In a cold and dark cavern underneath the Disneyland Paris castle sits a sleeping dragon amid a misty pool. From time to time, the beast awakens, looks around, roars softly and goes back asleep. The dragon is the centerpiece of the popular “Dragon Lair” walkthrough attraction. It’s one of the biggest Audio Animatronic figures ever conceived by Walt Disney Imagineering.
Some time ago, our website interviewed former Imagineer, Ms. Terri Hardin Jackson who told us everything about the design of the cavern and the dragon.
The attraction’s background story is inspired by “The Fox and the Hound”, the 24th film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series. It is often thought that the Audio Animatronic represents “Maleficent” when it is in fact the dragon of Merlin, who also lives in the castle.
Merlin and the dragon crossed paths when they were young and soon became good friends. It was only years later that they realized that society expected them to be enemies. But despite the social pressure, the two most unlikely of friends were able to hold on to their friendship and grow old together. Upon Merlin’s retirement, the king gave the wizard and his dragon friend a home in and underneath the castle.
The dragon is a close copy of the one that could be seen in the “Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour” at Tokyo Disneyland. For Paris, Terri cut the scale model of the Tokyo dragon to pieces and retrofitted it into the available space underneath the Disneyland Paris castle. Subsequently, Ms. Hardin Jackson added those body parts that weren’t visible to guests in the “Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour”.
Before Terri was assigned to the project, WDI had intended the dragon to be a static figure. But Ms. Hardin Jackson could persuade Mr. Tony Baxter that the animal needed to be an Audio Animatronic that would be in constant motion. Besides waking up and going back to sleep, the dragon also moves its paws and tail while dreaming, just like cats and dogs do while they are asleep.
In the final version of the attraction, the dragon wears a collar. This is a deviation from the original design. Seeing that the animal used to be Merlin’s associate, Terri was of the opinion that Merlin would never make his friend wear a collar but would give it the freedom it needed.
Several techniques were used to make the experience at the Lair not too frightening for small (and big) children.
When the dragon awakens, it doesn’t get angry. It simply looks around and goes back to sleep. This kind of behavior gives kids the impression that the dragon doesn’t consider them as threat. While the animal moves in its sleep like a cat or dog, it reminds children of a gentle pet. And by highlighting certain parts of its head with lighter colors, the dragon also appears less frightening.
The design of the grotto was inspired by the famous “Chrystal Cavern” at Sequoia National Park. Upon visiting the cavern, Ms. Hardin Jackson noted the darkness and cool temperatures of the place. In order to mimic her experience in Paris, the Lair is dimly lit and room temperature is always (or used to be) kept at about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the rest of the Park.
“Dragon Lair” at Disneyland Paris.
“Chrystal Cavern” at Sequoia National Park.
The platform upon which the dragon lays its head has been positioned on a lower level than the rest of the cavern to make people step back when the animal wakes up.
The fact that Terri wanted the dragon to sit amid a misty pool, created a real challenge: how do you make smoke without filling the grotto with toxic fuels? Therefore, devices, the size of four sugar cubes, were created that use the water of the lake to create smoke.
The dragon is fenced in by a simple chain. During the design phase, Terri and one of her colleagues came up with some alternative and more creative ideas to separate the guests from the beast, but none of them was used.
The colleague wanted to position the skeleton of a second dragon with a sword in its heart between the audience and the Audio Animatronic. But as not everyone got the reference to the dead “Maleficent”, the idea was abandoned. A second concept, a chain with links looking like helmets and shields didn’t make the final design either as it was feared that it would distract the guests attention from the centerpiece of the walk through attraction: Merlin’s sleeping dragon.
On opening day, the Dragon Lair was voted by guests as one of the best attractions in Disneyland Paris. And to this day, it’s still a favorite of many of us, including myself.
This article is part of a collaboration between ‘Designing Disney’ and ‘Jim Hill Media’, the web's leading resource for everything Disney, theme park and entertainment news. May I kindly invite you to head over to the ‘Jim Hill Media’ website to read the companion piece “Will New Fantasyland’s flying dragon fare better than Epcot’s ‘Skylaidescope’ & ‘Surprise in the Skies’ ultralights?”.
I would like to sincerely thank Ms. Terri Hardin Jackson and Mr. Jim Hill, the paterfamilias of all Disney Bloggers and my shining example, for helping me to write this article. Your encouragement, support and love mean the world to me. It was an honor and unforgettable experience to be able to work with both of you.
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Photo Crystal Cavern: (C) Victor Gane.