One of my favorite haunts at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is the Haunted Mansion. Judging by the steady stream of Guests in the queue, I’m not the only one with an affinity for the attraction. Designers anticipated the Mansion’s popularity way back when the concept first flitted around The Walt Disney Company, but it took nearly 18 years for the project to come to fruition.
Back in 1951, Walt Disney desired to create a place where parents and children could have fun together and began planning a “Mickey Mouse Park” on an 11-acre parcel across the street from his Burbank studio. He enlisted studio art director Harper Goff to draft a series of sketches for the proposed park. One of the renderings featured a panoramic view entitled “Church, Graveyard, and Haunted House.” You see, four years before Disneyland opened, the Haunted Mansion’s presence was already felt.
Of course, Walt’s plans grew too large for the little park across the street, and in 1953 he purchased a 160-acre orange grove in Anaheim, California, a plot of land in the middle of nowhere that is now known as The Happiest Place on Earth! That same year, art director Marvin Davis joined the design team. His early layouts for Main Street, U.S.A., showed a small residential area behind Main Street, where a crooked avenue dead-ended at a crumbling haunted house on a hill. This idea was scrapped but not completely forgotten.
As a result of the enormous success that followed Disneyland’s 1955 opening, Walt soon realized he would need to enlarge the park. As part of the expansion, Walt resurrected his Haunted Mansion concept and assigned it to Ken Anderson, a top animator who had joined WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) from the studio. The house’s planned site had moved to the southwest corner of Frontierland in an area called Magnolia Park, which Walt transformed into New Orleans Square. In 1958, the land first appeared on Disneyland souvenir maps and included a new wax museum, a Thieves’ Market, and in the very center, a Haunted House. Walt explained his idea for the Haunted House in a BBC interview, in which he expressed sympathy for ghosts who’d been displaced from their ancestral homes by the London blitz during World War II. To accommodate them—and others around the world—he planned to build a sort of retirement home at Disneyland for all the world’s homeless spirits. This notion is what led the Haunted Mansion’s story for many years to come. A few of the nearly 100 ideas that were pitched include
- An old sea captain who murdered his young bride upon her discovery he was the dreaded pirate Black Bart.
- The unfortunate Blood family who had died sudden and violent deaths, leaving their ghosts to fulfill uncompleted life missions.
- A tour of the stately mansion led by Walt Disney himself—live on tape—guiding Guests through the house to discover its ghostly residents assembling for an elaborate wedding.
- The Headless Horseman’s midnight arrival to a wedding between Monsieur Bogyman and Mlle. Vampire, attended by Dracula, Frankenstein, and Great Caesar’s Ghost, among others, and in which the bride would grow cold feet and jilt the groom at the altar.
In 1959, Walt brought in two more artists from his film studio, Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, both incredibly talented with 3-dimensional sculpting and machine work and who held an interest in magic and illusion. It was their job to build and test an entire mansion’s worth of proposed special effects. Early mockups proved to take too long to stage. Combining that issue with Walt’s displeasure at the manor’s run-down appearance and concern about it being a walk-through attraction, the project was put on indefinite hold.
In 1961, ten years after its initial suggestion, the Haunted Mansion concept returned from the grave. This time, it was included on a handbill passed out at Disneyland’s Main Entrance that informed visitors New Orleans Square and the Haunted Mansion would open two years later in 1963. The flyer stated, “Gathering the world’s greatest collection of ghosts is no easy task. Most people are kind of reluctant to admit they know any! But Walt Disney has had his talent scouts searching for several years…and in 1963 the Haunted Mansion will be filled with famous and infamous residents.” Sure enough the building was built, but it remained an empty shell for another six years. In the meantime, a real estate sign stood near its gate inviting otherworldly beings to relocate to this fine Disneyland establishment.
Preparation for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair took priority as the Haunted Mansion once again sat by the wayside. In 1964, Walt brought animator/Imagineer Marc Davis and background artist Claude Coats to the table. The pair had very successfully worked together on Pirates of the Caribbean, so Walt thought they would partner well again, and they did; however, Marc brought a light, humorous approach to the project, while Claude’s style was more menacing and creepy. The seriousness of the attraction would be debated for years until, with the help of scriptwriter X. Atencio who came aboard in 1965, the show found its theme and the team discovered how well a mix of fun and fear could work. X. was also responsible for the attraction’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts” song that plays throughout the ride, tying things all together with its varied tones.
Debate over whether the attraction should be a walk-through or ride-through continued. Because Disneyland officials, namely Dick Nunis who was director of operations at the time—nicknamed “Hopalong Capacity,” wanted to filter as many people as possible through the space each hour, a ride-through system was decided. It turns out the years of delays benefitted this decision, as it allowed time for technology to progress. By 1967, after the untimely passing of Walt Disney in December of the previous year, the perfect ride system was available. The Omnimover, a direct descendant of the WEDway People Mover, consists of a train of swiveling, clamshell-shaped pods that can spin, turn, and tilt to point Guests in any direction, aiming them at focal points in the attraction. With this in place, Imagineers could direct riders’ attention to exactly what they wanted them to see. The Omnimover “Doom Buggies” allowed Guests to move through at a constant rate, meeting the capacity desires and keeping the spirit of the Mansion in motion.
Haunted Mansion—the result of 18 years of teamwork, creative inspiration, technological innovation, and of course, patience—came together as a three-act show, whose doors finally creaked open on August 9, 1969. Act One begins in the queue and foyer, introducing visitors to the Mansion and its inhabitants and building anticipation about the ghostly activity they will soon encounter. Madame Leota’s Séance Room separates Act One and Act Two, extending an invitation for the spirits to materialize, which they promptly do in the Grand Hall and Attic. The fall from the attic window into the Graveyard plunges Guests into Act Three, where the 999 Happy Haunts have “come out to socialize,” and to end the experience, a Hitchhiking Ghost catches a ride on passengers’ Doom Buggies and “a ghost will follow you home.”
Exactly one week after opening, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion set a single-day attendance record of 82, 516. The attraction was an instant hit and remains a fan-favorite today, having had versions of the Imagineering masterpiece adapted and installed at three other Magic Kingdom Parks around the world. In fact, since construction on Walt Disney World Resort had already begun when fabrication and installation of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion started, forward-thinking Imagineers doubled production of everything. One set went to Disneyland, and the other to storage in Florida. Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion was actually completed and ready by April 1971, a full six months before the park opened! The Disneyland and Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion ride interiors are exact duplicates with one exception. Disneyland did not have space available for the ride housing, so its building was constructed outside the park’s berm. This required Guests to go underground to access the ride. The Stretch Room in Disneyland actually lowers the floor, providing an elevator for descent. Walt Disney World needed no such alteration, so its (and subsequent Haunted Mansions) Stretch Room ceiling rises, while the floor remains stationary. Building facades of each Haunted Mansion attraction vary due to their placement within each park, and Disneyland Resort Paris’ and Tokyo Disneyland’s story lines vary somewhat to account for cultural differences.
There’s so much more I’d like to tell you, but that will have to wait until another day. I will, however, leave you with some parting trivia and a few more little-known facts:
- The sculpted bats that top the stanchions in the Load Area feature three styles of bats—one with both wings spread, one with the right wing down, and one with the left wing down—to accommodate the various turns of the queue.
- Early sketches of the Haunted Mansion depicted a tattered, run-down, dilapidated old house. Walt preferred a pristine exterior and issued this decree: “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.”
- In order to make the Graveyard scene a true showstopper, X. Atencio and Buddy Baker gave the music cues an otherworldly quality by detuning the instruments and recording the music backward.
- An urban legend that explained the long wait from the attraction’s 1963 announcement to its 1969 opening claimed that a reporter had suffered a heart attack in the structure, requiring construction to stop because it was too scary.
- The ghost swinging from the chandelier in the Grand Hall is the only character other than Madame Leota referred to by a specific name, Pickwick.
Remember, the Haunted Mansion’s 999 Happy Haunts love company. There’s always room for one more!
Illusions in several scenes in the Haunted Mansion, like those seen in the Great Hall as well as the Hitchhiking Ghosts at the end of the ride, are created by a magical technique called Pepper’s Ghost. Check out the tutorial below to create your own eerie illusion and impress your friends—or totally freak them out!
SCHOOL SUBJECT: History, Science, Film Technique
SKILL LEVEL: Middle Grades, High School
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2nd Stop ~ A Disney Mom’s Thoughts – TTA PeopleMover
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4th Stop ~ The Disney Point – Space Mountain
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