Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion turns 40 years old

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Susan Valot/KPCC

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion (seen here decorated for the holidays) has now been around for 40 years.

Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend. KPCC’s Susan Valot says the creepy mansion on Disneyland’s New Orleans Square was something Walt Disney envisioned, but never saw come to life.

[Sound of organ music from Disneyland's Haunted Mansion]

Susan Valot: Adorned with wrought iron and surrounded by tombstones, the eerie Southern-style mansion fills a ghoulish space near Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. Tom Fitzgerald of Disney Imagineering says Walt Disney envisioned the Haunted Mansion before the park opened in the mid-1950s. Fitzgerald says Disney wanted the attraction to be more about humor than horror.

Tom Fitzgerald: But when Walt passed away and the project got back into development, there were some conflicts among the team as to what it should be. Should it be scary? Should it be funny? And in the end, it was sort of resolved by splitting up the work in one sense.

[Sound from elevator on Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride: “Welcome foolish mortals to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host, your ghost host. Ha, ha, ha ha...”]

Fitzgerald: The first part of the ride, which Claude Coats oversaw, was more of the mysterious, ethereal type of tone.

[Sound from elevator on Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride: "This chamber has no windows and no doors (evil laugh), which offers you this chilling challenge... to find a way out! (evil laugh) Of course, there’s always my way." (thunder)]

Fitzgerald: And the later part of the ride, you know the graveyard, was overseen by Marc Davis. And that took more of the humorous approach.

["Grim Grinning Ghosts" song from Disneyland Haunted Mansion ride]

Fitzgerald: In the end it kind of satisfied everybody, by giving a little bit of each.

Valot: Even after the fight between fright and funny was resolved, the Haunted Mansion didn’t get built right away. It sat vacant on the park lot – dead, you could say – for years, while the ride’s creators were pulled into a different life: the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

The Imagineers were sent east to assemble the “It’s a Small World” ride at the fair. Tom Fitzgerald says the interruption turned out to the best thing that could happen to the Haunted Mansion project.

Fitzgerald: The Haunted Mansion was originally going to be a walk-through experience, with a cast member, a butler or a maid, taking small groups of people from one vignette to the next as the ethereal moment unfolded. And even Walt realized at the time that, that was going to be problematic from a capacity standpoint. You just couldn’t get enough people through the Haunted Mansion.

But from the New York World’s Fair, and coming back from the fair, the Imagineers learned to create new ride systems that could put a lot of guests through an experience in the course of an hour and obviously then in the course of a day. And so the Haunted Mansion went from being a walk-through experience to a combination of being part walk-through and part ride-through, with what we call the “omni-mover” system, the “Doom Buggies” that carry you through the Haunted Mansion show.

[Sound of ghost on Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride as you get into Doom Buggies: "Do not pull down on the safety bar please. I will lower it for you. And heed this warning: the spirits will materialize only if you remain quietly seated at all times."]

Valot: Imagineer and Haunted Mansion historian Tom Fitzgerald says the ride’s undergone some changes as technology improved. But he says the flavor of the attraction remains the same – what he calls a “classic E-ticket ride.”

[Sound of ghostly lady at the end of Disneyland Haunted Mansion ride: "Hurry baaaaccck. Hurry baaaaccck... We've been dying to have you."]

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