Four Spooky Facts About Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Maybe it’s because spooky season is around the corner, or just because I’ve somehow found myself with some free time to nerd out about the Haunted Mansion more than usual…but whatever the reason, I’ve been putting together some writing about the Haunted Mansion. I’ve always found it a bit of an overwhelming task to write about honestly, because there has been so much written about it, and compared to I think any other Disney attraction there really is so much lore behind it that you can get lost for days reading about the history and inspiration for the Haunted Mansion.

I’m hoping that a post here and there just getting into some random parts of the ride I find interesting make this history both interesting and accessible. I think I’ll post them as little series of four subtopics or less, and we’ll see how that goes! Here’s the first one…hopefully more to come soon:

The Haunted Mansion was the first major Disney theme park attraction to open without Walt Disney present

Haunted Mansion Construction Sign
Construction sign added outside of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion site in 1962. Image: Disney.

Walt did see a lot of the work Imagineers were doing on the Haunted Mansion prior to his death in 1966, but unfortunately he never saw the finished product. Work on the Mansion began in the late 1950s, but the project sort of fell victim to having “too many cooks in the kitchen” with different Imagineers having different visions for the attraction.

In terms of what Walt saw during his lifetime, a number of ideas were floating around for the Haunted Mansion, including the Museum of the Weird concept with inspired a lot of the early advertising Guests in Disneyland would have seen prior to the ride’s opening. In the early 1960s, the project was nearly put on pause while Imagineers were pulled in different directions to work on projects for the 1964 New York World’s Fair instead (including the Carousel of Progress, “it’s a small world,” the Magic Skyway, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.)

The fair ended in October of 1965, and Imagineers were back to work on the Haunted Mansion attraction, creating some of the classic effects we see in the ride today but also a host of other concepts that were simply never implemented or scrapped because in actuality there was so much happening in early drafts of the Mansion that it basically needed to be edited down to fit the length of a ride. Even so, with Walt’s death in 1966, this only gave a short window for him to see where the direction of the attraction was going, and the ride did not open until three years after his death, in 1969.

The Mansion once belonged to a sea captain…or is located on the coast…or it at least has a sea wall

Haunted Mansion Concept Art by Ken Anderson, 1957.
Concept art by Imagineer Ken Anderson, 1957. Image: Disney

In one of my favorite books on the Haunted Mansion, Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney’s Haunted Mansion, author Foxx Nolte brings up an excellent point about the Mansion’s architecture: It appears to have a sea wall. This isn’t really a shocking conclusion to make about the wall that runs parallel to the Rivers of America (at the Walt Disney World mansion).

The interactive queue (which albeit was only added in 2011) features a grave for a sea captain, and there are a couple of small references to seafaring in some of the artwork through the ride itself. When Walt had first assigned a haunted house attraction to Imagineer Ken Anderson in 1957, only two years after the opening of Disneyland, Anderson went to work creating a story centered around a captain who was mysteriously lost at sea. Of course, Anderson’s view of the mansion expanded to inspiration from Sleepy Hollow, and additional works of film and literature, but the sea captain concept was one of the original stories behind the mansion.

In my opinion, the addition of the sea wall is just a product of circumstances, and the sea captain story is more of an Easter egg. At Walt Disney World, the sea wall appearing structure in the site’s architecture makes sense as the Mansion is set against a river. I’m not sure this necessarily makes it a sea wall. Sure, it does look like one, but again, it is a mansion resting along a body of water…I don’t think it’s enough to definitively say where the Mansion is located or what storylines lie within it.

I would look to Ken Anderson’s original concepts for the Haunted Mansion, which did include references to sea captains and mysterious deaths at sea, especially in terms of the art work you can still see inside the attraction today (it is difficult to see, but there are some paintings depicting the Ghost Host as a sea captain). The grave in the interactive queue helps tie the story together. Maybe the sea captain story is something that is (very) slowly being revived and added to, but aside from the sea wall and adjacent Rivers of America, the architecture of the Mansion looks to me like upstate New York (far and away from the rest of Liberty Square.) But I’d love to discuss more thoughts on this, so if you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments!

The ride is one of the earliest examples of an Omnimover attraction

First of all, can you imagine where we’d be today without Omnimovers? Some of my favorite attraction are up there just because the fact that they are Omnimovers helps the lines move along quick so I can pretty much always fit them into my schedule (thinking of you, Spaceship Earth.) If you are unfamiliar, an Omnimover ride is one where all of the vehicles are connected and move along the track at the same rate. Because the vehicles are continually moving (outside of times when they may slow down or stop to let Guests on or off who may need some extra time) the ride would have very efficient load and unload times and manage to increase the number of Guests per hour that can ride.

Anyway, the first Omnimover attraction was the PeopleMover, which debuted following technology developed for the Magic Skyway during the 1964 World’s Fair. After the fair, Dick Nunis (then Disneyland’s Director of Operations) began to see the need for ways to further manage crowds in the park. By 1967, Imagineers were making progress on the Haunted Mansion as a walkthrough attraction, but Nunis wanted to shift the focus to something that could provide an equally immersive experience while moving Guests along at a quicker rate.

Enter the Omnimover. The Omnimover met the need Nunis saw to move more Guests through the attraction, but it needed more than that to capture the feelings and viewpoints they would have had if the ride remained a walkthrough.

The Doombuggy is one of the most unique Disney ride vehicles

Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion
The Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World. Image: Disney.

Imagineer and Disney Legend Bob Gurr, known for his work designing a variety of ride vehicles from the original Autopia cars to the Matterhorn bobsleds, was the creative mind behind the Haunted Mansion’s Doombuggy.

Before Gurr settled on the Doombuggy concept, a number of options had been suggested by Imagineers, including X. Atencio’s suggestion that even made it into some early concept art showing the vehicle as an upward sitting coffin. More importantly than what the vehicles looked like, they needed to function in a way that would replicate the original walkthrough concept for Guests sitting on a ride. The unique shape and synchronized sound system of the attraction made this possible.

As for the design itself, the Doombuggies are rather plain. This is intentional, though. With so many effects happening throughout the attraction, and knowing that at times other Doombuggies would be in view of Guests, it doesn’t make sense to have the ride vehicles draw attention away from the rest of the sets. Moreover, the vehicles are dark and foreboding. They’re unfamiliar. When Guests are approaching the moving walkway to board their Doombuggies, the Ghost Host announces that a “carriage” is approaching. These vehicles are certainly unlike any carriage Guests have seen before, so immediately even the Doombuggies themselves add to a slight sense of apprehension that is necessary to build up the story of touring the Haunted Mansion.

More logistically however, the Doombuggies ensure that each Guest has the same experience regardless of where they are sitting within the line of vehicles. Each buggy is outfitted with individual speakers. There is no room for error on the Haunted Mansion for some Guests to hear an entire narration while others only hear the end of it. In this way, the Doombuggies have allowed for an even more superior experience than what Guests would have had on a walkthrough.

My favorite part of the Doombuggies however is their ability to turn toward different scenes. Their rounded shape perfectly hides some effects that Guests should not be able to see from their view, and when they turn during certain parts of the ride they are directing Guests’ attention to exactly where Imagineers want them to look.

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This was a different post for this blog, but I’m really trying to focus more on Disney history here and less on well…the Disney College Program honestly. If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in some of the other history posts I have so far + I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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