The Legacy of the Haunted Mansion: Part II

by Mike Scopa
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the September 6, 2011 Issue #624 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Mike ScopaIf you've read Part I (AllEars® Issue #622, August 23, 2011) of this two-part newsletter feature then you are aware that it was not until after the 1964 New York World's Fair closed in 1965 that the project of the Haunted Mansion was once again going at full speed.

Now, if you know your Walt Disney history, you know what 1966 would bring — to be exact, December 15, 1966. That was the day that Walt Disney succumbed to lung cancer.

It has always been my sense that Disney fans through the years never realized what Walt's passing meant to his company. Remember that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, that was in any way part of the creative process, had to meet with his approval. More importantly, as the head of the company, Walt was the ultimate decision-maker. That meant if there were choices to be made, he would make the call. That meant if there was a debate on any issue, he settled it. If there was a standstill in how the Imagineers wanted to go, with some wanting to go one way and others wanting to go the other way, Walt, the ultimate Imagineer, would "break that tie."

He was no longer around to do that.

Richard Irvine, VP of WED Enterprises, felt that the team of senior Imagineers, Marc Davis and Claude Coates, could bring the attraction home. After all, they were a successful team for Pirates of the Caribbean, and it was Walt who had teamed them up for that project.

Irvine decided that decision made years ago by Disney would serve as guidance for his decision to go with the same team — a team that really clicked and worked well together. Not so fast. There was a HUGE decision to be made and this involved a disagreement between Davis and Coates. The problem was that Coates and others wanted the attraction to be a true horror show — frightening, scary — whereas Davis and other designers thought there should be elements of comedy within the attraction to make it lighthearted. Although Davis won out by convincing Irvine to agree on the lightheartedness of the attraction, to keep Coates somewhat happy, he suggested that some ominous images throughout the attraction would add value for the guests.

As much as this compromise appears, on the surface, to have worked out, to this day there are aficionados of the attraction that feel that this "split" in how the attraction was put together takes away from the consistency of the ride. When you think of it, it's true. The stretching room is filled with comedic elements, but the attic surely isn't… and you can point out other areas as well that sort of ask the question, "Am I supposed to shudder or laugh?"

The other debate that surfaced discussed whether guests should be treated to a walk-through or ride-through attraction. Although at first there was debate on this, it soon became apparent that a continuous loading ride-through process would allow the attraction to bring in many more guests than a walk-through venue would.

The ride vehicles that were designed for the Haunted Mansion were offshoots of the people mover used at the World's Fair. This ride system was to be called the Omnimover because of its ability to swivel, turn and tilt in any direction to give guests the full effect at certain points in the attraction. Of course we all affectionately now call these ride vehicles DOOM BUGGIES.

It was all coming together, albeit painstakingly, but things were happening.

Many may not be aware that it was X Atencio who wrote the lyrics to "Grim Grinning Ghosts," which was set to music by Buddy Baker.

As the attraction got closer and closer to completion, anticipation ran rampant. Like all heavily marketed attractions, the Haunted Mansion had its share of rumors. One hot rumor receiving the most attention claimed that during a preview of the Haunted Mansion one of the reporters was frightened to the point of suffering a heart attack.

The long-awaited attraction finally, and I mean FINALLY, opened its doors in August 1969. That day, attendance records were set for Disneyland, and the new attraction was obviously the reason for the huge crowds.

Of course other Haunted Mansions followed as other Magic Kingdoms sprouted up, each one having its own distinct characteristics, such as a different exterior and slightly different elements on the ride itself. Disneyland Paris has a haunted attraction with a different name: Phantom Manor.

For the most part all the mansions have the same major components. Here are some interesting tidbits about those components.

  • Everyone passes by the cemetery before going into the attraction. The Walt Disney World edition recently added some interactive pieces to the graveyard and allows guests to "discover" some interesting things. These interactive pieces respond to guests touching a variety of objects.
  • The foyer has its own version of "The Portrait of Dorian Gray" as guests witness the demise of Master Gracey himself.
  • Everyone wonders what exactly happens in the stretching room. For the record, the Disneyland Haunted Mansion stretching room actually lowers guests about 15 feet to the loading corridor. Not so in Florida. The WDW version of the attraction was built with the knowledge of what had to be done in California so the Imagineers planned the Orlando attraction to avoid having too many movable parts. The room DOES NOT lower in Florida.
  • If you recall there is a portrait corridor in which busts seem to follow you with their eyes. This illusion occurred to the Imagineers by accident. One day some Imagineers happened to be walking by the backside of a mold that was used to make the face of Abraham Lincoln for the Hall of Presidents. They noticed that from the back with the right light the eyes seemed to follow them… and an illusion was born.
  • Everyone loves the endless hallway and the floating candelabra. The endless effect is due to a full length mirror placed a few feet behind the candelabra… a mirror that is painted in various shades of black to keep reflections off just a bit. Lighting and other elements add to the depth of the hallway.
  • I've always been fascinated by the seance room and Madame Leota's appearance in the crystal ball. That illusion was, believe it or not, developed in 1959 as a film is projected onto a bust within the crystal ball.
  • Let me explain a little bit about the grand hall. This scene was actually from one of the original concepts for the haunted house attraction. The next time you ride the attraction you may want to look very closely for the party-goer "resting in peace" under the table. Also look for a bust that is a twin for one that you may have ridden past in the portrait corridor. Everyone can see the dishes at the left side of the table, arranged in classic Hidden Mickey style. But the most memorable illusion is the image of the dancing ghosts. This illusion uses the "Pepper's Ghost effect" invented in 1862 by chemistry professor John Henry Pepper. The illusion combines glass and lighting to seemingly make ghostly dancers appear in the hall. These images are combinations of images that are reflected off glass and that are also seen through glass. But remember, reflections are reverse images and that's why… well, the next time you go through the grand hall, you'll understand why the ladies are leading and not the gentlemen.
  • Oh, you know those dueling portraits? Look closely at one of them. It's the twin brother of the auctioneer in Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Any Dickens fans reading this? If so check out the chandelier and tell me if that figure swinging on the Chandelier looks "Pickwickian."
  • A few years back the Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion received a refurbishment and a noticeable change was the attic, in which guests were treated to some information that lead them to believe that Mrs. Gracey was a bit naughty.
  • Everyone knows the graveyard, but may not know that the same technique, forced perspective, used on buildings around the Magic Kingdom, is also used in the Haunted Mansion's graveyard. You see, forced perspective is achieved when the second and third story portions of a building are made with smaller windows to give the effect that the buildings are actually higher than they truly are. In the same way, those figures in the graveyard furthest from the doom buggies are actually smaller than those closer thus giving the appearance that the graveyard is much bigger than it really is… forced perspective.
  • And speaking of graveyards, as you leave the attraction check out the pet cemetery on your left and look for a figure from a past attraction in Fantasyland.
  • Finally, regarding the hitchhiking ghosts that end up in your doom buggy, that illusion is achieved like the Pepper's Ghost effect in the grand ballroom. This time the guests are the reflection and the ghosts are "real."

Attractions are not built in a day. Quality attractions take years to develop from concept to drawing board to opening day. So many components go into the making of an attraction. The theme… the story… the way guests are brought to… into… and out of the attraction… the imagineering that goes into any special effects… all these components work together to bring the attraction to life.

This was an attempt on my part to bring to the surface some of what went into the making of the Haunted Mansion. As you can now understand, it took 18 years to get it right… and after some 42 years, it's still right!

Author's Note: If you are interested in learning more about the Walt Disney Company's Haunted Mansion attraction, I suggest you check out The Haunted Mansion, From The Magic Kingdom to the Movies by Jason Surrell (Disney Editions; August 2009). You can find this book in the AllEars.Net Amazon Store here:



Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net: In addition, Mike is co-captain of Team AllEars® — the AllEars.Net Running Team.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.