Foolish Mortals are Talking

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"The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion"

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The following selection is taken from the collectible book titled Disneyland: Inside Story (published by Abrams in 1989). The book, which is an extraordinary look behind the scenes of the creation of the experience known as Disneyland, is now out of print, but is well worth tracking down, as it's a worthy addition to any serious Disney historian's library.

Ghostbusters '69

By Randy Bright

It shouldn't have been too surprising that the first post-Walt Disney attraction would be burdened with controversy. As far back as 1965, Disneyland had been promoting an upcoming addition called "The Haunted Mansion."

"The world's greatest collection of actively retired ghosts will soon call this Haunted Mansion home," said the press release. "Walt Disney and his 'Imagineers' are now creating 1,001 eerie illusions. Marble busts will talk. Portraits that appear normal one minute will change before your eyes. And, of course, ordinary ghost tricks (walking through solid walls, disappearing at the drop of a sheet) will also be seen ... and felt."

The Haunted Mansion building had been completed for years, remaining unoccupied along the banks of the Rivers of America. Walt's obligations for the 1964 New York World's Fair had forced him to put the Mansion's design on hold, and, in the years following the fair, too many other projects took priority. But in 1968, its time had come. Like Pirates, the Haunted Mansion was at first scheduled to be a walk-through attraction. But the ever-pressing need for more high-capacity "people-eater" shows led to an adaptation of the Omnimover system that had been used for the Inner Space attraction. For this show, the Omnimover cars were dubbed "Doom Buggies."

It was difficult to find anybody at WED who did not, at one time or another, work on the project. "There were too many people," said Marc Davis. "I think we had a lot of confusion because Walt had not been gone all that long. I think there were a lot of great ideas, but when you have too many people of equal clout, nobody's about to say, 'Hey, wait a minute! Let's do it this way,' which Walt would have done in a moment."

The situation recalled Ward Kimball's fears about committee rule. In one corner were those who felt that, ghosts being scary to begin with, the show needed to be lightened up. "Look at all the little kids who are frightened by the witch in the Snow White ride," they argued. In the other corner, equally vocal designers insisted that guests would expect a big chill in anything called a Haunted Mansion. "People love to be scared," they replied. Would Disney himself have opted for more "fright" or "light?"

"When we were doing the building," recalled Claude Coats, "Walt wanted it looking fresh and new, while nearly everyone else thought it should look old and dilapidated. Everyone expects a residence for ghosts to be run-down. But Walt was always looking for the unexpected." "We'll take care of the outside," he used to say. "The ghosts can take care of the inside."

The debate took place in the mid-1960s, an era in American entertainment when The Sound of Music and other great, uplifting musicals reigned at the box office. Such scare films as Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Alien were still light-years away from the scene. Eventually, the designers on the "light" side won out, and the immaculate, friendly-looking southern mansion became a "happy haunting ground." A call went out for a merry, upbeat song in the same "spirit" as "A Pirate's Life for Me." Once again, Marc Davis launched a barrage of sketches, this time depicting "grim grinning ghosts."

In his own way, he became a ghostbuster. After all those years of empty promises, it was little wonder that the newly inhabited Haunted Mansion generated tremendous interest on its grand opening. It was the most anticipated premiere in the history of Disneyland, and quickly led the park to new records in attendance levels. A few "ghosts of arguments past," however, still lingered in the shadows of the exit area. Here and there, one occasionally heard a guest comment, "I thought this was going to be scarier." But it wasn't heard from the little kids.

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