The following scenario plays out dozens, if not hundreds of times a day in front of Disney’s Haunted Mansion:
Small Child: “I don’t want to go inside there.”
Parent: “It isn’t scary. It’s fun!”
Small child: “No, it isn’t.”
And back and forth they go, the young child unable to reconcile their parents’ reassurances with the menacing-looking house that stands behind an eerie wrought iron fence and is purported to be haunted by 999 happy haunts (with room for one more). And should the parents manage to gain their children’s trust upon entering the queue, mom and dad will more than likely have to start rebuilding it all over again once the child hears the menacing organ music, accompanied by the delightfully sinister voice of the “Ghost Host” (played wonderfully by Paul Frees), welcoming them with this little confidence booster:
“When hinges creak in doorless chambers and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls, whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still, that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight.”
So much for the “it isn’t scary” reassurances.
For the brave visitors, young and old, The Haunted Mansion is one of the most beloved Disney attractions. Located in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, the original version of the ride opened to the public in August of 1969, it is one of the last attractions that Walt Disney worked on, before his death in 1966. Walt Disney World’s Liberty Square version, as well as Tokyo’s Fantasyland attraction, closely resembles the original; each opened on their respective parks’ first day. Disneyland Paris (formerly EuroDisney) includes a slightly different haunted tale in their Frontierland, Phantom Manor.
Visitors enter the attraction – after being greeted by the Ghost Host – and walk through a hidden wall panel that slides open, leading them to a picture gallery. Once the door slides shut, something eerie begins to happen to the paintings on the wall, as they begin to stretch, growing in length to reveal a set of unfortunate circumstances that each of the portraits victims are facing. About this time, the Ghost Host points out that the room “has no windows and no doors”. Then the lights go out to reveal a corpse hanging from the ceiling. This is usually met by a number of screams, and reinforcing to children everywhere that their parents weren’t being entirely truthful.
Luckily, the unseen Ghost Host opens another wall so the stranded guests can exit. As guests walk down the hallways, there are more portraits to view. These appear to be normal pictures, then slowly change to images that are a bit more sinister, right before your eyes. Once you make it past them, it’s hard not to notice the two ceramic busts at the end, for they have certainly noticed you. In fact, their eyes (and heads) follow your every movement. It’s a wonderful, yet simple, effect that continues to puzzle visitors of all ages.
At this point, your feet get a rest as you enter your own personal “doom buggy”, a dark egg-shaped vehicle that holds 2-3 people. Your first glimpse into the mansion is down a long hallway that never seems to end; your first apparition, a candleholder that dances down the endless corridor without the apparent aid of anyone holding it. Next, you are greeted by the voice of a man, who is pleading to be let out of the coffin in which he’s unfortunate enough to be trapped. As you continue to travel down the strange hallway, you may notice that the doors are bulging out towards you and the knockers are clanking all by themselves.
From this point, you enter the seance room and are introduced to the lovely lady in the crystal ball (or her head, at least), Madame Leota (played wonderfully by Leona Toombs. Yes, that is her real last name). She has her hands full at the moment, as she is commanding numerous objects to dance around the room and a number of musical instruments to play on their own.
Next, you head to one of the more awe-inspiring sections of the ride: the ballroom. Filled to the brim with dozens of ghosts, you can actually see through them as they move around the room (As we don’t wish to reflect upon the special effect secrets here, let’s just say that they are very convincing).
Leaving the ballroom behind, you enter the eerie attic. Here, you are introduced to the lovely bride of the unfortunate man that was hanging from the roof in the stretching room. (Those who haven’t ridden the Haunted Mansion for some time may notice that the bride is a bit different from the one they may remember from their youth. She has been recently redesigned and relocated from the right side of the room to the left.)
Departing from the cemetery, you are greeted by the caretaker and his dog, which have seen enough spooky events to leave them in a perpetual state of fright. You begin to hear the first strains of “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” a delightfully bouncy musical composition that tends to stick in your subconscious. (Actually, it is the same song that the organ was playing when you first entered the mansion, just a bit perkier.)
As you continue through the gates to the graveyard, spirits roam aplenty. Some hide mischievously behind tombstones, anxious to startle you. As you pass the four singing busts, make note of the low, baritone voice, from the man on the broken bust. Contrary to popular belief, it is not Walt Disney. Rather, it is the inimitable voice of Thurl Ravencroft, the man who also provided another voice of our childhood greats, “Tony the Tiger.” (He’s Grrrreat!).
Once you exit the graveyard, there is one more matter at hand that the Ghost Host neglected to mention: hitchhiking ghosts. Your doom buggy travels past a series of mirrors on the wall, and much to your dismay (or delight, as it were), you discover that a ghostly figure has hitched a ride in your doom buggy. After passing these mirrors, your doom buggy reaches the end of the line and you exit onto a moving sidewalk that takes you to the ride’s exit.
Many a child has been dragged kicking and screaming into the Haunted Mansion, only to exit the ride with a delighted grin on their face, having faced their fear and lived to tell the tale. Most are, in fact, eager to return. It’s just another example of the genius of Walt Disney and his wonderful imagineers, having the ability to both scare and delight us at the same time and leave us yearning for more.
If you have fond memories of visiting the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, or any of the other Disney theme parks, we welcome your recollections in our comments section.