Review of the Haunted Mansion

The Beloved, Classic Disney Theme Parks Attraction

••• The Hatbox Ghost loses his head at the Disneyland version of the Haunted Mansion. Disney. Used with permission.

Coming on the heels of the wildly successful and innovative Pirates of the Caribbean and Disney's New York World's Fair attractions, the Haunted Mansion was part of an incredible burst of creative energy from the company and one of its high watermark moments. An overnight sensation (that was actually many years in the making), the classic ride has remained enormously popular; casual and ardent fans alike typically rank it among their favorite Disney attractions.

Haunted Mansion Up-Front Info

Note: The four Haunted Mansions (the Paris version is called, "Phantom Manor") are essentially similar. Tokyo and Florida are virtually identical; California's exterior is markedly different, but the ride experience is largely the same; Paris has a different storyline and other unique elements, but the overall feel takes its cue from the original. Hong Kong Disneyland has Mystic Manor, a decidedly different take on a haunted attraction. My review is based on the California and Florida versions of the ride.

Disney's Filmmaking Techniques

Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty says that the park's attraction designers use the principles of filmmaking to draw guests into the story.

For example, the "establishing shot" sets the tone and piques interest. When approaching the Haunted Mansion in the parks, the stately, yet faintly ominous building beckons.

As guests get closer, the "medium shot" of the mansion shows that things are not quite what they seem: a carriage hearse sits in the driveway, a large planter is overturned, and expressionless attendants mill about.

Later in the attraction, as the "close-up shots" bring details into view, and all hell -- literally! -- breaks loose.

The Stretching Room

The experience begins in the foyer as cast members instruct guests to "fill in all of the dead space." (Compared to the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion may have the best pun-laden spiels.) The booming recorded voice of the Ghost Host bids a fond, "Welcome, foolish mortals," and a panel opens to lead guests into the Portrait Chamber, also known as the stretching room. This is where things start getting wacky.

As the room "stretches," (Is the ceiling rising or the floor sinking? See Giving Up the Ghosts: Haunted Mansion ride secrets revealed!) the dignified portraits reveal more and get sillier and sillier until the stretching stops. The Ghost Host intones that there are no windows or doors in the room, and that he holds our fate -- which may have something to do with the corpse hanging from the dome at the top of the room.

Mercifully, a door opens that leads to the ride's load area. Chandeliers, positively bursting with cobwebs, barely light the way. The vehicles, known as Doom Buggies, use Disney's Omnimover system. Originally designed for Disneyland's Adventure Through Inner Space attraction, the endless, ever-moving stream of vehicles offers huge ride capacity (and requires the familiar warning that "the walkway is moving at the same speed as the vehicles.") Imagineers tweaked the Omnimover concept by giving the Doom Buggies the ability to independently turn and tilt.

Using Rafferty's filmmaking comparison, the guests are like cameras, and the vehicles pan and focus their attention at precise moments during the ride.

Scared Silly

While there isn't a linear story in the more traditional sense of an attraction like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion offers a three-act play, according to Imagineer Tony Baxter (as recounted in the wonderful book, "The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies" by Jason Surrell). The basic premise is that the mansion is a retirement home for ghosts. 999 of them have taken up residence...but there's room for one more as the Ghost Host likes to remind us foolish mortals.

In the first act, the tension builds as weird things happen in the library, music Room, conservatory, corridor of doors, and the endless hallway (the latter is one of my favorite Haunted Mansion scenes).

Objects randomly float, a hand pushes against a coffin lid, a grandfather clock tolls 13, and mournful wails beckon behind strange doors. These unseen creatures are perhaps the scariest part of the ride and reflect the influence of Imagineering legend Claude Coats, who wanted the Haunted Mansion to be a mostly frightening experience.

The Seance Room serves as a curtain between the acts, according to Baxter. Here, Madame Leota issues incantations inside her crystal ball to rouse the spirits. In Act 2, the ghosts emerge to cavort in the Grand Hall and scare you silly in the Attic. The Hall scene, with its huge banquet table and waltzing ghosts is among the Haunted Mansion's highlights. In the Attic, we meet the bride, a remnant from one of the attraction's early storylines. With her glowing, loudly beating heart, she provides quite a scare.

In the Disneyland version of the ride, as passengers leave the attic, they are greeted by the Hatbox Ghost. A character who briefly appeared when the Haunted Mansion first opened, but was removed because the gag didn't quite hold up, his legend has grown through the years. As part of Disneyland's 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration, the park debuted an all-new Hatbox Ghost. The effect is wonderful. As guests pass, they see the cloaked ghost holding an empty hatbox. Suddenly his head disappears -- only to reappear inside the hatbox. It's both funny and creepy.

In Act 3, the Doom Buggies "fall" out the attic window and into the graveyard. This is where the spirits go bonkers and things turn silly. Ghosts pop up everywhere, the music kicks in full force, and those wonderful singing busts harmonize for a rousing rendition of "Grim Grinning Ghosts." Marc Davis, Imagineer extraordinaire and one of Disney's "Nine Old Men" of animation, pushed for a tamer Haunted Mansion, and his lighter touch prevails throughout the latter part of the ride, particularly in the graveyard scene.

The finale takes place in the crypt where one of the hitchhiking ghosts hops into the Doom Buggy with the guests, and the tiny ghoul implores everyone to "Hurry back." Foolish mortals that we are, we follow her advice.