Everything You Need to Know About The Haunted Mansion
The Haunted Mansion is more than just one of the greatest theme park attractions ever created. It’s also a testament to incongruity and paradox. Creating the ride took much longer than you might imagine. It suffered more delays than any Disneyland attraction of the 20th century. Fittingly, critics once joked that the ride was cursed long before it opened to the public. Here is a bit of Disney history about the making of the Haunted Mansion.
A Fateful Day in 1957
Walt Disney was a man of Big Ideas, and he had a passion for pushing himself to the limit. He expanded this philosophy to his employees. Disney loved placing his Imagineers outside their comfort zones. They told many tales about him doing just this, showing up at their desks to assign seemingly random tasks.
Disney Legend Ken Anderson claimed one of the most interesting anecdotes. One day in 1957, Uncle Walt entered Anderson’s office and demanded something new. He wanted the next phase of Disneyland to include a new area. You know it today as New Orleans Square, and if you’re a Disney expert, you also realize that this expansion didn’t open until 1966. The ride itself didn’t appear until 1969…and you thought Pandora – The World of Avatar took a long time to develop!
What was the cause of the delay? That’s a long story, so let’s focus on Anderson for now. From his perspective, his crazy, rich boss showed up at his desk and dropped off new work. That work was the design of a haunted mansion. By Disney standards, it was a fairly conventional idea. By the 1950s, haunted mansions were already popular tourist attractions.
Perhaps that aspect confused and delayed Anderson. Disneyland aimed for more, with its founder believing in the “plus-ing” of Disney attractions. A haunted mansion at the Happiest Place on Earth would have to surpass every existing version of the premise. And a second problem existed.
The Church, Graveyard and Haunted House
In 1957, Anderson looked at a blank page and started to sketch illustrations. He vacillated between backstories for the attraction that Disney called Church, Graveyard and Haunted House. Where did that name come from? Well…
What Anderson didn’t know was that he wasn’t the first Imagineer to work on this project. Instead, Disney Legend Harper Goff had drawn a picture of an idyllic church and graveyard leading to an ominous crooked street. And he had done this illustration before there was a Disneyland.
Walt Disney had loved the idea and kept it in mind through all the debates about which attractions to build at Disneyland. He wanted more unique experiences at the start, and so he saved this idea for the first expansion. Before he broke ground on Disneyland, Uncle Walt was already thinking about phase two!
Anderson learned of Goff’s drawing and used it for inspiration. He still had to resolve a troubling issue, though.
The Great Divide
Should a Disney haunted mansion be funny or scary? Even today, this idea is divisive in nature. Some guests lament that the current offering is so silly. Others wonder why such an entertaining ride is so scary at the start. To them, The Haunted Mansion takes too long to get to the good stuff.
This debate has existed for 60 years…literally. During the early planning phase of Church, Graveyard and Haunted House, Imagineers were deeply divided on the issue. Claude Coats and Marc Davis, a Disney Legend and one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, stood on opposite sides.
Coats wanted a scary attraction that would prove Disneyland was great for adults, too. Believe it or not, that was a hot button issue at the time. Employees had a chip on their shoulder that their work wasn’t taken seriously, groundbreaking though it was.
Davis had a valid reason for preferring a humorous take. One of the original Disneyland attractions was Snow White’s Scary Adventures. It was…well-named. Out of the first Disneyland rides, this one was the most divisive. Riders were in a first person adventure where they played Snow White, but only few people understood that at the time. Any theme park attraction that needs to be explained has some design flaws.
Even worse, Snow White’s Scary Adventures was frightening to many children. The Evil Queen seemed so lifelike and, well, evil. Kids didn’t feel like they were at the Happiest Place on Earth during Snow White’s Scary Adventures.
Davis rightfully wondered why Disney should double down on the premise. The Evil Queen was scary by accident. And now some Imagineers wanted to do something much scarier. ON PURPOSE?!
Even Imagineers Procrastinate
The debate paralyzed the staff at WED Enterprises. Everyone on both sides of the argument appreciated that the other point of view was equally valid. People offered suggestions to overcome the stalemate.
At one point, Walt Disney debated a Museum of the Weird. This collection of oddities would function as the start of the ride queue for The Haunted Mansion. It would also allow the entrance and ride to have differing tones, providing a lovely compromise.
Eventually, the idea was discarded. It suffered from a fundamental flaw. Some guests might enjoy the eccentric items in the Museum of the Weird so much that they delayed ride entrance. Even in the 1950s, ride throughput was everything to Imagineers. The chaos factor of unknown line waits was a non-starter.
As the stalemate continued, Disney’s marketing team started advertising the new attraction. As early as 1958, a Disneyland map showed The Haunted Mansion as coming soon. It…wasn’t.
By the start of the 1960s, Walt Disney had developed another interest. The 1964 New York World’s Fair was approaching, and his Imagineers were in huge demand. Disney recognized that he could sell their services to major corporations, build attractions for the pavilion, and then transport them to Disneyland afterward, effectively having other companies pay to build new theme park entertainment. This strategy is precisely how It’s a Small World came into being.
WED Enterprises absolutely crushed the World’s Fair competition, claiming four of the top five pavilions in terms of traffic. This came at a cost, though. The finest employees at the company worked for five years straight, having little time to spend on other projects.
Development on The Haunted Mansion slowed dramatically, and the 1964 New York World’s Fair actually didn’t end until October of 1965. So, Imagineers spent the first half of the decade working on these exhibitions.
At the start of 1966, everyone was ready to prioritize The Haunted Mansion. They had to be. New Orleans Square was ready to open in the summer of that year, and it didn’t have an attached attraction ready!
Alas, fate stepped in. Walt Disney found out that year that he had lung cancer. He didn’t live to see 1967. In the wake of Disney’s death, a vacuum existed at WED Enterprises. The man who founded the company and then hired and trained the staff was gone. His absence left an irreparable void.
A Happy Ending at a Haunted Mansion
After the loss of their leader, the Imagineers banded together anew. They carefully evaluated all of the projects he’d had a hand in creating that had never been built. Three of these titles – The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space Mountain – are now among the most seminal theme park attractions of all-time.
The key to finishing The Haunted Mansion was to accept the incongruity of the premise. A haunted mansion at the Happiest Place on Earth was a paradoxical concept. Rather than choose between silly or scary, Imagineers chose to marry the two ideas. They even found a way to join the premises in a plausible way.
The first half of the ride has most of the creepy elements as the Doom Buggy guides you to a séance. After that scene, the mood turns from spine-chilling to slapstick. Guests get two forms of entertainment, making The Haunted Mansion twice as good as it would have been without the compromise.
In 1969, a dozen years after Walt Disney entered Ken Anderson’s office, The Ghost Host welcomed guests to their Doombuggies for the first time. Disney fans had waited for 11 years for this moment, as that’s how long the gap was between the maps displaying The Haunted Mansion and its actual opening. Thankfully, the attraction was well worth the wait.
Today, Disney lovers across the world universally acknowledge The Haunted Mansion as a hallmark achievement in ride design. Disney has already made one movie out of the premise and is currently planning a second one. Haunted Mansion merchandise revenue is a huge cash cow, and variations of the ride exist at most Disney theme parks around the world.
We’ll certainly talk about The Haunted Mansion a LOT more as Halloween approaches. For now, the next time you think about the ride, take a moment to appreciate how many Imagineers had to work hard and argue repeatedly to bring it to (after) life. It once seemed like a doomed project, but it’s now a true classic.