Given the fact my family and I travel to sunny Central Florida and the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) multiple times per year, friends often request advice for maneuvering the overwhelming lands of Walt’s “Florida Project.” They ask our opinions regarding the many dining options as well as what we consider to be the “Don’t Miss” attractions, of which there are several.
I recall a discussion between myself, my son, and a fellow Adventures by Disney traveler last summer year during a Backstage Magic Adventure. We debated the difference between what would be considered the best attractions versus which would be considered our favorite attractions. There resides a definitive difference between the two. The Imagineers of the Disney Company intensely toil over the latest technologies and combine them with the sparks of their imagination, often including the multiple intellectual properties now under the umbrella of the multi-billion-dollar worldwide company known as the “House of Mouse.”
Upon consideration of the best attractions, Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom rises to the top of my personal list. Opening originally in May 2017, this 3D flight simulator sits as the pinnacle of Disney Imagineering at its best. Even the queue of this technologically advanced attraction impresses many as evidenced by its extensive waits for this attraction even now. This top attraction, set within the Avatar universe in the land of Pandora, allows guests to ride on the back of a mythical creature, the banshee, along the landscapes of Pandora. Something that also excites me is that although the ride opened nearly a year and a half ago, the Imagineers continue to work at further advancing technology and never seem to rest with the status quo.
But even with the advanced technologies sprinkled throughout Flight of Passage, the idea of the best attraction does not always coincide with the thought of a favorite attraction. Upon discussing which attraction may be a guest favorite, one may utilize several questions to discern the favorite—such as, “Which attraction brings back the most memories?”, “Which attraction warrants a wait in a queue?”, and “Which attraction do guests label as a ‘Don’t Miss’?” A favorite attraction may not necessarily be filled with the most advanced Imagineering and it may not contain the most state-of-the-art technologies. When friends and family ask about my personal favorite attraction, little time is required before I am able to provide an answer. I often consider an attraction centered around Disney’s interpretation of a macabre, a dilapidated estate populated with spirits of the deceased. They appear bleak, yet happy, almost as if they are grim and grinning at the same time. Whether experiencing this attraction at Disneyland’s New Orleans Square or in the Liberty Square at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the Haunted Mansion rises to the summit as both my favorite attraction and the “Don’t Miss” attraction at either resort. Some may inquire as to why an attraction with technology available in the 1960s-1970s usurps the top spot from an attraction such as Flight of Passage with its 21st century technology. Listed below are five reasons why Haunted Mansion is a top attraction; however, first we will discuss the history behind this frightfully fun attraction.
In the early days of Mr. Disney’s original theme park, the 1950's, the idea of an attraction filled with spooks and spirits first circulated. Walt and his team of Imagineers discussed the idea of an “Old House on the Hill” which, surprisingly, may have been built just off of Main Street near the hustle and bustle of this magical boulevard. Determined that this may not be the most appropriate location, Imagineer Ken Anderson and conceptual artist Harper Goff began to meet and design this “ghost house,” a very similar attraction to the one we know today, except that they originally created it as a walk-through attraction. The cast members, dressed as creepy maids and spooky butlers, would lead guests through the darkened halls of the mansion as they shared the story of the inhabitants of the house, including the infamous sea captain and his bride. Imagineering later determined that the attraction would best be utilized as a ride-through attraction, utilizing the Omnimover system to help direct the rider’s attention to the highlights of a particular scene. After construction of the shell of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion in 1963, the attraction sat “dead” for a few years during the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter in 1966, the original Imagineer, Walt Disney himself, passed away and many within the early Disney community worried about the future of the company. After all, how would Disney’s dream of a place where families could spend time together continue to flourish without his guidance?
Imagineers, including Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, rose to the challenge, taking what they had discovered at the World’s Fair, and steered the Haunted Mansion project thereafter. Conflict also arose between Imagineers Marc Davis and Claude Coats as to whether the ride should be frightening or fun. Davis, an animator and character designer, felt the attraction should be enjoyable and full of gags while Coats, a background artist, wanted a scarier adventure. Both succeeded in their endeavors when Imagineer X Atencio combined their ideas into a single adventure, utilizing a more “dark foreboding” beginning to the attraction which leads to a rousing gathering of the spirits in the graveyard as they serenade guests with the classic tune, “Grim, Grinning Ghosts.” Utilizing the available technologies—including Audio-Animatronics, Omnimovers, and see-through effects—and a little of that Disney “magic” - Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion opened to the public on August 9, 1969 to the delight of those brave enough to explore this creepy manor. A few years later, Imagineers working at Walt Disney World opened a version of their own in the Magic Kingdom near Orlando. Currently, nearly every Disney park contains a version of this classic attraction.
The Haunted Mansion Theming
The Disney company often utilizes the terms theming and immersion upon creating and describing their products, especially regarding their multiple theme parks worldwide. Webster’s Dictionary defines theme as “a subject or topic of a discourse or of artistic representation, a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern” whereas immerse means “to engross, absorb completely, or to baptize.” Baptism coincides with a total surrounding of all sides. When one thinks of this complete engulfing—including sights, sounds, and even smells—the land of Pandora mentioned above may often be considered one of the greatest examples within any Disney park. Nevertheless, the same park-goer must not forget the theming and immersion provided by the Haunted Mansion. Whether considering the design of the outer façade, the interactive queue at WDW, or even some of the Photo Pass shots provided by the talented photographers, the Haunted Mansion considers every detail when dealing with theming. Upon entering the creepy manor, one becomes totally immersed in the theming of this timeless Disney attraction. Even the Doom Buggy, the label given to the Omnimover vehicle, directs the rider’s attention to what the attraction designers wish, not allowing guest observation of the inner workings of this classic ride.
Whether visiting the southern plantation style version of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion or the Dutch Gothic Revival style of the WDW version, both of these intimidating structures loom over their lands whether they be in New Orleans or Liberty Square, respectively. Disney parks across the ocean possess their own versions of the Haunted Mansion, each with their individual theming and décor. The WDW version of the attraction received an update a few years back, leaving a more interactive queue and allowing the park guest to experience the story behind the attraction even before crossing the threshold into the mansion. Rather than spending time on their cellphones, riders within the queue may be challenged to solve a murder mystery using clues provided on the five busts of the Dread family that sit along the queue. Imagineers provided a fun whodunit that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. As one travels further along the standby line, a tomb with various instruments carved into it allows the rider to join with others and play a tune together. Throughout the queue, tombstones adorned with tributes to the many Imagineers can be studied. Finally, as the rider approaches the entrance to the mansion, they may spot Madame Leota’s tombstone. Watch this tombstone very carefully for a creepy surprise. After exiting the Haunted Mansion, Disney photographers offer their services, including several Magic Shots which may actually reveal the “ghost that will follow you home” that the Host of the Mansion warned you about.
The Haunted Mansion Cast Members
The WDW and Disneyland resorts pride themselves about their desire to become the gold standard around the world regarding customer service. From the way their cast members dress and address the guest, Disney strives to make its priority to ensure that each guest has a pleasant, unforgettable experience while visiting their Florida, California, and international theme parks. Cast members often refer to their young, female guests as “princesses.” Management within the theme parks and resorts often provide their front-line cast members with a level of freedom so that they can make the guest's visit more enjoyable. Smiles dominate the typical cast member's demeanor, unless of course, they work within the area of the Haunted Mansion. Gone are the typical Disney cast member conducts and behaviors, not to the point of being offensive to the guests, but consistent with the theme of the attraction. Rarely does a guest find a Haunted Mansion cast member sharing a smile, even in photo opportunities. Rather than a pleasant welcome, some cast members may provide the Haunted Mansion guest with a scare and a blank stare.
The Haunted Mansion Personalities
Some Disney fans, present company included, often seek out creative ways to satisfy their need for all things Disney, regularly seeking out the next Disney “fix” to satisfy the soul as they eagerly await their next trip to a Disney park. During car trips, Disney music often plays on our car stereo. Even more, the soundtrack enjoyed most by my family during time spent in the vehicle is the soundtrack from the Haunted Mansion. The listener may recognize some very familiar voices during their time enjoying the soundtrack, and, thankfully, none of the celebrities featured in the 2003 tepid attempt at a comedic version of the Haunted Mansion are featured. Paul Frees’ vocal talents are lent to the legendary script as the “Ghost Host” of the tour. Disney features Frees in multiple other attractions in their parks, including but not limited to: Pirates of the Caribbean and the original Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. During the Christmas season, one finds Mr. Frees sharing his voice in the classic holiday cartoon Frosty the Snowman as multiple characters including the traffic cop, the train ticket window clerk, and Santa Claus himself. Fans of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons may notice his voice as the character of Boris Badenov. While most voice actors work with mainly one studio, Paul Frees worked extensively with at least nine different companies.
Another true Disney delight is the presence of Eleanor Audley within the soundtrack for the mansion, portraying Madame Leota. The Disney animation company also featured Audley’s talents as classic Disney villains, including Maleficent and Lady Tremaine in the animated films Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, respectively. Audley, a stage-trained actress who specialized in the upper-class matron type of character, also appeared in many live action movies, and played a recurrent role as Eddie Albert’s mother on Green Acres.
Finally, for those of us familiar with Saturday morning cartoons and the commercials therein, the voice actor for Tony the Tiger himself plays a significant role within the Haunted Mansion. Thurl Ravenscroft portrays one of the singing busts in the graveyard scene and maintains a featured singing role in the tune “Grim, Grinning Ghosts.” The organ within the interactive queue even features an inscription honoring Mr. Ravenscroft. This multitalented voice actor also lent his talents to “Fritz” in the Enchanted Tiki Room, and had a successful career outside of the Disney company. As soon as you are done reading this article, listen to the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
The Haunted Mansion Layovers
As superb as the theming for the Haunted Mansion remains, the Imagineers will yearly alter the Disneyland version of the mansion into something new and fresh. This seasonal overlay of the Haunted Mansion attraction blends the classic appearance and characters of the Haunted Mansion with the theming and cast of Tim Burton’s 1993 film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Holiday chaos erupts as characters from the movie, including Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie, share their ideas of Christmas joy to the grim residents of the manor. Tokyo Disneyland also provides their guests with their own version of the attraction layover.
Even though the Florida Haunted Mansion does not re-theme for the holidays, the WDW version does add enhancements to the mansion during the Halloween season. During Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the Imagineers “spook” it up a bit. Special lighting, fog, and characters become part of the Haunted Mansion experience during this time of year. Lady Renata and Madame Carlotta, two of the 999 ghoulish inhabitants of the mansion and nieces to Master Gracey himself, dwell outside the manor interacting with guests, providing their morbid advice on the park guests' love lives and answering their questions. If asked, they may even share what they were like in their “corruptible, mortal state.”
The Haunted Mansion Merchandise
The Ghost Host shares details about the mansion during your tour, including that the residence has "wall-to-wall creeps and hot-and-cold running chills". While the guest may not be able to join the 999 happy haunts as resident number 1,000, they may bring a piece of the magic home from this classic Disney attraction. Given the popularity of the attraction, WDW opened a free-standing gift shop dedicated to the Haunted Mansion, Memento Mori, which is translated “remember death.” Shower curtains, music boxes, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and paintings fill the shelves of this eerie gift shop staffed by the Haunted Mansion cast members. Other gift shops around property also stock souvenirs from the attraction.
The Dread family busts from the cemetery queue currently sit proudly in my office. There are two additional items currently on the horizon for the same room: a Haunted Mansion grandfather clock featuring a “13” at the top to ensure that the owner knows exactly when the spooks are getting ready to come out and a Haunted Mansion hourglass that features an elegant sculptured frame, antiqued finish, and gothic design that creates a sense of anxiousness as one watches the sands of time slip away toward midnight. The guest seeking out the perfect gift for others or self will likely be impressed with the amount of frightening merchandise available featuring this attraction.
In conclusion, I found this article somewhat difficult to write, meaning I struggled with trying to narrow down the reasons as to why the Haunted Mansion is my favorite attraction and one of the greatest attractions created by Walt Disney and his Imagineering team. Easily, this article could have stretched to perhaps double or even triple its current length because there is so much to love about this Disney classic. Some may agree with this short list and some may not; some may add certain issues and take away others. Regardless the opinion, the Haunted Mansion offers enough magic so that most, if not everyone, will find something to enjoy. From the theming to the merchandise to the familiar voices on the classic soundtrack, this attraction provides more grinning than grim to those invited to explore its unnerving structure. Given our deep love of it, this ride often becomes the final attraction before my family travels home. At the end of the tour of this ghoulish building, the guest is encouraged to “hurry back” with their death certificate so that they too can become a more permanent resident of this classic Disney attraction.
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