You don’t have to look too far amidst the theme-park discussions online, in forums and on Disney Twitter (which you can scoff at, but it’s very real and often very acrimonious), to find a number of common phrases thrown around. One of the big ones is about the late Walt Disney: “Walt wouldn’t have done it this way” or “Walt would do it this way”. It’s an easy response to filter and process any theme-park news of the day. 

Happy about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge? Well, maybe it’s because you think Walt would have expanded Disneyland that way. Or perhaps that movie-themed land in the original Disney theme park bothers you. You could always argue that Walt just wouldn’t have done that. Whether Walt would’ve added a new land dedicated to a single series of films or not, we’ll never know. (This line of argument is always foolish, because literally none of us knows what a dead man would have done more than 50 years after his death.) 

In the years after Walt Disney passed away, the feature-film division struggled, both in live-action and animation. But the theme parks largely thrived, with the first major addition that Walt hadn’t been directly involved in arriving in the dog days of the summer of 1969. In a lot of ways, The Haunted Mansion, celebrating its 50th anniversary today, is one of the more old-fashioned attractions in the Disney theme parks. But it felt revolutionary on Day One, and has influenced the parks more than you might expect.

Foolish Mortals

As was the case with many of the attractions at Disneyland that arrived in the late 1960s and 1970s, Walt Disney did have some say in the origins of The Haunted Mansion, if not the final product. As soon as he brought together a group of artists to make up the first Imagineers for the Walt Disney Company, Walt had the basic idea of a spookhouse attraction in mind. Theme parks and haunted houses go hand in hand, and the initial plans for The Haunted Mansion were publicized years before Disney’s passing. By 1963, the exterior for the eponymous mansion had been fully constructed in the place that would become New Orleans Square in Disneyland. If that wasn’t enough, plans for a haunted-house attraction were unveiled on the Wonderful World of Disney show by the man himself in 1965.

The key difference, though, is that the version of the Haunted Mansion envisioned in the early 1960s isn’t the version we all know and love today. The six-year delay between the exterior of the attraction being built and the attraction opening can at least be explained partially by one of the last major projects of Disney’s life: the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, which served as the founding place for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the PeopleMover and It’s A Small World. The Haunted Mansion was never out of the minds of Disney or his Imagineers – it was simply a lower priority as the men and women at Walt Disney Imagineering built rides of the future. 

One of the centerpieces of the New Orleans Square section of Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion was originally envisioned by Disney and Imagineers like Ken Anderson as a walkthrough attraction. The vision also included a so-called “Museum of the Weird” that would have leaned even harder on the spooky side of things, being the equivalent of the Blue Bayou restaurant that overlooks the first stretch of Pirates of the Caribbean, the other New Orleans Square attraction. (Pirates celebrated its 50th anniversary in July of 2017.) The interactive illusions that were a foundation of this “Weird” version of the attraction morphed into something else when, over time, the walkthrough turned into a ride.

999 Happy Haunts

That change largely occurred after Disney died in December of 1966. Though the company could be seen as adrift without its namesake (Walt’s brother Roy lived for five more years, alive to dedicate the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971, but he was never perceived as a creative wizard the way his brother was), the Imagineers didn’t lose their pace. Because a walkthrough attraction was going to hold fewer guests per hour, it was decided that the Haunted Mansion would utilize the OmniMover technology that could be found at the time in the Adventures Through Inner Space attraction in Tomorrowland. The OmniMover vehicles, thematically renamed as the “Doom Buggies”, enabled the attraction’s track to run continuously. 

Of course, leading up to the reveal of the attraction, there were intense debates among the Imagineers: should Disneyland really be opening a ride that would scare its audiences? Some of their animated films had the ability to terrify children, but the theme park, over its first decade, didn’t lean very hard on frightening people. Though the company’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had inspired a dark ride in Fantasyland, Snow White’s Scary Adventures has long been the source of controversy among families who find it to be too…well, scary, for their kids. 

The Haunted Mansion, in its completed form, serves as a happy medium between being an attraction that’s funnier instead of being scary, and an attraction that’s scarier than it is funny. Many of the attraction’s effects are both magically fascinating and deceptively practical. Guests enter the forbidding mansion (ironically inspired by a house in Baltimore, not a manse anywhere near New Orleans) and are invited by a disembodied voice, that of the Ghost Host, to enter a Stretching Room with portraits that have hidden, nastily funny depths. (One appears to feature a pretty young woman looking off into the distance, until we see that she’s actually walking a tightrope above a crocodile.) 

That Stretching Room (or, basically, a large elevator) descends downwards before you’re asked to walk down a hall to enter your Doom Buggy. From there, you’re presented with various spooky scenes, from graves with skeletons moving around inside to dancing ghosts (an effect achieved with well-placed mirrors and Audio-Animatronic figures) and more. The attraction, like many of the masterstrokes of Disney Imagineering in the 1960s and 1970s, thrived in spite of the fact that it wasn’t inspired by pre-existing material. The Haunted Mansion arguably thrived because it wasn’t based on something that already existed. What the attraction achieves at its finest is marrying a familiar enough idea – a haunted house in an amusement park – with technology that seems cutting-edge even if it’s just old-fashioned magic dressed up.

Grim Grinning Ghosts

Over the last 20 years, The Haunted Mansion (which can now be found in some capacity at five of Disney’s worldwide theme parks) has served as the foundation for both a forgettable and unpopular feature film, and as the foundation for a revised, IP-heavy attraction. The 2003 film The Haunted Mansion served as one of the latter-day Eddie Murphy family comedies. There are a few elements that work in the otherwise limp film, such as Terence Stamp as a ghostly butler with a nefarious and racist streak (because, as I’m sure you all remember, The Haunted Mansion hinges on an interracial romance, another of its unexpectedly intriguing aspects). But mostly, The Haunted Mansion is just another way for Eddie Murphy to mug his way through perhaps fittingly lifeless material.

A couple of years earlier, Disney had begun utilizing another movie in The Haunted Mansion. (The 2003 comedy isn’t heavily represented in the attraction these days.) That would be the Tim Burton-produced stop-motion animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Though it wasn’t a massive hit upon its release in the fall of 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas has gradually become one of the most popular Disney-adjacent films of the last quarter-century. (Fun fact: at the time, Disney chose to let Touchstone Pictures be the chief distributor, because it was perceived to be too scary for the Walt Disney Pictures banner to be placed in front of it.) Jack Skellington is almost as recognizable an icon in the holiday season as Tinker Bell or Mickey Mouse are, with his film serving as a colorful way to spruce up The Haunted Mansion for four months of the year.

That version of the attraction is very impressive, but it’s still not the original. The Haunted Mansion has, of course, gone through a number of changes in the last 50 years; recently, one of the cult-favorite characters that never actually saw the light of day, The Hatbox Ghost, was finally installed near the graveyard scene of the ride. The Haunted Mansion is perhaps the best possible distillation of why the Disney theme parks are so special and beloved. If you want to get your pants scared off, go to the Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. Yes, the title of the attraction and its exterior implies terror, but The Haunted Mansion is a classic in every possible way, interested in refining an old-fashioned type of attraction instead of breaking new ground. It’s old magic, which is the best kind.

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