The following article was written by Jeff "Chef Mayhem" Baham for the premiere issue of 1313 Magazine, as an informal introduction to Disney's Haunted Mansion.
Disney's Haunted Mansion: The Ultimate Dark Ride
By Jeff Baham
There are those who love carnival dark rides, and those who don't. The clackity-clack of the cars running along the track, the musty air with an occasional whiff of cotton-candy or bile, the gaudy plywood forms painted in florescent hues, the air-powered jump-'n-boo pop-up ghoulies: all of these things inspire either fear and loathing or a giddy sense of escape, depending on the stars one was born under, I suppose.
I bet Walt Disney loved dark rides. The guy took his favorite stories and fairy tales, made them into feature films loved around the globe, and then turned those films into dark rides in his personal vision for what a carnival should be like. That vision, needless to say, became Disneyland, and Walt's dark rides remain the most popular attractions to this day (just try to ride Disneyland's "Peter Pan's Flight" around two in the afternoon, and you'll understand.) Yeah, they're "kiddie" rides. But who doesn't want to believe they're still a kid?
Of course, a cursory glimpse at Walt's history will indicate that his nature would only allow him to improve upon what has already been done in the world; do it better, and make it the best. By the '60s, Disneyland was a world-famous tourist destination which is not bad, for what some would call a glorified carnival. But when Walt turned his attention toward adding the "spook house" (a carnival staple) to his magic kingdom, the status quo of the day wouldn't do. Walt didn't want a standard ghost train running through his theme park. He wanted something more than a haunted shack. Something more along the lines of a haunted mansion.
Disney's Haunted Mansion finally opened to the public in 1969, though Walt had started development in earnest in the early '60s. He had always wanted a haunted attraction of some sort in Disneyland, and design sketches and concepts actually stretch back to the mid '50s-some dated to even before Disneyland opened its gates. But Walt's ambitions to create a truly mystifying dark ride (along with worthy distractions, such as creating famous exhibits for the '64 World's Fair) carried the R&D phase of the Haunted Mansion attraction well into the '60s. After the World's Fair (for which Disney's crack team of engineers perfected their robotic actors, known as "audio animatronics,") Disney assigned some of his strongest talent to the theme park design division-now called "Imagineering." Those designers would go on to complete, first, the world's greatest example of a robotic themed attraction (the Pirates of the Caribbean), and after that, the world's greatest haunted dark ride, which remains the Haunted Mansion.
Among the Imagineers was Marc Davis, one from among Disney's elite class of designers, who had created everything from characters loved throughout the world (the Disney pixie Tinker Bell comes to mind) to gags and scenes in some of Walt's famed Disneyland attractions. Davis is largely responsible for much of the theme carried throughout the Haunted Mansion, which combines daffy gags about "happy haunts" with a truly dark atmosphere. In addition, engineers like Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump, writer X Atencio, and voice talents including Paul "Boris Badenov" Frees and Thurl "Tony the Tiger" Ravenscroft added their ingredients to the pot, finally emerging with the bubbling brew of creative stew that the world knows today as Disney's Haunted Mansion.
A trip through the Haunted Mansion leaves one breathless, whether a dark-ride-aficionado or not. The sheer scope of the ride is mystifying, especially when one is led to believe that the entire ride occurs in the relatively small façade (of a late nineteenth-century plantation manor) that you enter to begin the Haunted Mansion experience. However, elevators quickly (and without one even being aware) take patrons underground, and the massive ride itself occurs in an enormous warehouse beyond the berm of Disneyland park.
The magic behind the ride leaves guests stymied to this day, despite its late-'60s technology. Nothing has substantially changed since then*, though even today, riders will leave scratching their heads, mumbling about the futuristic three-dimensional "holograms" that must be employed to create the incredible transparent ghosts seen inside the attraction. (The Haunted Mansion's "ghosts" are actually created with an 18th-century trick known to magicians as the "Pepper's Ghost" illusion.) Nevertheless, there was some cutting-edge technology used to make the massive attraction function properly back in 1969. The characters in the ride are examples of Disney's famed "audio animatronic" robots, and they are computer-controlled, as are their individual soundtracks. Some of the ride's visuals were provided by projection, so film loops were in constant use (though those have been replaced by video projection today, since film loops tend to break often.) And the ghost train carriage system itself (called an Omnimover system by Disney, or the line of "Doom Buggies") was quite innovative in its own right, spinning toward the action at every scene and forcing the viewer to watch what the designer wished the viewer to watch. All of these innovations clearly took the Haunted Mansion a leap beyond the previously existing expectations for a carnival dark ride, and set a new unreachable standard for haunted attractions in the years to follow.
So what can you expect from a visit to the Haunted Mansion? Detail, detail, and more detail. Even the stanchions used to hold velvet ropes to direct the queue are custom brass bat-gargoyles, custom-made for the ride. Crystal chandeliers are outfitted with draping cobwebs. Stone gargoyles hold flickering candles in their clawed hands. For those that may not have ever had the pleasure of experiencing the ride, we won't give everything away here. But suffice to say, there are plenty of silly sight gags and breathtaking illusions to go around. A gallery stretches before your eyes. Marble busts stare you down, and follow your every move with their watchful glare. Restless spirits materialize, and in one stunning set piece, you can watch them dance in and out of sight, disappearing and reappearing as you look right through them.
The ride takes you "outside" of the Haunted Mansion and into the private graveyard, where in a cacophony of crazy music and singing statues, the graves open to release their occupants, all of whom have "come out to socialize," as the ride's theme song says. Behind a glowing veil of fog, dead socialites share a sip of tea with each other, while an Egyptian mummy murmurs in the background. An executioner sings a duet with his victim, a decapitated knight (who holds his singing head under his arm). And finally, as you are about to escape through a crypt, a trio of hitchhiking ghosts tries to escape with you aboard your "Doom Buggy."
In an inspired move, Disneyland decided to blend the story of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas with their Haunted Mansion franchise in the holiday season of 2001 by creating an overlay for the attraction, which is a "skin" applied to the ride that changes the soundtrack and some of the scenery to create a new experience for the rider. The experiment was a runaway hit with holiday guests to the park, so the overlay was applied again in October 2002 and will remain in place through the Christmas season. (Plans are underway to create the same overlay for the Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion in 2003.) Blending the off-beat, monstrous world of Burton's comic film with the kooky setting of the Haunted Mansion is so clever that it seems like an obvious solution after the fact, and the characters from Burton's film fit right into the Haunted Mansion's dank surroundings.
So the next time you visit a Disney theme park, remember the attraction's opening narration, penned by X Atencio:
"When hinges creek in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls; wherever candlelights flicker, though the air is deathly still - that is the time when ghosts are present; practicing their terror with ghoulish delight!"
Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. Enjoy your trip through the world's finest haunted dark ride, and a testament to Walt Disney's fantastic darker side. The ride's magic hasn't dimmed, even after over 30 years. Here's to 30 more.
Jeff Baham is the owner/webmaster of DoomBuggies.com, a tribute to Disney's Haunted Mansion attractions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This article was published three years prior to the installation
of the fiftieth-anniversary enhancements created for Disneyland's Haunted
Go back to About the Webmaster