Welcome foolish mortals. One of the most beloved and popular attractions at the Disney parks is the Haunted Mansion. Dating back to 1969 when it first opened at Disneyland, the iconic ride celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. In honor of the occasion, we've unearthed some fascinating facts and scintillating secrets about the legendary ride, plus a few historical tidbits.
Please move together, taking up all of the dead space as we explore the classic attraction.
- So, does the floor descend or does the ceiling rise in the Haunted Mansion's portrait chamber (also known as the stretching room) that begins the attraction? Well...both. It depends on the location. As with Pirates of the Caribbean, the space-strapped Disneyland in California needed to transport guests to a large building outside of the park's berm. The chamber is actually an elevator that takes guests down to an underground passageway, which leads to the show building. Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor uses the same concept. In the Florida and Tokyo versions, however, space is less of an issue, so the ride building is directly behind the facade. In those stretching rooms, the ceiling rises, and guests remain on the same level. Weird!
- From the fall season through the end of the year, California's Disneyland Park annually transforms the original Haunted Mansion into Haunted Mansion Holiday. Overlaying the classic attraction with characters and new scenes based on Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, the ride gets a makeover that bridges the Halloween and Christmas seasons. For example, the Graveyard scene features ghosts decorating bizarre Christmas trees amid a blanket of snow.
- There was a real Madame Leota! Well, sort of. An actual model-building Imagineer named Leota Toombs—how perfect is that name?—was the actress dispensing the disembodied incantations (although another character actress recorded the voice parts). After she died, Imagineers needed to film some new Madame Leota footage for Haunted Mansion Holiday. They turned to the Madame's daughter, Kim Irvine, who also works for Walt Disney Imagineering and bears a strong resemblance to her seer-saying mother.
- At Disneyland, a character known as the Hatbox Ghost briefly appeared when the ride first opened. Although Disney removed him because the effect wasn't working properly, his legend lived on. In 2015, 46 years after the ride opened, Imagineers unveiled a new (and much adored) Hatbox Ghost as part of Disneyland's 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration.
- Although people of a certain age think Orson Welles is the Ghost Host in the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of the Haunted Mansion, the voice actor is Paul Frees. He was also the voice of Ludwig Von Drake, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and Boris Badenov of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame.
- Speaking of voices, if one of the singing statuary in the Graveyard scene sounds familiar, that's because it's the distinctive baritone of Thurl Ravenscroft. He's best known as the voice of Tony "They're Grrrrrreat!" the Tiger. He also sang, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in the television version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
- In one of the Haunted Mansion's early drafts, Walt Disney himself recorded the narration for the attraction. It was eventually scrapped for today's Ghost Host version, but it would have been wonderful and fitting to have Walt's voice connected with the classic E-Ticket ride.
- The Haunted Mansion film starring Eddie Murphy was not the first attempt to tie a movie to the ride. In the early '90s, when Dreamworks' Jeffery Katzenberg was head of the Walt Disney Studios, he wanted to produce movies based on theme park attractions. Katzenberg commissioned a Haunted Mansion script, but it languished in development. In the late '90s, Disney toyed with the idea of making a telefilm based around the ride for its Wonderful World of Disney ABC program.
- The "Gracey" family depicted in the film is a nod to Disney Imagineer Yale Gracey, who was an animator and mechanical genius. He had a hand in developing many of the Haunted Mansion's illusions, including the "Leota effect" that brings Madame Leota to life in the Seance Room.
- From movies to music, The Haunted Mansion theme song, "Grim Grinning Ghosts," received an odd alternative-rock update when the Barenaked Ladies performed it as a 1-minute-and-43-second ditty on the 1996 album, "Disney's Music from the Park."
Spoiler alert: We're not going to give away everything here, but if you think revealing the "man behind the curtain" would in any way diminish your future enjoyment of the Haunted Mansion, by all means, click to something else.
Many of the attraction's best features are based on age-old magic illusions. They say a magician never reveals his secrets, but in 2003 Disney published The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, by then-Imagineer Jason Surrell (who later migrated to Universal Creative to help design its parks' attractions). The behind-the-screams revelations below are largely based on info from the book. If you are interested in learning additional secrets as well as a thorough history and overview of the classic ride, we highly recommend the wonderful book.
- The Grand Ballroom: One of the Haunted Mansion's most head-scratching illusions is actually one of the least sophisticated. In the Grand Ballroom scene, ghosts fade in and out of view as they dine at a long banquet table and dance around a pipe organ. Startling in its realism, the illusion is based on Pepper's Ghost effect popularized in the 1800s. The props in the room are real; the ghosts are images of animatronic characters reflected in the glass in front of the scene. When guests ride by in their Doom Buggies, both the reflected images and the room visible through the glass merge into one scene. Universal Studios Florida uses a version of this effect for attractions including Fast & Furious – Supercharged and Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts.
- The Seance Circle and Graveyard Scene: Madame Leota, the disembodied spirit in the crystal ball, is also a relatively simple, yet wildly effective illusion. Inside the ball is a three-dimensional bust of Leota. Projected onto the white bust are brief filmed sequences of Leota reciting her incantations. When viewed together, the effect is quite astonishing. The same concept is used to animate the singing statuary in the Graveyard scene and the tiny ghost that bids farewell at the very end of the attraction. By the way, the singing group that voices the Phantom Five singing busts is the Mellomen.
- The Hitchhiking Ghosts: The Imagineers use a similar Pepper's Ghost illusion at the end of the ride, but this time the ghosts are behind the glass and the guests are reflected in the mirror.
- The Hatbox Ghost: One of the biggest mysteries of the Haunted Mansion was the abrupt removal of the Hatbox Ghost soon after the original attraction opened at Disneyland. The gag featured a hatted skeleton-like ghost who leered at Doom Buggy passengers as they passed and whose head suddenly disappeared and reappeared in the hatbox he was carrying. Apparently, the figure was positioned too closely to guests, and the effect just didn't work. The new Hatbox Ghost that premiered in 2015 works flawlessly, however. While Disney has been tight-lipped about its inner workings, it would appear that the new version of the character uses image mapping projection to accomplish the disappearing/reappearing head effect. Image mapping technology was not available when the Imagineers designed the original Hatbox Ghost.
Researching the Deed of the Haunted Mansion
Back when Anaheim was a sleepy town filled with orange groves, Walt envisioned a haunted mansion for the "Mickey Mouse Park" he planned to build near his California film studio. When that small park morphed into the larger Disneyland in the mid-1950s, a haunted house concept remained part of the plans, but never made it past the drawing boards.
According to the late Marty Sklar, former vice chairman and principal creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, the Haunted Mansion spawned many ideas and went through a number of revisions during its long gestation period. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disney creative team initially designed the attraction as a walk-through experience. The plans included an old sea captain's seaside manor and a more unsettling "Bloodmere Manor" concept with some bloody shenanigans. The Headless Horseman even galloped his way into one of the plotlines.
The treatments piled up, and a slew of Imagineers developed a gaggle of illusions and effects through the years. When the project finally got the green light in the late 1960s (it opened in 1969), Sklar said that the story was in danger of getting lost amid the effects. Since Imagineering rule number one is that the storytelling is paramount, it was up to Imagineer X. Atencio to cobble together a coherent story.
Even with Atencio's focus, Sklar says that there were many different ideas about what the Haunted Mansion should be. The attraction was the first major theme park project developed after Walt died, and without his final say, many of the Imagineers clashed over its direction.
"Marc Davis and Claude Coats polarized attitudes," Sklar explains. Davis, one of Disney's "Nine Old Men" of animation, wanted a lighter tone, while background artist Coats pushed for a scarier attraction. "In the end, Marc's cartoony attitude carried the day," says Sklar. "And he probably pushed it in the right direction."
Still, some of Coats' surreal, spookier backgrounds remain evident in the early scenes of the ride. Some of the other Imagineers who lent their ideas to the Haunted Mansion project through the years and whose touch can be seen in the final version include:
- Rolly Crump: An artist and magic aficionado. His love of stage magic and illusions inspired effects such as the "Pepper's Ghost" trick used in the Grand Hall and hitchhiking ghosts scenes.
- Walt Disney: While Walt passed away before work began in earnest on the interior of the attraction, he played a major role in guiding the project along. One of his most important contributions was his insistence, despite the protests of most other Imagineers, that the exterior of the building should remain pristine so as not to disrupt his beloved Disneyland. According to Sklar, Walt said, "Don't worry about it. We'll take care of the outside; the ghosts will take care of the inside."