way, this is a tale best enjoyed with a little mood music. Throw on some headphones and press play to get the full effect!
The Swan Prince
Ludwig’s similarities with Walt Disney started early on—both had troubled relationships with their fathers. Both had fathers who could be abusive (though Walt adored his mother), but Ludwig had a different problem—his parents seemed to want nothing to do with him.
Ludwig was born into a uniquely dysfunctional family. He became Crown Prince at the tender age of 3 when his grandfather, Ludwig I, abdicated after a series of scandalous affairs. Ludwig’s parents, King Maximillian II and Marie of Prussia, treated their children with cold aloofness, to the point that Ludwig came to refer to his mother as “his predecessor’s consort”.
His childhood plays out like the stuff of classic novels where kids regularly get their knuckles rapped with a switch. He was indulged with every luxury yet hopelessly lonely, constantly reminded of the weight of his royal birthright yet disdained by his father for his fanciful mind. He lived under the strictest of educations, and there seemed to be little love in the house. On one occasion, his parents even took away a pet turtle because he grew too attached to it—you can’t make this stuff up.
Ludwig himself wasn’t necessarily an angel of a child. He was known for a gloomy personality and occasional fits of violence. On one occasion, he shoplifted a purse, arguing with his governess that “everything in Bavaria belonged to him” anyways. Over the years, Ludwig gained a sharp mind and learned to keep his creative pursuits to himself.
Many of his happiest memories took place at the family’s summer residence at Hohenschwangau, a hillside castle built just below the ruins of an old fortress that would later become the site for Neuschwanstein. Its Gothic halls were filled with depictions of epic sagas and heroic tales, a pleasant fuel for Ludwig’s creativity. He loved play acting, listening to music, attending the theater, and dressing up in costumes. He was a superfan long before geek-culture existed, and he adored one artist above all others…
Wagner’s biggest fan
It is impossible to understand how Ludwig’s fantasy castles came to be without talking about Richard Wagner—if you used the playlist at the top of this article, you’re listening to the great composer’s music right now. Some of his most famous works include Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman, and The Ride of the Valkyries—for those less familiar with classical operas, you might be familiar with that last one if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now or are a fan of WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan (YES!).
Ludwig saw Lohengrin at age 15, and it changed him forever. He adored Wagner on a level beyond the most ardent superfans of our day—he obsessed over the composer. The few times Ludwig was able to form friendships, it was almost always with fellow Wagner fans, and he loved acting out scenes from the composer’s operas.
When Ludwig’s father died of illness in 1864, one of his first acts as the new King of Bavaria was to seek out an audience with the composer. Ludwig was well-liked by his people, and he didn’t do much to shake up his father’s political positions. It seems his ministers expected him to be a pliable puppet, but little did they know that he had a strong will and would not make an easy tool for their machinations. His dogged avoidance of social functions and public audiences further frustrated his constituents—in essence, Ludwig was king of the introverts and an unpredictable one at that.
Wagner had dismissed Ludwig’s previous invitations, but when the king ascended the throne, that got the composer’s attention. Wagner had a rather notorious reputation for political radicalism and spending cash faster than he could keep it. In truth, his creditors would have finished him off had he not responded to Ludwig’s summons. Ludwig quickly became the composer’s greatest patron, and saved the man’s career.
The problem was that Ludwig’s adoration for Wagner went well beyond mere fandom—he had a full-on man crush on the composer. Ludwig’s letters to Wagner over the years are quite impassioned—like “I’m going to build a fantasy castle dedicated to your works and we should go live there together forever” levels. Here's a bit of one:
“It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day [...]; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. It will also remind you of "Tannhäuser" (Singers' Hall with a view of the castle in the background), "Lohengrin'" (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel) ...
In essence, Ludwig wanted to build a Wagner theme park, and Wagner had few scruples about playing his part in borderline-romantic correspondence to maintain his patron.
The dream was short-lived. Despite a successful opening for Tristan und Isolde in Munich, Wagner made enemies quickly in Bavaria, and Ludwig’s constituents weren’t too fond of his lavish spending and scandalous fawning over the composer. In 1865, the King was forced to send Wagner away, a point that grieved him so greatly that he almost abdicated the throne. Wagner convinced him not to take this course, and despite strain on the relationship, Ludwig would continue to support Wagner in future endeavors like the building of his opera house and a residence.
A castle fit for a magic kingdom…
The Austro-and-Franco-Prussian Wars changed everything for Ludwig. In 1870, Bavaria became part of a new German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I, and the country lost much of its independence. Ludwig’s role was reduced to that of a figurehead.
With Wagner largely out of the picture and his power diminished, Ludwig carried on in his kingly role for a time—he even almost married his cousin, fellow Wagner-superfan Duchess Sophia of Bavaria but the engagement ultimately fell apart. Ludwig retreated further and further into seclusion, turning his efforts to creative projects starting with the remodeling of Hohenschwangau. While this project added personality to the castle, it didn’t satisfy. His dream remained to build a personal retreat where he could live out his favorite stories to his heart’s content.
Hohenschwangau (originally called Schwanstein Castle) was built just below the remains of a pair of old castles known by the exceptionally Bavarian names Schloss Vorderhohenschwangau and Hinterhohenschwangau. Ludwig had already decided to build a new castle on the site from the moment he came to the throne, and this New Hohenschwangau was the retreat he intended to settle down in with his buddy Wagner.
Ludwig called on the services of architect, Eduard Riedal, and renowned stage designer, Christian Jank, to help realize his vision. Once again similar to Walt Disney, Ludwig was deeply involved in every detail of the design. His vision for a romantic imagining of a medieval castle themed after Wagner’s works was so specific that the original two castles had to be demolished entirely.
Construction on the castle that would later be renamed Neuschwanstein (after Ludwig’s death) began in 1869 and was never truly finished—Ludwig intended for the castle to host 200 rooms, but only 14 were completed. Despite the castle’s massive size, the king never wanted it to be opened to the public—not even his own mother was given residence there (she remained at Nymphenburg and ultimately Hohenschwangau until her death in 1889). Ludwig essentially wanted his own fantasy fortress of solitude, and his intention was for every room to serve that purpose. Fascinatingly, he only spent 6 months there, and of those, he supposedly only slept 11 nights within its walls.
The castle itself is an imposing sight due to its lofty location atop a high cliff above Hohenschwangau. Some of the most notable features include an impressive Throne Hall, a Hall of Singers (dedicate to Wagner, of course), an Oratory, a personal study for Ludwig’s projects, and even a grotto complete with a waterfall. Every room was elaborately decorated with frescos of medieval quests like that for the Holy Grail and Biblical figures. Despite the medieval trappings, the castle was actually a technological wonder with running water on every floor, automatic toilets, telephones, central heating, and a lift for servants to bring meals with minimal social interaction for the king.
Interestingly, despite being Ludwig’s most famous castle creation, it wasn’t actually his most elaborate…