Nuggets of Wisdom

Monday, January 18, 2016

Top 11 Favorite Disney World Attractions (#4)

#4: The Haunted Mansion

If you’re like me, the Haunted Mansion was one of the very first haunted house that you've ever ridden. Personally, I don’t care for haunted houses, but I always find myself wanting to ride the Haunted Mansion every time I visit the Magic Kingdom. That’s probably because the ride isn't like any other haunted house at any other amusement park.

Ever since Disneyland first opened, Walt Disney wanted to include a haunted house. However, he and his Imagineer team ran into several challenges when it came to actually creating it.

One challenge was with how the ride itself would operate. Originally, the mansion was going to be a walk-through attraction, but the concept was scrapped as ride designers couldn't figure out how to account for the overall traffic from within the park. It wasn't until the Omnimover technology was developed that they were provided a convenient method for the ride to accommodate a steady stream of guests without becoming overcrowded or creating long lines.

By far the biggest challenge was with setting the overall tone of the attraction. Would it be scary? Would it be funny? Would it be weird? Remember, Disney created Disneyland in order to provide rides that both children and adults could enjoy together. He didn't want a ride so scary that it would terrify children, nor did he want a ride so tame that it would bore adults.

Sadly, Disney never lived long enough to see the ride completed, but when it finally opened in 1969, the Haunted Mansion managed to strike the perfect balance between horror and comedy as to entertain guests of all ages. The end result was a haunted house that guests could brave as children, and later grow to enjoy to the point that they would want to continue riding it even as adults.

The overall ride has a macabre sense of humor that allows it to be both funny and scary at the same time. You get a sense of this very humor when you first arrive in the queue and pass by the tombstones with their irreverent epithets. (“Here lies Brother Fred. A great big rock fell on his head.”)

Then when you enter the ride, you start to see as the tone shifts from humorous to horrific back to humorous again. One minute, you enter a room where you see a portrait of the mansion’s patriarch literally wither away before your eyes into a skeletal corpse. The very next moment, you enter the portrait gallery where the stretching paintings reveal the over-the-top fates of their subjects, from a man standing pantless on a barrel of gunpowder, to a woman tiptoeing on a tightrope over the jaws of hungry alligators.

Most other haunted house knockoffs would either focus more on the horror or more on the humor. The Haunted Mansion succeeds in balancing both as to not be too creepy or too corny. The end result is an entertaining experience that allows you to revel in its Gothic humor, tickling your funny bone one moment while sending a sudden shiver down your spine the next.

If you really think about it, the ghosts themselves don’t even seem all that interested in scaring you. They seem to be more interested in having a good time. You have ghosts dancing in the ballroom, partying in the graveyard, and even the ghosts popping out from behind the tombstones to say “boo!” come across more as drunks who've had too much to drink trying to punk their fellow party guests.

In fact, the best way for me to describe the attraction is to compare it to freshman orientation at college. You’re presented your dorm room, provided a tour of the facilities, and then you and your fellow students have a grand old party together.

From the narration provided by the “Ghost Host” (as voiced by the famed Paul Frees), the entire attraction comes across as more of a tour of a boarding house or retirement community. The ride feels like it's trying to sell you a room at a time share rather than scare the ever-loving beejebus out of you. After all, “There are 999 spirited haunts here, but there is room for a thousand.”

That's not even a theory. That's the history of the Mansion. When it was still under development, the ride was advertised as a retirement home where ghost from all over the world could move away from their old castles and houses to enjoy the rest of their afterlife. Again, such a good dose of humor as well as horror is what makes this ride so unique.

The attraction may be more than 40 years old, but even then, most of its special effects still hold up to this day. A few of them, such as the Ghost Bride and Hitchhiking Ghosts, have received modern upgrades, but most of the other effects remain as their original campy Pepper Ghost illusions.

Even to this day, you have to wonder how the candelabra along the endless hallway remains afloat, or how the invisible piano player casts a shadow on the floor, or, more famously, if the stretching room is actually stretching.

As with most Disney attractions, there are so many hidden details within the ride that it takes more than one ride to spot them all. Such attention to detail really shows how much effort Disney Imagineers placed into their attractions, ensuring that people would want to ride them time and again.

There are so many fun and fascinating facts about the Haunted Mansion that mentioning them would require a list in and of itself. As such, here’s a list-within-a-list as I count down…

The Top 13 Most Grim Grinning Facts About The Haunted Mansion

13) The Haunted Mansion is the only attraction to be featured in different lands in different parks. The ride is set in New Orleans Square in Disneyland, Liberty Square in Disney World, Fantasyland in Tokyo Disneyland, and Frontierland in Disneyland Paris. Speaking of which…

12) In Disneyland Paris, the attraction is known as Phantom Manor, and is set within an old western façade to match its Frontierland theming. This variation of the ride is considered to be the scariest and darkest, and follows a much more coherent narrative. The “story” behind the mansion involves it being haunted by the ghost of a bride who dies alone as her groom had mysteriously “died.”

11) The only Disney park not to have a Haunted Mansion ride is Hong Kong Disneyland. The absence of the ride there is mostly due to cultural differences. In Chinese culture, it's bad luck to enter a house where someone has died. As such, the park has an entirely different attraction known as Mystic Manor, which has a more jovial, magical theme rather than a creepy or haunted one.

10) When the ride was under development, the Imagineering staff decided to “test out” the special effects on the night shift custodial staff. One night, they rigged the room where the special effects were being developed so that the audio-animatronics turned on when someone entered. The next morning, they discovered a broom sitting abandoned in the middle of the floor!

9) Is the stretching room actually stretching? It depends on what park you’re visiting. In the original Disneyland attraction, the room is stretching downward, as it’s an elevator that transports guests to the real attraction underground. In the Disney World version, the room itself is stretching upward.

8) The disembodied fortune teller, Madame Leota, whose head appears in the floating crystal ball in the séance room, is played by actress Eleanor Audley, who also provided the voices for two other Disney villainesses: Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

7) When Disney imagineers were initially designing the set for the ballroom scene, they never took into account to how the image of the animatronic dancers would be flipped within the two-way mirror that creates the ghostly illusion. As such, during the dance, it appears as though the women are leading the waltz.

6) The organ played in the ballroom scene of the original Disneyland attraction is the modified version of Captain Nemo’s organ in the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

5) Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney does not play one of the singing busts in the graveyard scene. The face often associated with his is actually that of Thurl Ravenscroft, the actor also famous for providing the voice of Tony the Tiger. The other singing busts are played by Chuck Schroeder, Bob Ebright, Jay Meyer, and Verne Rowe.

4) You know the three hitchhiking ghosts that appear at the end of the ride? They actually have names. Gus is the short one with the ball and chain, Ezra is the tall one with the bowler hat, and Phineas is the one carrying the carpet bag.

3) The names on the tombstones in the outside queue are actual names of the Imagineers who worked on the ride. These imagineers include initial ride designer, Marc Davis (“Grandpa Marc”); set designer and sculptor, Fred Joerger (“Good Old Fred”); and special effects designer Yale Gracey, after whom the mansion, Gracey Manor, is named.

2) You know how all Disney cast members are always smiling and happy? There are only two attractions where they’re encouraged NOT to smile. The Haunted Mansion is one of them. The Tower of Terror is another. In both cases, the cast members are encouraged to have a not-so-happy demeanor in order to match the solemn mood of both rides.

1) As the attraction is a slow-moving dark ride with ride vehicles that comfortably seat two, the ride is a popular “love tunnel” attraction (especially during Senior Nights) where couples enjoy intimate alone time to themselves, with kissing, cuddling, and—well, according to Disney staff—other things that I’ll leave to your imagination.

If there's one good thing about the Haunted Mansion, it's that it was one of the only Disney attractions not to be tarnished by having a corny movie made after it.

What's that? No, there wasn't a movie made in 2003. What are you talking about? That movie doesn't exist. It's not a comedy movie, and it certainly doesn't star Eddie friggin Murphy.

I mean, a Haunted Mansion movie starring the failed comedian who voiced Mushu? What's next? A Gargoyles movie starring Kanye West as Goliath? Ellen DeGeneres as Eliza Maze?

Nope. Nope. That movie does not exist. It. Does. Not. Exist. La la la. I can't hear you. I can't hear you.