“Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host, your ghost host.” If you’re like me, and millions of other diehard Disney fans, you could continue to recite the rest of the Haunted Mansion script and not miss a beat (you would also probably annoy all the guests around you, but come on, it’s a classic!). This cherished Disney attraction is turning 50 years old this Friday, August 9th, 2019, and I’m sure the 999 residents on the Haunted Mansion will be materializing for a swinging wake to celebrate!
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While we will celebrate 50 years of Haunted Mansion, the attraction has an intricate history that predates even Disneyland. As attractions were being conceptualized for Disneyland’s opening in 1955, Walt discussed an idea for a haunted house. He envisioned the attraction being a walk-through with a darker feel to attract a different age group and wanted the house to be accessible from Main Street by a long winding path. Harper Goff, an artist who had worked with Disney in the past, sketched the first piece of Haunted Mansion concept art that included a church and graveyard that led to a dilapidated mansion atop a hill.
Ken Anderson, a writer, animator, and art director who worked on countless Disney feature films, was shown the concept art and brought in to write a story based on Goff’s sketch. The first idea focused on Captain Gore, a bloodthirsty pirate who married a young woman named Priscilla. Upon Priscilla discovering Captain Gore’s true self, he killed her. Priscilla haunted and tormented Captain Gore, leading him to hang himself from the rafters. The story was viewed as being too dark and not humorous enough, a struggle that ran through most of the creation of the Haunted Mansion, and was scrapped. However, aspects of Captain Gore’s story can still be found in the Haunted Mansion we see today, including his death by hanging (remember when you’re in the Stretching Room and you are cautioned that this room has no windows and no doors, but there is always the ghost host’s way – que the darkness, lightening, and high-pitched scream as you see a body hanging from the rafters above you.).
While the story was still being developed, it was determined that the haunted house walk-through would not be able to be set back from Main Street due to lack of space. Eventually, the haunted house found a permanent location in a new land that was being built between Frontierland and Adventureland, New Orleans Square. As the project progressed, and new members joined the team including Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, Walt voiced his concerns about the house looking run down. He believed that it would be out of place in the park and said something along the lines of, “we’ll take care of the outside, and the ghosts will take care of the inside,” to quell other’s fears that it would not seem “haunted enough.” The house eventually took on the feeling of an old plantation in the South, but was actually based on Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore, Maryland.
Construction of the outside of the haunted house, which was now being referred to as the Haunted Mansion, was completed in 1963, right before the start of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair. Disney played a large role in the World’s Fair, creating four brand-new attractions – It’s a Small World Presented by Pespi-Cola/UNICEF, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln in the State of Illinois Pavilion, General Electric’s Progressland featuring Carousel of Progress, and Ford’s Magic Skyway. Due to this work, the haunted house project was put on the back burner.
Despite the shift in focus, the Walt gave viewers of his television show, Wonderful World of Color, a sneak-peek of the attraction in 1964 in preparation for Disneyland’s 10th Anniversary in 1965. At that time the concept was still in flux, with team members questioning the logistics of the walk-through due to ride capacity and crowd control.
In 1966, Walt passed away unexpectedly, leaving countless projects without their leader and visionary. Original members of the Haunted Mansion team were joined by others including Marc Davis, X. Atencio, and Claude Coates to reconceptualize the attraction. The team’s work shifted from a walk-through attraction to a dark-ride that utilized many of the new technologies they had experimented with when creating the World’s Fair attractions. Over the next 3 years, the team continued to struggle finding the perfect story to accompany the Haunted Mansion. Marc Davis believed the ride needed to be humorous in nature, while Claude Coates supported a darker experience. X. Atencio combined the ideas of both men, creating an effortless transition from dark and foreboding, to “spirited” fun.
In 1969 the attraction opened to positive reviews. Guests were intrigued by the series of illusions, open ended storyline, and loveable characters that embodied (or should I say disembodied?) the perfect balance of humor and fright.
Due to its popularity in Disneyland, Haunted Mansion was opened in Walt Disney World in 1971 and Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. Disneyland Paris’ version, Phantom Manor, opened in 1992, and Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor debuted in 2013.
Haunted Mansion Fun Facts
- While Paul Frees has voiced the disembodied Ghost Host since 1969, Walt Disney recorded the first ride narration during the creation of the attraction.
- Disney Imagineer (at that time WED Enterprises member) Leota Toombs, who worked on Haunted Mansion, is the model for Madame Leota, the crystal ball that leads the séance. Madame Leota’s voice is provided by voice actor Eleanor Audley, who also voiced Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Lady Tremaine in Cinderella. However, Toombs voice can be heard in the Haunted Mansion – “little Leota,” the small ghost you see upon exiting the ride who warns not to forget your death certificate is voiced by Toombs.
- Gravestones in the graveyard leading up to the entrance of the Haunted Mansion pay tribute to the Imagineers who worked on the attraction. One, paying homage to Yale Gracey, has sparked a story that has been embraced by the Disney community over the years. The headstone reads, “Master Gracey laid to rest. No mourning at his request. Farewell,” leading guests to believe the master of the house is Gracey. X. Atencio, who penned the epitaph, explained that “master” was meant to imply a male too young to be called “mister,” and not the master of the house. Despite this, Disney has embraced the storyline and Walt Disney World’s mansion is now unofficially referred to as Gracey Mansion. This storyline also shaped the 2003 feature film starring Eddie Murphy.
- For a short time in the 1980s, a live performer wearing a knight costume would scare guests as they passed through the hallway with the floating candelabra.
How You Can Celebrate Haunted Mansion’s 50th Anniversary
After learning about or getting a refresher of Haunted Mansion history, I’m sure you are ready for the big 50th Anniversary celebration! Domestic Disney Parks will be celebrating the occasion with exclusive merchandise, limited-time snacks, and special events.
- Haunted Mansion: Celebrating 50 Years of Retirement Unliving – August 7th – 9th; Disneyland Resort; $299 per person – Attend an under-the-hill soiree filled with chills, thrills and frightful fun. This summer, creepy crypt doors will creak as restless spirits join Guests of all ages in celebrating the Haunted Mansion’s 50th anniversary during two (2) separately ticketed, after-hours events at Disneyland® Park. Foolish mortals will enjoy special entertainment, character encounters, photo ops, access to select west-side park attractions, as well as unearth commemorative merchandise and delight in themed food & beverages offerings, plus a few supernatural surprises.
- Celebration Merchandise (available in DLR and WDW) – there will be releases of art, apparel, accessories, and other collectables that will be available at various locations in Disneyland Resort (New Orleans Square) and a select few items in Walt Disney World (Liberty Square and Frontierland). Items include ALEX AND ANI “50 Years of Happy Haunts” bracelet, PANDORA Haunted Mansion charm, Dooney & Bourke Haunted Mansion collection, and Host a Ghost – Become a caretaker of one of the Haunted Mansion residents and receive an official death certificate.
If you want to learn more about the Haunted Mansion and its sorted history, check out Jason Surrell’s book The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic.