King Florestan the XXIVth and his Queen have welcomed their first child, Princess Aurora, and declare a grand christening ceremony to honor her. Six fairies are invited to the ceremony to bestow gifts on the child. Each fairy represents a virtue or positive trait, such as beauty, courage, sweetness, musical talent, and mischief (the names of fairies and their gifts vary in productions). The most powerful fairy, the Lilac Fairy, arrives with her entourage, but before she can bestow her gift, the palace grows dark. With a clap of thunder, the evil fairy Carabosse arrives (typically played by a female character dancer or a male dancer in drag, and can be shown as an ugly hag or as a younger woman) with her minions (generally several male dancers depicted as rats, monsters, or insects). Carabosse furiously asks the King and Queen why she had not received an invitation to the christening. The blame falls to Catallabutte, the Master of Ceremonies who was in charge of the guest list. Carabosse gleefully tears his wig off and beats him with her staff, before placing a curse upon the baby princess as revenge: Aurora will indeed grow up to be a beautiful, healthy, delightful young lady, but on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The King and Queen are horrified and beg Carabosse for mercy, but she shows none. However, the Lilac Fairy intervenes. Though she does not have enough power to completely undo the curse, she alters it, allowing the spindle to cause a peaceful 100-year sleep for the princess, rather than death. At the end of those 100 years, she will be woken by the kiss of a handsome prince. Relieved that Aurora's life will ultimately be spared, the court is set at ease.
It is the day of Princess Aurora's sixteenth birthday. Celebrations are underway, though the King is still unsettled by Carabosse's omen. Catallabutte discovers several peasant ladies knitting nearby (a forbidden activity, as it involves spindles potentially harmful to the princess) and alerts the King, who initially sentences the women to a harsh punishment. The Queen gently persuades him to spare the innocent citizens, and he agrees. The townsfolk perform an elaborate waltz with flower garlands, and Princess Aurora arrives afterwards. She is introduced to four suitors by her doting parents. Aurora and the suitors perform the famous Rose Adagio, one of the most notoriously difficult sequences in all of ballet. Presently, a cloaked stranger appears and offers a gift to the princess: a spindle. Having never seen one before, Aurora curiously examines the strange object as her parents desperately try to intervene. As predicted, she pricks her finger on the spindle (in some versions, the "gift" is a nonthreatening bouquet of flowers with the spindle hidden within). While initially appearing to recover quickly, she falls into a swoon and collapses. The cloaked stranger reveals herself to be Carabosse, who believes that her curse still stands and that the princess is dead. Once again, the Lilac Fairy quells the hubbub and reminds the King and Queen that Aurora is merely asleep. The princess is carried off to bed, and the Lilac Fairy casts a spell of slumber over the entire kingdom, which will only be broken when Aurora awakens. She then uses her magic to cover the castle in layers of vines and brambles.
One hundred years later, Prince Désiré is at a hunting party with his companions. He is in a mopey mood, unhappy with his bossy countess girlfriend. His friends try to cheer him up with a game of blind man's bluff and a series of dances. Still unhappy, he asks for some time to himself, and the hunting party departs. Alone in the forest, he is met by the Lilac Fairy, who has chosen him to awaken Aurora. She shows him a vision of the beautiful princess, and the prince is immediately smitten. The Lilac Fairy explains the situation, and Désiré begs to be taken to the princess. The Lilac Fairy takes him by boat to the castle and guides through the deep forest until at last, they reach the hidden castle. Carabosse makes one last attempt to cement her vengeful curse, but the Lilac Fairy and the prince manage to defeat her together at last. Once inside the castle, Désiré awakens Aurora with a kiss. The rest of the court wakes as well, and the King and Queen heartily approve when the prince proposes marriage and the princess accepts.
The royal wedding is underway. Guests include the Jewel Fairies: Diamond, Gold, Silver and Sapphire, and of course the Lilac Fairy. Fairytale characters are in attendance, including Puss in Boots and The White Cat, Princess Florine and the Bluebird, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Cinderella and Prince Charming, Beauty and the Beast, and others. Aurora and Désiré perform a grand Pas de Deux, and the entire ensemble dances a mazurka. The prince and princess are married, with the Lilac Fairy blessing the union. The ballet ends with a grand apotheosis (apothéose) where all the characters come together with a tableau depicting the Sun God, Helios and King Louis XIV.