Sometimes it seems Disney’s reach is getting way too big, but there is one really, really big aspect of Disney’s parks, movies, and animation that remains truly wonderful: the dragons.
With Disney’s latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, currently streaming on Disney+, now is a fun time to look at some random facts about some of Disney’s most colorful, comic, fun, and sometimes fierce characters.
1. Those familiar with Chinese mythology will recognize the biggest star of Raya and the Last Dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) was inspired by the Southeast Asian dragons called Naga. Nagas have slender snaky bodies and no wings, and are often bound to the element of water. Sisu and her siblings certainly know their way around the element.
2. Another dragon inspired by Chinese mythology was the diminutive dragon Mushu from the animated feature Mulan. Mushu was originally going to be a type of yin-yang personality to be voiced by two actors, Joe Pesci and Richard Dreyfuss. It was only after Pesci got in the studio that it was realized the voice and character didn’t fit, and Mushu got a one-voice reboot with Eddie Murphy.
3. Dragons have been a part of the Disney parks’ magic for some time, and those who remember the original logo for Walt Disney World Resort’s Animal Kingdom may remember a dragon in the middle. This dragon was to be a big draw for a section called the Beastly Kingdom. The area would have a riverboat ride featuring a menacing fire-breathing dragon, complete with the remnants of melted knights’ armor. Early guests may remember some “coming attractions” effects, but eventually, this area never happened, and Pandora popped up in its place.
4. Dragons are tricky creatures, and one Disney Park dragon that has given them a little trouble was the Maleficent Dragon, the center star of the Fantasmic show at Disneyland Park since 1992. When the show received an update around 2009, then there were many technical problems reimagining a more impressive 45-foot animatronic dragon. The new show even started without a dragon, and when the dragon first appeared again, it had to take another hiatus after malfunctioning several times. Due to the many delays and problems, the dragon was nicknamed “Murphy” by fans after “Murphy’s Law.”
5. Maleficent’s dark magic must be strong, as another popular Maleficent dragon, the beautiful steampunk style fire-breathing Maleficent Dragon float, had to take an eight-month vacation when it caught fire during a parade in 2018. No one was hurt, except the poor dragon. It is an impressive float, and fans were happy to see its return.
6. One of the scariest dragons in the Disney parks is Disneyland Paris’s sleeping dragon, located in the La Taniere du Dragon below the Sleeping Beauty Castle. This dragon was, at the time, Disney’s longest animatronic feature ever built when it first debuted in 1992, measuring for passing guests.
7. Not all Disney dragons are menacing, as many of Disney’s animated dragons tend to be friendly and lovable. The earliest example is the 1941 hybrid film The Reluctant Dragon, featuring a mix of live-action and animation. Humorist Robert Benchley plays himself trying to find Walt Disney so he can share his idea for turning Kenneth Grahame’s book into a film. Many Disney animators make an appearance, and the last section of the film is the resulting animated short for The Reluctant Dragon.
8. The original Pete’s Dragon, another hybrid of animation and live-action, debuted in 1977, but Disney originally purchased the story from a Hollywood writer in 1955. The animated pink-haired Elliot was said to “20 feet long” and “40 feet high,” but according to Disney fandom sites, he only looked to be about 12 feet tall.
9. Pete’s Dragon got a non-musical debut in 2016, and as the original Elliot is said to be “part reptile” and “part mammal,” the new CGI Elliot was completely furry. This was an intentional move, as the film’s director, David Lowery, wanted him to be entirely different than the frightening Game of Thrones type of scaly dragon. He said in an IGN interview he wanted the rebooted Elliot to be “the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to.”
10. Many Disney dragons may larger-than-life, but Mushu isn’t the only small dragon in Disney films. In Pixar’s fantasy-meets-suburbia feature, Onward, there are plenty of dragon references (including the high school’s mascot), but the show-stealing dragon is a terrier-sized fire-spitting pet dragon Blazey. This dragon gets her personality from a real-life dog, Carol, belonging to Pixar animator Dan Scanlon.
11. Another small Disney dragon, Figment, is a favorite character often seen at Walt Disney World’s Epcot as part of the Journey Into Imagination attraction and in photo op “meet and greets” being carried by his steampunk style handler, Dreamfinder. Figment is one of the first Disney characters made exclusively for a theme park, and his purple color was the result of not wanting to create a “green dragon” on an attraction originally sponsored by Kodak film. Green was the main color in Fuji film labeling, a competitor of Kodak who had bright yellow packaging.
12. With so many fantasy characters and segments in both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, only one dragon is prominently featured. He is seen in the Fantasia 2000 “Pomp and Circumstance” segment along with a unicorn and a griffon laughing at the other animals boarding Noah’s Ark before the flood.
13. Dragons are the fiercest animals of the shape-shift dark fairies and witches in Disney’s classic films. This includes the purple dragon that the cheating Mad Madam Mim transforms herself into during the “Wizard’s Duel” with Merlin in The Sword and The Stone. Her dragon is no match for the smallest of creatures, as Merlin takes her down by transforming into a germ (a rare disease called “malignalitaloptereosis” to be exact), which she caught!
14. The first animatronic dragon seen at any Disney park was actually underwater; it was the Submarine Voyage’s Sea Serpent. The serpent was 48-feet long and six feet high and became part of a Disney collector Richard Kraft’smpoolside decorations after the ride closed (pre-Finding Nemo era). When Kraft sold off most of his collection in 2018 in a well-publicized auction, the serpent sold to an anonymous buyer for $80,000.
15. In 2012, a “real” firebreathing dragon flew over Disneyland as part of a publicity event for the grand opening of the New Fantasyland. The dragon was actually a modified ultralight manned vehicle and made only a one-night appearance.
However, thanks to the internet, his flight was well-documented.
Regardless of what direction the Disney parks and movies take in the future, let’s hope they always make room for dragons.