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Disneyland Article
Haunted Mansion The Surprisingly Complex History Of The Popular Ride

Haunted Mansion
Dirk Libbey
July 23, 2023
August 1, 2023
As Disney takes another shot at turning the Haunted Mansion into a movie, we take a look back and remember how hard it was to get the attraction made in the first place.

20 years ago when Disney made its first attempts to turn popular theme park attractions into hit movies, it was little surprise that the two movies out of the gate were based on Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. They are two of the most popular attractions ever created, and they exist in one form or another in nearly every Disney parks resort around the world. While Pirates was a massive hit, The Haunted Mansion was not.

Now Disney is taking another shot at adapting the Haunted Mansion attraction for the big screen, and with the movie’s release, it’s a fitting time to take a look back at the inspiration for both films, Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. It was the first, it is the most well-known, and despite the rude’s enduring popularity today, it was one of the most difficult attractions in Disney history to actually open.

Walt Wanted A Haunted Mansion Attraction In Disneyland From The Beginning The Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland in August of 1969, more than 14 years after Disneyland first opened to the public. And yet, the idea for a haunted house attraction had been on the drawing board for Disneyland since literally the beginning. In fact, that Haunted Mansion precedes Disneyland, as the original concept designs of what was then called Mickey Mouse Park, when the plan was to locate the park across from the Disney studios in Burbank, included a decrepit old house.

However, Walt’s ultimate desire for his theme park to be unlike the amusement parks of the day, which he saw as dirty, defeated the haunted house idea, as he decided he didn’t want a run-down old house in his clean, state-of-the-art park. The house wouldn’t be built in Disneyland’s original phase, but the idea would never be too far from Walt’s mind.

The Haunted Mansion Façade At Disneyland Sat Finished, And Empty, For Years Eventually, Walt decided to move forward with his Haunted Mansion idea. When the park planned its first expansion, New Orleans Square, construction began in 1961 and the facade of a Southern plantation house mansion was built and completed in 1963. But when New Orleans Square opened in 1966, it did so with Pirates of the Caribbean as the only attraction. The Haunted Mansion was left behind locked gates because there was nothing inside it.

A big part of the reason for the delay was the 1964-65 World's Fair. WED Enterprises, the company that became Imagineering, had been hired to create four different attractions for the fair, and that took all of the Imagineering talents away from the Mansion. When the Imagineers could finally focus on the attraction again, what it would be had significantly changed.

The original plan was that the Haunted Mansion was going to be a walk-through attraction, with tour guides taking guests regularly through the house, and each room would provide different ghostly interactions or otherworldly effects. Stories and characters were created with this in mind. Walt reportedly visited the Winchester Mystery House in Northern California and was inspired by it, which is probably where the idea of a guided tour came from.

In the end, it was decided that a walking tour would severely limit the attractions’ capacity, which led to the decision to use the new Omnimover systems, developed for the World's Fair, to take ghosts through the attraction after a short, self-guided, walking tour.

Imagineers Fought Over Whether The Haunted Mansion Should Be Scary Or Funny It may seem obvious that if you’re working on making a haunted house-style attraction, you should make something scary, but that wasn’t entirely obvious inside WED Enterprises. Two different designers, Claude Coats and Marc Davis, were put in charge of the project, and each had a different idea for what the mansion should be. Coates argued for something far more spooky, while Davis, who was known for his sense of humor, (he's the guy largely responsible for transforming the Jungle Cruise into its modern pun-tastic form) wanted something a lot more fun.

Disneyland had always been conceived as a place where families could have fun together, and there was a fear that if the Haunted Mansion was too scary, it would drive away potential guests who were either too young to handle it or just didn’t care to be scared.

For his part, Walt Disney wasn’t a lot of help. He would seem to go back and forth himself, at different times supporting the scarier ideas, The late Rolly Crump's early Museum of the Weird idea, which Walt said scared the hell out of him, almost became a separate attached attraction, and then it was later decided that there should be more gags. Things became even more complicated in 1966 when Walt passed away, without any final decision being made on which direction to take.

In the end, as any who have experienced the Haunted Mansion can attest, the final result falls somewhere in between. The attraction opens with several chilling elements, including what has to be the scariest thing at Disneyland: the sight of a corpse who has hung himself and still hangs from the rafters above. It ends with ghosts throwing a party and literally singing and dancing. The disparate tones shouldn’t work, but somehow they do.

One Major Haunted Mansion Effect Didn’t Work For 45 Years Even if you’re not that familiar with the Haunted Mansion as an attraction if you’ve seen the Haunted Mansion movie trailer, then you’ve seen a character called the Hatbox Ghost. He has the ability to transport his head between his neck and a hatbox he’s carrying, and he’s an original part of the attraction... sort of.

The Hatbox Ghost effect was in use when the Haunted Mansion first opened in 1969, but it didn’t actually work very well. In the end, the decision was made to pull the effect shortly after opening. The Hatbox Ghost was gone for more than four decades, but in the early 2010s, the effect was revisited, and with the advancements in technology, a way was found to make it work. The Hatbox Ghost returned to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in 2015, and it has been announced that Ghost will make his appearance at Disney World’s Haunted Mansion for the first time ever sometime in 2023.

The Haunted Mansion movie, which opens on July 28, will certainly contain lots of visual references to the popular Disneyland attraction. So many parts of it have become absolutely iconic. Considering everything the ride went through simply to exist, it’s a testament to the hard work of everybody involved, who was somehow able to put together not simply a fun ride but one of the best rides at Disneyland.
Attractions Referenced

Haunted Mansion

Jungle Cruise

Pirates Of The Caribbean

Lands Referenced

New Orleans Square

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