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History of the Haunted Mansion

“Welcome, Foolish Mortals, to the Haunted Mansion.” These are the words of our Ghost Host upon entering the mansion. If you’re like me, you can hear it now. The Haunted Mansion is one of the most popular attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It’s not hard to understand why, but there is so much more to this attraction than most people know. I will admit, it’s not my favorite attraction, but I do have a deep appreciation for the level of detail within this attraction. It also has a long, and storied, history that not everyone knows. It took much longer to get this attraction finished and opened than any other attraction in Disney history, as far as I know anyway. Because of the amount of history, and the level of details held within, this will be the first in a two-part series on the Haunted Mansion. This post will detail the history of the attraction, and part two will be about the details and hidden magic of the attraction. Without further ado, let’s dig into the history of this beloved attraction: The Haunted Mansion.

The history of the creation of the Haunted Mansion is over a decade long, with many twists, turns, setbacks, delays, and lots of imagination. Walt always intended for there to be a haunted mansion located in Disneyland, however, he couldn’t decide what he wanted this haunted mansion/attraction to be like. Originally, he intended for it to be a walk-through attraction, but we all know that didn’t happen. Walt recruited Ken Anderson to create the original concepts for the Haunted Mansion, and he is the one who created and designed the original Haunted Mansion building in Disneyland. Walt’s one condition was that the outside of the building had to well-kept and pristine, in order to better fit with the rest of the park. The inside could be dark and dilapidated, since the ghosts would be taking care of the inside. The style of the building and design were chosen, but then Ken got pulled from the Haunted Mansion project to work on Sleeping Beauty. The building was later built, but nothing was inside it.

To come up with ideas for the inside of the Haunted Mansion, Walt recruited special effects designer Yale Gracey to come up with ideas for the attraction. Yale was also a stage magician, so he was familiar with tricks that magicians use, as well. In addition to Yale Gracey, Rolly Crump was also recruited to work on the mansion. The two had a room to themselves to work on ideas for the Mansion. Apparently, some of the ideas were so weird and scary that the cleaning staff refused to enter the room after being scared one too many times. The two came up with some great ideas, many of which are still in the attraction to this day. However, there was a slight problem. There was no clear direction on what the Haunted Mansion was supposed to be, exactly. Was it going to be scary? If so, how scary? These were questions that needed to be answered before serious decisions could be made. Walt believed that people liked to be scared, but he also admitted that people could also have a friendly feeling about ghosts. So, what exactly did he want? Before that question could be answered, all work was paused due to Disney’s involvement in the 1964-1965 World’s Fair. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation, so the Haunted Mansion was delayed. By this point, the building had been built, and had even been advertised as an upcoming attraction. So, since guests were curious about the big empty building, Marty Sklar came up with a sign for the front gate. It was an advertisement for ghosts looking to move into the mansion as a retirement home. No one ever approached guest services to express interest in living there. Darn.

After the World’s Fair, Disneyland got a new area for guests to explore: New Orleans Square. This would fit in well with the façade already built for the Haunted Mansion, which was located within the new area. It would make sense to make that the new flagship attraction for New Orleans Square, right? Unfortunately, no. The new flagship attraction became Pirate of the Caribbean. Walt still wasn’t able to come up with a clear vision for what he wanted the Haunted Mansion to be, so Pirates got the green light instead. Disney was all about pirates at the time, and the attraction had a clear direction going forward, so it came first. Once Pirates of the Caribbean got far enough along, though, Walt started pulling some people from it to get back to work on the Haunted Mansion. He recruited Marc Davis and Claude Coats to be the co-art directors for the attraction. Walt felt that this would yield the best results. Marc wanted the attraction to be funny and filled with happy haunts. He was the great gag man of animation, so that makes sense, right? Claude, however, thought the attraction should be scary. He was the more serious personality of the two, and he felt that guests should feel a chill as they went through. It was a constant back and forth between the two, so which direction would Walt choose? In the meantime, after his success on Pirates of the Caribbean, X. Atencio was chosen to write the lyrics for the song to be featured in the Haunted Mansion. He also wrote the dialogue for the Ghost Host and Madame Leota.

Rolly Crump agreed with Claude Coats that the Haunted Mansion should be scary. When everyone showed Walt their ideas for the attraction, Walt deemed most of Rolly’s ideas to be too scary and weird. However, instead of just scrapping them, Walt decided to create a Museum of the Weird for all of Rolly’s ideas. Sadly, by many people's standards, this idea never came to be. Instead, quite of a few of the ideas were toned down a bit and were included in the Haunted Mansion anyway. These ideas included a séance room, a skeletal organ player, chairs that had faces, marble busts that would stare at guests as they walked by, and more. Do any of these sound familiar?

As many know, Walt Disney died before the Haunted Mansion was completed, which made this the first attraction that opened after Walt’s death. This put huge pressure on the Imagineers, and created a great challenge for them. At the time of Walt’s death, the attraction still did not have a clear direction. Was it going to be scary, or funny? Guests would have to wait to find out. In the end, Imagineers decided to do both. Claude Coats was in charge of the first half of the attraction, which is definitely the scary part. This is the part that includes the stretching room, the portrait gallery, the portrait corridor, the library, the music room, the corridor of door, the endless hallway, and the conservatory. Marc Davis was in charge of the second half of the attraction, which definitely has a humorous side. It’s still somewhat scary, but it has enough elements to it to make you laugh, too. This is the also where we find the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” come fully to life. This part of the attraction includes the grand ballroom, the attic, the graveyard, the hitchhiking ghosts corridor, and the mausoleum. The séance room with Madame Leota is the dividing point between the two halves.

Instead of being a walk-through attraction, Imagineers decided to use the latest technology that they created for the World’s Fair. They used Audio-Animatronics throughout the attraction, as well as a brand new ride system called the Omnimover. Today, we affectionately refer to these ride vehicles as Doom Buggies. Imagineers realized that with the increased popularity of Disneyland, they needed a ride system that could handle the volume of guests who would want to visit the Haunted Mansion. Since a boat wasn’t an option, they needed something new. This is where Bob Gurr came in. He created a brand new ride system that was continuously moving, and that could rotate guests to see exactly what they needed to see at any given moment. It could go up and down hills, open and close automatically, and maintain a high capacity. It’s a system that Imagineers still use to this day.

The Haunted Mansion opened in Disneyland in 1969, but it was an opening day attraction at Walt Disney World in 1971. Because Imagineers knew that it would be opening in Florida only two years later, they made two of everything for the attraction and put them in storage until their move to Florida. For the most part, the attractions are identical, but there are some differences. The biggest being the façades. Disneyland’s mansion is done in a Southern Antebellum style to fit with the surrounding New Orleans Square. Walt Disney World’s mansion is done in the Hudson River Valley Dutch Gothic style to fit with the surrounding Liberty Square. Disneyland’s stretching room is actually an elevator which pulls guests down to a lower level, after which they take a tunnel to the show building. Walt Disney World’s stretching room actually stretches upwards. Because of the water table in Florida, everything is sitting higher up, and a tunnel couldn’t be done. It also wasn’t necessary with the design of the park, but the stretching room was so popular in Disneyland that Imagineer decided to include it anyway. There are other subtle differences, but mostly, they’re very similar.

All total, it took over a decade to create the Haunted Mansion, but most guests would say that it was well worth the wait. If you are interested in learning more, or you just want to know where I got my information, I highly recommend watching the Haunted Mansion episode of Behind the Attraction on Disney+. As I stated at the beginning of this post, this is only part one of the Haunted Mansion. I’ll post part two in a couple of days, so keep an eye out. Be sure to subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss it. Follow me on Instagram and Facebook for even more Disney fun. Have a hauntingly magical day!

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