An Inside Look at Disney’s Haunted Mansion -By Jeff Baham Page 1 of 3

Hinges have been creaking in doorless chambers for over three decades, first opening in 1969 at Disneyland, and a few years later at the Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom. “Thirty years — and this old house still kicks Bob Vila’s pasty white butt,” summed up Geoff Carter of the Las Vegas Sun.

Even after more than a quarter-century of haunting, this classic attraction still amazes young and old alike. To this day, the average patron of the Haunted Mansion has no idea how those ghosts appear and disappear right before their eyes (as they have since the day the attraction opened) or how those singing busts can vocalize with such lifelike expressions. Even Disney’s own Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” writing for a column that appeared in a ZDNet feature about Walt Disney World’s 25th Anniversary, chalked the disappearing effect up to “holograms.” The truth is that the Haunted Mansion owes its most spectacular effects to a combination of turn-of-the century stage effects and good theming. Holograms, while not unknown in 1969, would have been quite a remarkable technical feat to pull off in a theme park attraction 30 years ago, even by the high standards set by WED’s “Imagineers.” The Imagineers are the engineering and design team formed by Walt Disney to create the magic behind his theme parks.

Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction owes its enduring appeal to more than just special effects. Dave Collier, a movie effects-industry professional working with Hunter/Gratzner, has also spent nearly 20 years in the field of Halloween events. “Atmosphere is the key to any successful Haunted Attraction. Disney’s Haunted Mansion surpasses this expectation because they meet every single key element to make the experience one that will be remembered for years to come,” explained Collier. From tiny architectural animistic details almost imperceptible in the shadows, to a remarkably versatile theme song that can transform itself chameleon-like from a mournful funeral dirge to an insane ballroom waltz, then to a jazzy graveyard jamboree without losing the melody, the Disney attraction stops at nothing to establish a perfectly kooky (and even occasionally spooky) atmosphere.

The Concept
Walt Disney had planned to have a haunted attraction in his theme parks from the beginning. The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was the first to open, and the original neat and trimmed plantation-style façade was built in the Anaheim park in the early sixties, where it sat, unoccupied, for six years. Many different concepts were bandied about during that time for the attraction’s innards, as the building sat alone, deserted but clean as a whistle. While some designers questioned the tidy appearance for a manse rumored to be haunted, Walt did not want the theme park sullied with an uglified, ramshackle construction. (The Walt Disney World version of the attraction neatly sidesteps this issue by utilizing a powerful brick Mansion; neither tidy nor ramshackle, yet completely foreboding.)

Many ideas for the original ride were considered and discarded, including a colonial-style encounter with the headless horseman, a museum of oddities and the supernatural, and a walk-through attraction similar to a fun house. “Generally, people working on this were trying to do something with telling a story,” recalled late Disney legend Marc Davis, speaking at a 30th anniversary celebration for the Haunted Mansion in 1999. “But Walt Disney did not want to tell a story, or to do it like any of the [other park] attractions. So we tried different things.”

Because of this, the Mansion evolved into a collection of vignettes, without an emphasis on storytelling, and the result is a delightfully dreary selection of set pieces. The simple “official” story holding it all together: 999 happy haunts have come out to socialize… but there’s room for a thousand. Any volunteers?

This story was amplified a bit for the Phantom Manor attraction, which was built for Disneyland Paris. Although the ride layout and gags are very similar and in many cases identical, two central characters were introduced to the attraction to develop a situation of understated despair. Those characters are a young brideand a skeletal phantom, both of whom appear repeatedly throughout the attraction.

Of course, an attraction as popular and oft-visited as Disney’s Haunted Mansion almost always attracts intense curiosity, and a wealth of rumors and supposed “official” back-stories have evolved over the past 30 years. This includes a few with some merit, and most with none. Apparently, there are a few truths that may be gleaned from stories considered by the WED designers. One of these goes something like this: There may have been an evil sea captain (Cap’n Blood, by some accounts) who met a self-inflicted doom, possibly after murdering his new bride, who haunts the manse in the attic to this day. The gruesome nature of this story seems to run counter to the quirky fun of the attraction as it exists today, so we can assume that this back-story did not play a large role in the final design of the Mansion (though in an oddly black and un-Disney-like moment, while patrons are in the room with the stretching portraits there is reference to the host’s suicide, as lightning flashes illuminate his body, hanging from a noose tied to the rafters above.)

Over the years, employees at the Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion (called “Cast Members” by the Disney Company) still went on to create an intricate, involved history of every person, ghost, pictured character and inhabitant of the Mansion. This unofficial history has recently enjoyed wide circulation on the internet, so the myths continue to grow. To this day, certain Cast Members at the Walt Disney World Mansion might even show you the imprint in the ground that the young bride’s wedding ring made when she was thrown out of the attic window by the Cap’n in a murderous rage.

The Attraction
Unlike the white plantation mansion of Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, the imposing brick mansion of the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square invokes a formal colonial solitude. Although both Mansions were planned as the Disneyland version neared completion, the Orlando version (which opened in 1971, a few years after the Anaheim premiere) differs from its counterpart most markedly in the architecture. Along the rooftop of the Orlando mansion, observant patrons may note that the spires take the forms of chess pieces. In fact, if one were to take note of all the spires, all the chess pieces would be accounted for, except for the knight.
The cold brick façade is a near-exact replica of the Harry Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, which currently plays host to weekend “murder mysteries,” Victorian ballroom dancing, and romantic getaways. This real-life mansion was visited by Disney’s WED Imagineers as they decided which type of building would best suit the planned attraction in the Liberty Square section of the Magic Kingdom. While Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is supposed to exist in the land of Dixie, the Walt Disney World version is intended to invoke memories of colonial New England, and the architecture and queue area reflects those impressions.

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