“When hinges creak in doorless chambers…” The opening words to The Haunted Mansion always put me in the Disney mood (I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write.) It being one of my all time favorite Walt Disney attractions, having ridden the ride and listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times, I still discover new details every time. The Donald “hidden Mickey” chair, waiting in the stretching room for the Gargoyles to shoo you out, and the Ballroom’s audio animatronics rocking chair ghost (Grandma from the Carousel of Progress) are just a mere few exciting aspects I love. Eventually, we will go through each scene in detail, but today we’re just having an overview of the attraction and it’s conception.
The Haunted Mansion was conceived for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the 50s-70s. In fact, the first known concept art of Disneyland by Harper Goff included a decrepit manor house towering on a hill above a main street. Walt Disney assigned Ken Anderson to create the story of a walk through ghost house with Goff’s design. With engineer Bob Mattey, Anderson filled a Disney studios soundstage with varied scenes and effects. Anderson told The E-Ticket, “We built it just as if it were to be transplanted to the park. There were interiors designed for Walt and others to come and look at.” He worked on the project until he stepped out to work on Sleeping Beauty in 1958.
Not long after Anderson withdrew, Imagineers Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey were brought on to manage and invent the mansion’s special effects. Given a large studio at WED by Walt, they tested out techniques like Pepper’s ghost and many different optical illusions. “They used Audio-Animatronics, the ‘doom mobiles,’ and all the other things they learned by doing the shows for the World’s Fair” -Ken Anderson. In 1999 at a Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion’s 30th anniversary event, Crump revealed, “Here is a great story about the Haunted Mansion effect ‘Imagineering’ room. Yale had all his ghosts and magic strewn throughout this room. Once, we got a call from personnel sayingthat the janitors asked that we leave the lights on in there due to the creepiness of all the audio-animatronic ghosts and such. They complied, but put motion sensors in the room that would extinguish the lights and turn on all the ghost effects, when triggered. The next morning, they came in and found all the ghost effects still running and a broom lying in the center of the floor. Personnel called and said that the janitors would never be back.”
Construction started in 1961 and the foundation of the facade was completed for Disneyland in 1962. Yet, it sat as an empty shell for many years as a result of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, and Walt Disney’s death in December 1966. The project changed significantly after Walt’s death. Walt Disney Productions were shocked and shaken without his visionary leadership and creative genius. Many ideas like a Museum of the Weird restaurant, and the attraction being walk through, were abandoned. Marc Davis, Claude Coats, and X Antencio were brought into the project after the fair. Coats and Davis, who were the main designers, disagreed on whether the mansion should be dark, sinister, and chilling, or light, humorous, and playful. Davis, a character designer and animator, believed the ride should be fun and full of gags, while Coats, a former background painter, opposed that it should be scary. Eventually both got their way, when Antencio combined their ideas into the dark and hilarious attraction we love today.
Having already written scripts for many other attractions, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, X Antencio also pulled together the bits and pieces to form a script for the Haunted Mansion. Even though his background was in animation, Walt still saw his natural gifts of storytelling, and potential of what Antencio could do. After his success with Pirates, X was the obvious choice for the Haunted Mansion. Although Atencio was brought on to the project by Walt personally, unfortunately, he never got to show Atencio the direction for the mansion before his tragic death. In a 1997 interview with Persistence of Vision Magazine, Atencio recalled, “After Walt went to the big studio in the sky, we didn’t have him around to say ‘this is the way it’s gonna be.’ … There were two schools of thought on it.. comical or scary. I was kind of leaning towards the scary part of it, but you’ve got to think of kids and stuff like that.”
Once the script was completed, the extremely popular vocal talent (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Auctioneer, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Ludwig von Drake, many characters in Rankin/Bass cartoons) and Disneyland announcer, Paul Frees, voiced the invisible “Ghost Host.” Frees recorded many trial accents and script variations prior to creation of the narration that exists today. The well know voice of “Lady Tremaine” in Cinderella and “Maleficent” in Sleeping Beauty, Elanor Audley , was considered for many different roles. Eventually, they decided she would best fit as “Madame Leota,” the floating head medium who “summons” the ghosts. The face of Madame Leota is actually Disney Legend Leota Toombs Thomas as well as the ‘Little Leota’ at the end of the attraction. Leota, who was from the animation department, played vital roles in the creation of many attractions such as, it’s a small world, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and Ford’s Magic Skyway for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, while being mother to current WDI designer Kim Irvine. She recalled when the attraction first opened in 1969, “As I remember, my eyes were the right distance apart to fit the test model when the whole thing began.” Kim painting a fabulous picture by saying, “When Yale Gracey was experimenting with ideas for a gypsy in a crystal ball, he asked Leota if she would mind posing for the head. They were a close-knit group, and mom said she thought it sounded fun. Blaine [Gibson] made a life mask of her face and Yale, Wathel [Rogers] and the rest of the team filmed her, crazy makeup and all. I still remember when she wore it home that night! Then they created the ‘Little Leota’ bride at the end of the ride. Since that figure is small, they wanted a high voice, so they kept mom’s voice because she sounded like a little girl.”
One of the most important things about the Mansion is the music. WED’s music director Buddy Baker was assigned the task with lyricist X Atencio. “Knowing that ‘Yo Ho’ was such a success in the Pirates ride, we realized that we’d have to have a song too,” Recalled Atencio, “So I went to work [on the lyrics], and bounced my ideas off of John Hench and the rest of them – and then gave it to Buddy. It was amazing how Buddy just came up with the melody to fit it – with just a little adjusting here and there. People will often ask ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Well, I would just come up with the lyrics and Buddy, the genius that he is, he made it work.” Before Buddy and X trimmed down to five tracks, the graveyard scene had 42 tracks. Now, it includes organ, guitar, drums, bass, and contrabass, with varied features such as, trumpet, harp, backwards flute, bagpipes,etc. Vocals included lead Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger, “Your a Mean one Mr. Grinch“, Enchanted Tiki Room’s Fritz, Mary Poppins pig.)
While the attractions differ slightly between Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the audio animatronics, props, and set pieces were constructed at the same time. In Disneyland, the attraction was promoted as early as 1961, announcing a 1963 opening of the Haunted Mansion (the title was still in progress at the time.) A sign outside the attraction sat for many years with the words, “Notice: All Ghosts and Restless Spirits—Post-lifetime leases are now available in this HAUNTED MANSION. Don’t be left out in the sunshine!… Leases include license to scare the daylights out of guests…” Many began to wonder about the reason for delay. Rumors flew and were anything from a test subject literally dying from fright to just the attraction too horrifying to open. It was finally finished in August 1969, with cast member previews on the 9th, 10th, 11th, soft openings on the 10th & 11th, a midnight press release on the 11th and the official opening on August 12th. In his book The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, Jason Surrell wrote, “All the rumors and misinformation had worked to the Mansion’s advantage. The attraction was an instant hit, and remains a Disneyland favorite after more than thirty years.” The response to the Mansion was enormous. In just a week, Disneyland set an attendance record of 82,516 guest.
Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion was an opening day attraction on October 1st 1971 in the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square. Instead of the elegant, clean Victorian exterior in Disneyland, Florida’s Haunted Mansion is Dutch Gothic Revival style, based on older northeastern mansions. It is surrounded by native Floridian plants (oak trees, Spanish moss, red maples and pines.) It has 160 Doombuggies that average approximately 3,200 guests per hour running at 1.4 mph.
I hope this helped you appreciate the attraction even more. We’ve only just dipped our toes into the rich and fascinating history. Don’t forget to, “Hurry back… Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us.”