Disney’s Haunted Mansion
marks 50 years of fears, fun
ANAHEIM — One of America’s most famous residences — a house frightfully, delightfully inhabited but where no one has ever lived — now has a milestone planted amid its faux tombstones.
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion turned 50 recently, giving rise to park celebrations, an artifacts exhibit, souvenirs and a rollicking panel discussion at the popularMidsummer Scream horror / haunt fan and trade convention in nearby Long Beach (see story, page 37). Opened Aug. 9, 1969, after 15 years of planning and creative jostling, the iconic dark ride remains the gold standard for haunted attractions worldwide, including direct variations at three other Disney parks.
The original Haunted Mansion has entertained some 350 million guests en route to achieving classic status. From the moment the well-manicured, three-story, Victorian-style abode in New Orleans Square debuted, it brought a fresh combination of storytelling, time-tested theatrical illusions (such as the reflection-based Pepper’s Ghost technique) and cutting-edge technology — all in the service of balancing horror and humor — to a familiar amusement park and carnival concept.
“It’s up there on that Mount Rushmore of Disney attractions,” saidKevin Lively, a writer in the story development department ofWalt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and a Haunted Mansion historian, in an interview withAmusement Today. “So many risks were taken with the attraction, especially with all the special effects. [Imagineer]Yale Gracey and his team were able to dust off effects that were basically staples in the magic community for generations and present them in new ways that really do trick your brain.”
Gracey was just one of many Disney Legends involved in the project. Others Lively made a point to credit in discussion included animatorsClaude Coats andMarc Davis, designerRolly Crump, writerXavier “X” Atencio andLeota Toombs, a former Imagineer who served as the face of the attraction’s séance-conducting Madame Leota.
The earliest idea for a haunted house at Disneyland dates back to a sketch artistHarper Goff made in 1952 during the park’s conceptualization. The initial intent was to have a scary-looking manor, but Walt Disney wanted a home with a stately facade that belied the spirited goings-on inside.
The attraction’s exterior was built in 1962-63. It sat dormant while Walt participated in the 1964-65New York World’s Fair, refocusingWED Enterprises (the forerunner of WDI) and his Imagineers on projects for that event. The World’s Fair experience proved key to the Haunted Mansion’s future, as it became a testing ground for technology, such as audio-animatronics, that would help lead to the attraction’s success.
Originally, the Haunted Mansion was envisioned as a walkthrough, with guests led in small groups by a cast member who would describe scenes lasting a couple minutes. But the development of the Omnimover passenger conveyance system by Disney LegendBob Gurr, introduced at the World’s Fair with theFord’s Magic Skyway and utilized in the 1967 Tomorrowland attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space, led to a different approach.
Dubbed “Doom Buggies” for the Haunted Mansion, the circular-tracked system’s continuously gliding, strategically pivoting pod-like vehicles allowed the attraction to “control the speed at which everybody can move,” explained Lively. “More importantly, the system could turn people 360 degrees to focus the camera of the eye. Making everybody look down a hallway with a floating candlestick, for example, created an advantage not only for the special effects team but for the attraction’s overall development.”
In addition to its obvious efficiency (2,500-plus riders per hour), maximization of the interior space and ability to keep projectors and lighting equipment out of sight, the system’s dark, shell-shaped seating added a coffin-like immersive element to the experience.
Once it was decided to go the ride-through route, the WED creative team, which included interior designerTania Norris, could get down to scaring up fun. But they would have to do so without the maestro-like leadership and final conceptual approval of Walt, who died in December 1966 at age 65.
Differences within the creative team soon emerged.
“Some wanted it to be scary, and some wanted it to be fun and lighthearted,” Lively said. “So they compromised. When you go on the attraction today, it’s still like that — the first half is spooky, grim, while the second half is ‘grinning.’ It has that balance. The genius writing and lyrics of X Atencio [e.g., the song ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’] ties it all together perfectly.”
The ride’s intimacy in placing guests closer to the action, he pointed out, also worked in its favor.
“When you look at other Disneyland attractions at the time — starting with the first big one, Jungle Cruise, and fast-forwarding to Pirates of the Caribbean — everything is still kind of far away [from the vehicles]. But going through the hallways of the Haunted Mansion was different. This was a truly enchanted, up-close experience, with candelabras floating right in front of you and statues moving their heads. It’s Disney magic.”
With technologies evolving, that magic has been subject to occasional tweaks, upgrades and additions, Lively acknowledged. Scene enhancements have included a floating crystal ball for the séance in 2005 and the replacement of a static, translucent ghost bride with a multidimensional one in 2006. “We’ll look at any opportunity to ‘plus’ the attraction if it stays within the tone and the story. But we’re not here to fix something that isn’t broken.”
A native of Southern California, Lively grew up visiting Disneyland. He recalled his vivid first experience of the Haunted Mansion’s opening act, in which guests crowd into the Portrait Chamber adorned with paintings that elongate to reveal disturbingly macabre scenes.
“The original Imagineers got their scares out right up front,” he said. “The room stretching, then the roof going away and the skeleton hanging there. But then the bones rattle in a kind of comical way. And the doors open and the Ghost Host [voiced byPaul Frees] says, ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you prematurely….’
“They really knew what they were doing — playing with the emotions and putting people into a proper haunted house attraction. Just imagine going into the Haunted Mansion if you didn’t have the Hitchhiking Ghosts or didn’t have a bunch of ghosts having a swinging wake in the cemetery — what a downer. But you end up leaving on a happy note.”