It has been well over two decades since I last visited Disney's Magic Kingdom. Returning, this time as an adult, I am not attempting to recapture my love of Disney; I am trying to redefine it. How do my favorite rides as a child feel now that I accidentally went and grew up. I have previously shared my experience on Pirates of the Caribbean, now it's time to continue my quest to find out: does the magic of Disney still exist for me, or has it been long dead? Hey, speaking of dead, this next segment is about the Haunted Mansion!
There is something I should mention before delving in: Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. As I have gotten older I have gone through many phases of appreciation for All Hallows Eve, and during my twenties it mainly served as a justification for parties around provocative costumes. Something that has been ever present though, is the underlying magic of the holiday. The feeling that a strange, exciting world full of unseen mystery is somehow just a little bit closer to those of us trapped in the mundane world of the living. While observing those in their late October revelry, I see plenty of costumes depicting super-heroes or pop-culture icons (I myself was a pretty decent homemade Aquaman for a few years), but my favorites are still the ghosts, vampires, zombies, and monsters. The element of the supernatural that exists in the spirit of that night, if not in reality, always makes me feel like something mysterious and fascinating is just moments away. I tell you this to let you know that the Haunted Mansion is right in my entertainment wheelhouse. I know I enjoy the subject matter, my only reservations were on how well Disney would pull it off. Would the ride be too outdated to amuse me? Perhaps too childish? I have had twenty-plus years to add to my horror repertoire, maybe the bar has been raised for what level of ethereal entertainment I now require. It was my goal to find out, even if it killed me.
The line upon entrance to the Haunted Mansion is outdoors. This gives you a great opportunity to soak in the mansion and graveyard, to really get yourself in the mindset for the ride. I do have a word of advice for any first-timers or those who (like myself) are returning after some years. Help Disney out. Don’t be passive about your involvement in the experience. If your aim is to embrace a macabre mindset, you want to add to the setting as much as possible. If you have the ability, schedule your ‘doom buggy’ drive through for when the weather is at its spookiest. You want a forecast of foreboding to truly set the mood. My recommendation is dusk or night, but even a dark Florida overcast can add a brooding backdrop to the environment. No horror or murder mystery ever began with “It was a bright and sweaty noon.” If you can give yourself a little bit of “dark and stormy night”, then you have helped set the stage for an enjoyable experience.
As I entered the first stage of the attraction, the infamous stretching room, ghosts of my Disney past decided to pay a visit. I remember looking up past my grandfather’s head to the paintings on the wall. He was no tall man himself, but at that age he was looming over me, with an appropriately morose look. Some adults know just how to play along and add to a child’s experience, and he was one of them. A dimly lit enclosed space, surrounded by strangers, with creepy paintings on the walls? I was spooked before the attraction had even begun. I inched closer to Grandpa for safety and became immersed in the creepy voice and movement of the walls. Perspective is different now, as although I am no towering giant I am significantly taller than I was back then. I have also been around long enough that what scares me has changed. Want to see me terrified? Ask me to plan for my future. This room does not hold the same grip over my nerves that it did as a child. Did I still enjoy it? Of course! It is really well executed, and thoroughly entertaining. It is hands down the best introductory story the Magic Kingdom has to offer, and I loved it. I have one request to make to other riders: please be silent during this part of the attraction. On my second time through, one guest felt the need to make jokes along with the voice-over. They were not particularly funny, but even if they were, they would detract from the theming. Act as if it is always someone’s first time on the ride. Let them experience it as it was intended to be.
As I hopped in my ‘doom buggy’ and made my way through the mansion, something amazing happened. The memories of my previous times on the ride were all just brief flashes of a few key parts. Now, as I entered each individual room, the full story started flooding back in to my brain. It felt like an old song I only remembered the chorus to; once I hear it played again I realize that I know every single lyric, and I can’t believe I went so long without listening to it. Every single detail of my spiritual stroll triggered pure excitement. I could easily describe what I love about every room in exhausting detail, and that would be satisfying for me, but you would be reading long enough to qualify for residency in the mansion. Why don’t I just give you a few haunting highlights?
The initial hallways do an amazing job subtly introducing the anxious aspects of a haunted house. Long corridors of changing paintings and macabre wallpaper, doors rattling and ready to open, clock hands spinning rapidly around their face; all small elements that work together to foreshadow the ghostly encounters to come.
I had completely forgotten about the music room. This is one of those situations where the voice-over greatly adds to the experience. I actually feel bad that I don’t play an instrument, because I won’t be able to hang out here after I am no longer among the living. I think crystal ball lady and I might have some serious relationship potential, but she only hangs out with musicians. Story of my life. There is still time, maybe I will go buy a harmonica today.
Speaking of voice-overs, each time I have been on this ride there is a ‘doom buggy’ back up somewhere around the music room or attic. This is great because you get the opportunity to look around while you wait. A thematically appropriate voice tells you to wait in your buggy, but if it takes a few minutes a cast member will reiterate this. I am sure there is a reason for this, but it takes me out of the mood. I want to hear ride updates from the ghost, not Todd. You aren’t spooky Todd, and your voice cracks when you say “slight delay”.
The attic is a great place for a delay, as it is filled with morbid mementos that you might miss on a quick pass. If I owned my own home I would love to decorate my attic in the exact same way, and desperately hope my guests got the reference when I showed it to them.
The ballroom is one of the few things I remembered going in to the attraction. This was the big test of ride quality for me, as I recalled it being very impressive when I was a child. I did not expect it to live up to that recollection, but it did. The technique behind the ghostly effects was explained to me, and yet I still find myself being taken in by its charm. The spectral celebration involving dining, dancing, and dueling made it look immensely fun to be deceased. When I was younger, this made haunting seem like a blast. Not only would I be unburdened from the laws of the physical plane, but I would go to much nicer parties. Of course, I need to learn how to dance first. I’ll pencil dance lessons in after my harmonica lessons.
The party continues down in to the graveyard, and midway through this sentence I realize that I now have the graveyard song stuck in my head. Every viewable surface is alive with apparitional action, and the atmosphere lets us in on the fun side of the animatronic afterlife. Evidently, it’s good to be a ghost. The ride ends with high energy on a positive note, and I wish I could just hang out here indefinitely.
As my doom buggy passed the ghostly hitchhikers I noticed one of them is noticeably creepier than the other two. You know which one. When it came time to find out which nether-worldly ne’er-do-well would be seated with me, I was surprised to find that my phantom passenger had some new tricks up his sleeve. The head switching animation added an extra bit of humor to the finale of the attraction.
So, I have scoured the depths of the underworld to determine if the Haunted Mansion still brings me any of the magic of my childhood. If you are reading this article on a Ouija Board, kindly nudge your marker towards “yes”. My adult self too often demands that the supernatural be truly frightening. Horror movies become less about subtle unease and more about realistic gore. There is a whole industry of haunted houses that pop-up around Halloween that promise legitimate terror, are marketed towards adults, and require the signing of waivers. These are fine for their time and place, but they don’t manage to capture the fun that comes with an idealized afterlife of ghosts and ghouls. Sometimes I don’t need scary, I need spooky. I need to see some ghosts I want to party with. Magic still exists in that abandoned abode where only the vanquished may vacation, and the next time I fancy some necromancy I know right where to go.