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

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This article appears in its entirety in the Summer 1997 issue of Haunted Attraction Magazine. Author Steve Ziolkowski is regarded by many as a Haunted Mansion website "pioneer," as he is responsible for one of the earliest web sites devoted to the Haunted Mansion attraction.

Spotlight: The Haunted Mansion

By Steve Ziolkowski

"When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls, whenever candlelights flicker, though the air is deathly still-- that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight..." These famous words, which have inspired disquieting dread and the occasional wry chuckle, have welcomed curious visitors to the creepiest place on earth since it opened in August of 1969.

The Background

It stands at the bend of the river, an old, antebellum manor house that conjures up images of romance and a time gone by. But looks are deceiving, for only a few steps across the threshold guests begin a journey that will take them on a dark, cobweb encrusted trip through a decidedly haunted mansion. It stood empty for nearly ten years as a skeleton crew of Disney Imagineers tried to decide what to do with it. The original concept was for it to be a walk through attraction, depicting the tragic history of the Blood family. As a tour guide led the guests through the ancient halls, strange events would occur and restless spirits would interfere.

Pictures drawn by Ken Anderson, Rolly Crump and Marc Davis were filled with dark humor that was decidedly un-Disney. The designs were started back in the1950s, and Ken Anderson's early treatment included a graveyard in front of the vine covered house. Construction of the exterior was finished by the summer of `63, and it wasn't the moldy, decrepit place that was originally envisioned. From the outside, it appeared to be a nondescript manse of the style found in New Orleans. A gate enclosed the property, large trees gave shade and tall grass grew.

But the inside remained dark and empty for the next six years because Disney had taken on four other projects for the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, and another attraction, The Pirates of the Caribbean, was in full development. All work on the mansion stopped. What the Imagineers learned from the World Fair, however, proved invaluable. It was decided, based on real life experience, that the Haunted Mansion had to be a "people eater" so that lines were kept to a minimum, operation would be easy to maintain and, most importantly, every aspect of the attraction could be controlled. A ride vehicle would ensure that the guests would see only what they were supposed to see. Everything in the attraction had to be at least three feet away so that the guests couldn't touch anything from a seated position. Design was started again, this time centered around a vehicle called a "Doom Buggy."

When Walt died in 1966, the designs still hadn't materialized. Pirates of the Caribbean was wrapping up, the Mansion was still empty, and no one really knew what they should put in there. Some people thought Walt wanted it to be funny. Others thought it should be dark. What finally emerged in 1969 was a ghostly tribute to the lighter side of death. The mansion is well kept, and remains ghoulishly elegant after all these years. With ornate iron work on the balconies and antique lamps adorning the walls, looking on it at twilight one can imagine a New Orleans of the eighteen hundreds and a house that isn't what it appears to be. Disney said back in 1962; "We'll take care of the outside, and the ghosts will take care of the inside." Indeed.

The Story

There are several different stories that are circulating out there, but Rolly Crump, one of the designers of the attraction, says that the only storyline he remembers was of an Old Sea Captain who had gone to sea and drowned in a storm, but before he left he had killed his wife and bricked her up in a wall.

The Ride

The guests walk through a pet cemetery with cute epitaphs dedicated to the dearly departed animals; "Here lies Jake, my pet snake whose fatal mistake was frightening the gardener who carried a rake..." The line proceeds past a wall where people like M. T. Tomb and Ray N. Carnate are forever at peace. Above the queue, on the hill behind the house, others are buried. "Here lies brother Dave; he chased a bear into a cave..."

The guests proceed on up to the house and arrive at the front door where an elegantly clad cast member welcomes curious visitors into the house. The foyer is richly decorated in an opulent Victorian style complete with a chandelier and wall sconces. A mysterious Ghost Host asks the guests to enter the gallery, warning them that there is no turning back. Here, four paintings are hung on the walls of a circular chamber depicting some previous guests as they appeared when they were alive. Once everyone has gathered in the "dead center" of the gallery, the doors shut and the room begins to stretch. The portraits on the walls reveal the manner in which the subjects died, whether by explosion or a disgruntled wife, the end result is still the same. The sudden revelation that someone took the cowards way out and hung themselves from the highest point in the house ends as hidden doors slide open to reveal the corridor of haunted paintings.

Along the hallway on one side of the corridor are windows that look out on a stormy backyard. On the opposite side are five paintings that slowly change from beautiful ladies into gruesome characters of mythology. At the end of the passage two statues follow the guests with their eyes no matter where they might go. Upon turning the corner, the guests board their Doom Buggies. The slow moving, spoon shaped vehicles go up a flight of stairs, and the first thing the guests see at the top is "the Tenant;" a candelabra that floats in the middle of a seemingly endless hallway.

The endless hallway opens on a small room that has gothic furniture and a suit of armor that moves on its own. After leaving the wandering spirit behind, the vehicles travel underneath a curtain and pass by the conservatory, where an unfortunate soul has been trapped in a casket. A lone raven looks on from a decayed wreath as the restless spirit struggles to get out. The Doom Buggies travel through a long hallway that has doors on both sides. Each door is in motion, whether its door knockers are knocking or it has the appearance of breathing. Noises emanate from behind each door; snarls, groans, sighs and moans add a disturbing cacophony to the poorly illuminated passageway. Photos of some of the decaying residents are hung on the walls, and the vehicles pass by a clock that eternally strikes thirteen. The clawed shadow of a hand points the guests towards the next room in which a ghostly sceance is taking place.

Madame Leota presides over the occasion, reciting grim incantations that beckon restless spirits. She appears as a disembodied head in a crystal ball, and the table she is resting on floats a few inches off the ground. The raven is back, sitting on a high backed period chair, looking on the proceedings with disdain.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the Haunted Mansion is the ballroom sequence. From an upstairs balcony, the guests can see that a ghostly party is taking place. There are ghosts arriving from a hearse that has crashed through a wall, there are drunken revelers in a chandelier overhead, a group of spirits are celebrating a birthday party, and a kindly old woman sits knitting a three armed sweater (by alex at dh fashion). Across the way, dancers spin to a resounding dirge which emanates from a massive, ancient organ. Up on the wall, a pair of paintings are hung. The portraits depict a couple of duelists, and every few seconds, their restless spirits emerge from the pictures to duel for all time. The music echoes after the departing visitors as they proceed into the attic. The attic is dark and gloomy, and a soured version of "Here comes the bride" pounds out of a rotten piano. Heads rocket from various objects that are scattered about the room. The place is filled with old relics, and there is some indication that the owner of this mansion was, at one time, an ocean going man. Ropes hang from the rafters, a couple of old lamps are scattered about, and other nautical devices are hidden throughout. The figure of a bride stands among the junk, and the sound of her heart emanates throughout the entire room. But, from the balcony outside music beckons, and the Doom Buggies move on.

Outside, the cemetery is in full swing. A quartet of supernatural minstrels are playing "Grim Grinning Ghosts" and the entire graveyard is there singing along. The vehicles pass the caretaker of the graveyard. He is scared senseless, and his dog is terrified. Cranky ghosts pop up from behind old tombstones in an attempt to startle the passengers. The sky is alight with ghosts, and the party is just getting started. A couple of ghosts are riding a see-saw, three ghosts are riding around on bikes, and there is a tea party taking place by an old hearse. Several opera singers are singing, including one who is holding his head aloft in his hands. As the party winds down, the Doom Buggies enter a crypt, and the guests are asked to disembark.

The Facts

Since the Haunted Mansion opened in 1969, it has since seen more than a million visitors come and go. When it was built thirty years ago, it cost seven million dollars and was the fifty third attraction to be built at the Disneyland park. Two thousand six hundred and eighteen guests can cycle through the attraction every hour, which boils down to 41 guests per minute, or two guests every three seconds. Each car is spaced six feet from the one in front of it, and the cars travel a little more than one mile an hour. It takes approximately six minutes to go seven hundred and eighty six feet, which is how long the ride actually is. There are 131 carriages that ride along the track and each carriage has speakers which play the digitally remastered spiel. Based on these numbers, it takes about fifty minutes in line on a crowded day to board the ride. The other Disney parks have their own version of the Haunted Mansion, and all are slight variations on the one in Anaheim. Florida's Mansion is larger, and the one in Paris, called Phantom Manor, is themed around a western ghost town.

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