When I was a kid, I hated the Haunted Mansion. I’ve never been scared of much in the way of pop culture, but for some reason, the Hitchhiking Ghosts were it for me. Also “Little Leota,” the last ghost in the Mansion, who encourages you to “hurry ba-ack.” I remember going to Disneyland with my family once when I was a kid—so young that my dad was still alive—and standing in line. My sister and I were trying to persuade our parents not to go, and Dad was reading the tombstones out loud to try to get us more happy to be there while Mom basically ignored our fears. Our delight when the ride was shut down due to a technical issue was that only a kid in a similar situation can really feel.
Its soft open was fifty years ago today. It was based on the Winchester Mystery House, originally, and its design started well before Walt’s death—the original design would’ve involved having it look considerably more decrepit, but Walt was opposed to the idea. Instead, it, along with Pirates of the Caribbean, became the centerpiece of New Orleans Square—a lovely old mansion surrounded by a graveyard full of amusing tombstones. Inside, visitors would be greeted by the Ghost Host, who would lead them through the 999 Happy Haunts and to the Doom Buggies that would show them the interior of the mansion.
The actual story inside the mansion has changed a few times over the decades. Broadly, I would say the story itself doesn’t matter except to get you through. You start with the room of the stretching portraits, go through past the changing ones, and climb aboard your Doom Buggie. You then go up the staircase (well, ramp) and through halls full of eerie goings-on. You then enter the room where Madame Leota (a head in a crystal ball) summons the ghosts. From there, you meet the ghosts having a dinner party, up into the attic, and then down into the graveyard. From there, it’s the Hall of Mirrors, showing you a ghost that might Follow You Home, out of the Doom Buggie, and up the moving ramp past Little Leota.
If you’re familiar with the ride in one of its not-Disneyland incarnations, this is not your experience. Especially if you’ve been to the park in Hong Kong, which has a completely different ride due to the radical differences in Western and Chinese treatment of ghosts. Still, that’s the original ride, the one I grew up going on whether I wanted to or, as established, not. Those of us familiar with the Disneyland version grew up with Paul Frees and Eleanor Audley. Heck, when I grew up, you’d get the crystal ball just sitting there; it’s only in recent years that the crystal ball began floating.
Honestly, this was the version I’d been looking forward to sharing when we went on vacation to the LA area eight years ago, especially as my boyfriend had never been to Disneyland before. Alas, we were there during the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay, which I am less than pleased with. It’s okay, I guess, but I don’t really like it and like the actual regular version much better. Especially as the ride has to be closed for something like a month out of the year to change it over and then back.
The ride itself is a combination of old technology—some, ironically enough, used to fake ghostly appearances during the spiritualism craze—and technology developed specifically for the ride. The Doom Buggies are based on the ride vehicles used on Adventures Thru Inner Space. There are a few animatronics, of course—such as the ride’s only living characters, the caretaker and his dog. However, the attraction mostly makes use of projection of one kind or another. Some of the tricks are as much as two centuries old and will still blow your mind when you discover how they’re done; they’ve long been part of stagecraft.
We will get to the movie at some point, but to me, half the disappointment of it was that it didn’t understand what makes the ride such a perennial favourite. Apparently, there was great dispute among imagineers about whether it should be funny or scary, and it was the genius of X Atencio to combine the two in a blend that works. The movie didn’t have an X Atencio on it, and the two sides never really come together. Honestly, this is probably what gives a lot of us hope for the proposed Guillermo del Toro version; if there’s one thing Guillermo del Toro understands, it’s combining comedy and horror. I honestly think he also has a better grasp than any director on how that small child waiting in line felt.
Obviously, my feelings toward the ride have changed since those days. By the time I was a teenager, it was a favourite of mine as well. In fact, I will share with you one of the secrets that those of us who have ridden it as often as I still remember; when you’re taking the moving ramp up out of the ride, stand as close as you can to the edge. The rollers that power it work as a mini foot rub, and it feels great, especially at the end of a long day wandering the park.