Disney in Detail: Secrets of the Haunted Mansion, Part I

And now, live from SeeYaRealSoon.com’s new world headquarters in southern Massachusetts, here’s another long-overdue Disney in Detail report:

So, if you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, or any amusement park at all, you’ve inevitably been asked the question, “So what was your favorite ride?”

Being the Disney fan that I am, I can respect and agree with any answer (except Journey into Imagination with Figment, but that’s another discussion).  For many, picking just one favorite among the many, many choices is just too daunting a task.  For me, one attraction, for reasons I can’t even describe, stands above the rest as the pinnacle of Disney entertainment.

The Haunted Mansion certainly isn’t the fastest ride (Epcot’s Test Track), it’s not the most thrilling (Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest), or even the best themed (Hollywood Studios’ Twilight Zone Tower of Terror), but it’s the ride I always do first, and usually the one I do most often.  It embodies what the Disney Parks are all about, giving the guest a fully immersive experience.

Originally opened in Disneyland in 1969, three years after Walt’s death, the Haunted Mansion had actually been in the planning stages even before the park opened in 1955.  Much debate ensued as to whether it should be scary (as Imagineer Claude Coats wanted it), or silly (as Marc Davis thought it should be).  Coats designed creepy, spooky sets, including long corridors of doors and endless hallways.  Davis designed the characters, creating zany spooks and classic Disney gags.  In the end, both Coats and Davis won out.  Fellow Imagineer Xavier “X” Atencio incorporated both of their work into the finished attraction.

Imagineer and special effects master Yale Gracey chisels out some work while one of Marc Davis’ spirits looks on (Walt Disney Imagineering)

Late in the creative process, the ride, originally planned as a walk-through, was re-designed to accommodate Disney’s patented Omnimover ride system.  These featured a constantly moving chain of vehicles, which are boarded from a conveyor belt travelling at the same speed.  For the mansion, these vehicles were dubbed “Doom Buggies” (Remember: As True Blood’s Vampire Bill explains, “Puns used to be the highest form of humor.”).  The buggies lended many advantages, in addition to crowd control and higher guest capacity.  The back of the vehicles include speakers, which are triggered with different points of narration throughout the ride.  Each individual buggy can turn in any direction, meaning Imagineers can completely control your line of sight.  Everything is built to look best from the angle that you’re sitting, while lighting, projection, and other infastructure elements are hidden out of sight behind your vehicle.

Imagineer Harriet Burns (left) (Walt Disney Imagineering)

The attraction was initially planned as an old, boarded up Victorian manor, next to an overgrown, run-down cemetary, high on a hill overlooking Main Street, USA.  This idea was generally well-liked among the Imagineers, after all, that’s what the quintessential haunted house should look like.  Walt Disney, however, didn’t like the idea of anything in his park looking like it needed repair.  He felt that it should fit in just as well with everything else.  When asked how they could explain why it was so well-kept if it was supposedly abandoned, Walt famously replied, “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.”

Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion (Walt Disney Co.)

By the time the Mansion was actually being built, a new section of the park had opened up.  New Orleans Square is a slice of the French Quarter, right in the middle of Disneyland.  The exterior of the Mansion was again re-designed, this time in the style of a southern antebellum manor.  The Haunted Mansion opened in the Magic Kingdom with the park in 1971.  Because of it’s location in Liberty Square, the exterior was designed in the northeast Dutch gothic revival style, similar to architecture in Pennsylvania and the Hudson River Valley area in New York.  Inside, the rides are relatively the same, with only a few minor exceptions.

Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom (SeeYaRealSoon.com)

If you have a sharp eye, you may notice that the exterior of the Florida mansion incorporates almost every type of chess piece, with the exception of the knight.  This is because, simply, it’s always night inside.  Yay, more puns!

The storyline of the attraction originally wasn’t a single story, but a series of different stories, emphasizing the many different spirits that occupied the Mansion.  Only a few characters were given actual names, such as Master Gracey (now considered the main inhabitant, named after special effects designer Yale Gracey), or Madame Leota (the gypsy fortune teller, seen throughout the attraction and named for Imagineer–okay, get this, I’m not kidding—Leota Toombs).

The now-classic score that’s played throughout the entire attraction is “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” composed by Buddy Baker, with lyrics by X Atencio.  The title, although it seems typically Disney silly, is actually taken from the William Shakespeare poem “Venus and Adonis.”

The entire attraction is narrated by your unseen host, your “ghost host,” who, thanks to the speakers in your Doom Buggy, seems to always be right behind you.  Originally, the host was going to be revealed to be a raven, specifically a raven that you see throughout the ride, watching over you.  This idea was dropped, but the ravens stayed; you can notice their glowing red eyes all through the mansion.

The narration is provided by versatile voice actor (and official Disney Legend) Paul Frees.  In addition to many other Disney works, such as characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction (most famously the auctioneer) and the voice of Professor Ludwig von Drake, here’s a small sampling of other places you may have heard Frees:

  • Many parodies of Orson Welles
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town‘s Burgermeister Meisterburger
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle‘s Boris Badenov
  • The original voice for “Poppenfresh,” the Pillsbury Doughboy
  • Froot Loops’ Toucan Sam, a voice he took over from the legendary Mel Blanc (now performed by Maurice LaMarche, another Orson Welles sound-alike of Pinky and the Brain fame)
  • “Little Green Sprout” from the Jolly Green Giant commercials
  • “Boo-Berry” cereal commercials

Next time, we’ll take a tour through the Mansion and find out some little known facts about the layout, effects, props and storyline.  Until then…”Hurry back……And be sure to bring your…death certificate!”

1 Comment

Filed under Disneyland, General WDW, Magic Kingdom, The Walt Disney Company

One response to “Disney in Detail: Secrets of the Haunted Mansion, Part I

  1. Great blog!!
    Loved reading it!!

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