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Walt Disney World Architecture in Real Life: A Garden, Two Palaces, and A Conservatory

By: Kendall Foreman

Photo showing exterior of the Crystal Palace restaurant in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World

The Disney A To Z of D23.com has the following statement listed within its Crystal Palace entry:

“Patterned after the facility Prince Albert built to honor Queen Victoria, this landmark cafeteria-style restaurant is one of the more attractive buildings in the park.”

Released as part of the Walt Disney World 50th anniversary celebration, the comprehensive book titled A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of the Most Magical Place on Earth includes this concise caption alongside a photo of the aforementioned eatery:

“An evening on Main Street, U.S.A., including the Crystal Palace, which was partially inspired by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park Conservatory of Flowers…”

Finally, The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom expanded even further on the location’s origins with this excerpt:

“Its architecture was based on a combination of sources – the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, Kew Gardens in England and the Crystal Palace in New York.”

Upon seeing these statements, the inclination is to assume that one or more was made in error; however, it is not only possible, but likely, that all three are accurate.

Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, U.S.A. has a pair of restaurant bookends at its terminus. The east side’s Plaza Restaurant, with its understated charm, is a continuation of the turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture, but the west side’s Crystal Palace is more of a diversion. Grand in its appearance, with its enumerable windows and glass pane domes, it creates an appropriate transition to the British and French colonial architecture of the Adventureland facades.

It is fitting that the Crystal Palace would play this role. As noted, one of its sources of inspiration was the Kew Gardens in England which served a similar purpose by bridging Europe to exotic locales. According to the recorded history of the Kew Gardens, one of its founders, botanist Joseph Banks, traveled with Captain Cook (yes, that is the namesake of the quick-service eatery) on his voyage to the South Seas in 1768, and from there, he sent back seeds for the gardens. Flora arrived from expeditions across the globe, and in 1848, the Palm House at Kew Gardens was completed. This building was the largest glasshouse at that time, and its very existence clearly served as a basis for the Crystal Palace.

Just a few short years after the construction of the Palm House, another Joseph – Joseph Paxton – an English landscape gardener, designed what would become London’s Crystal Palace. This 18-acre glass and iron exhibition hall was commissioned by Prince Albert. He desired to host an international event to showcase manufactured goods from all over the world. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in the completed Crystal Palace made entirely of cast iron parts and 293,000 panes of glass. It had a western hall for Britain’s exhibitors, an eastern hall for those from other nations, and a large vault up the middle which accommodated a 27-foot-high fountain and three elm trees that had already been growing in that location. The Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace, with its branches and lofty center subtly reference its London ancestor, but it is perhaps what the English Crystal Palace beget that created the greatest tie between it and the Walt Disney World dining location.

Not to be outdone, in 1852 the elite of New York City began making plans for their own exhibition, and as such, they wanted their own glass and iron building. The New York Crystal Palace was designed by Georg Carstensen of Denmark and Charles Gildemeister of Germany and followed the Greek-cross layout with four symmetrical branches. Built on what is today Hyde Park, the New York Crystal Palace had an iron frame which was painted cream with red, blue, and yellow accents. Just like its London predecessor, it had glass walls, but this structure featured a 100-foot diameter glass dome which towered 148 feet high. While the cupola of the Magic Kingdom Crystal Palace is not quite as magnificent, that architectural feature and its ivory color palate clearly resemble the structure at the center of the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations.

A lithograph by Charles Parsons showing the interior of the New York Crystal Palace
“An Interior View of the New York Crystal Palace” – Artist: Charles Parsons, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954 – Public domain license.

A through-line can clearly be drawn from Kew Gardens, to the London Crystal Palace, to the New York Crystal Palace, all leading to the San Francisco Golden Gate Conservatory of Flowers. Built in 1878-79 by the New York firm Lord and Burnham, the wood frame and glass structure recalled the look of the New York Crystal Palace with its central dome, the London Crystal Palace with its east and west halls, and the Kew Gardens in its purpose. As an amalgamation of its predecessors, it is this building which Disney’s version most closely resembles.

Even if the Conservatory of Flowers is visually the most comparable to Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace, each of these glass buildings influenced the next. With that in mind, it becomes clear that Disney’s Imagineers bear both responsibility and freedom when they are researching and designing the structures that populate the Disney Parks. When these places are grounded in reality, they are charged with accurately alluding to structures which guests would expect to see, but the very nature of a theme park permits a bit of fantasy which allows for a restaurant such as the Crystal Palace to find its inspiration in four separate locations.

Crystal Palace photo from the personal collection of Melanie Whitfield. Lithograph “An Interior View of the New York Crystal Palace” – Artist: Charles Parsons, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access Program. Public domain license.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.