Read Part 1 HERE!
The year is 1966. A thrilling adventure on the high seas has just been added to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. But there is something else that grabs the attention of guests in the area. Something new and mysterious. Wide-eyed children look through a pair wrought-iron gates at a strange building…an opulent mansion. No one knows what will be inside, and the only hint of what’s to come is a sign that reads:
“Notice! All ghosts and restless spirits. Post lifetime leases are now available in this Haunted Mansion”
It’s followed by a description of the mansion’s offerings for retired haunts and ends with the phrase:
“For reservations send resume of past experience to: Ghost Relations Dept., Disneyland. Please! Do not apply in person.”
This sign is all guests would get about the Haunted Mansion for several years. However, instead of disappointing them, it only raises their expectations to a whole new level.
Fast-forward to early 1969…All who visited Disneyland were eagerly awaiting the future attraction; none of them even realizing the development nightmare that had been going on behind the scenes for nearly half a decade.
They could have never known that in 1964 work on the mansion (which had already been in development for 10 years) came to a screeching halt when Walt Disney diverted all of his attention to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Everyone who was anyone at Disneyland was sent to work on the extensive lineup of attractions that would debut at the fair, and no one was left over for work on any of the ongoing home-projects at Disneyland. The Haunted Mansion would have to wait for a while.
However, fate was on the Haunted Mansion’s side, because the World’s Fair actually provided several technological breakthroughs that effectively solved any future storytelling problems that the Mansion’s had! You see, the story that the Imagineers could tell In the haunted mansion was limited by the technology of the times. The World’s Fair provided an unprecedented stroke of luck that greatly broadened these borders to previously unimagined horizons. The first of these lucky breakthroughs, and arguably the most famous, was the “perfection” of Disney’s Audio Animatronic technology; which had first debuted in the Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963. With the technological innovation of the photo-realistic Mr. Lincoln at the World’s Fair, it was finally possible to populate the Mansion with a believable cast of characters in movement, rather than in static scenes, allowing the story to be told in a much more efficient manner.
The second breakthrough, and probably the most important for the future of the Mansion, was the advent of the Omnimover Ride System. This ingenious vehicle design was an evolution of the PeopleMover system developed for the Ford’s Magic Skyway attraction at the World’s Fair. In essence, this system was a chain of individual swiveling vehicles that ran on a hidden track underneath the ground moving at a constant speed, so that passengers could be unloaded and loaded in an efficient manner and at consistent rate.
The reason why this second innovation proved such a game-changer was the fact that, up until that point, the Haunted Mansion was supposed to be walkthrough exhibit. The Omnimover system allowed the attraction to become a continuous ride-through experience; raising its hourly capacity tremendously. It also allowed Imagineers to control what riders would see, by preplanning the track layout and the programming of the individual cars to swivel or turn; effectively controlling the audience’s view of the story and special effects just like a camera lens does in a feature film.
Now with the technology to tell an effective story, Disney simply needed storytellers that could execute these tools correctly. Luckily, after the World’s Fair ended, two of Walt’s greatest storytellers were now available for the mansion. Marc Davis, known for his brilliant animation of Cinderella, Maleficent, Cruella De Vil, Tinker Bell, and more, was brought onto the project for design, especially in regards to the characters. After his concepts for Pirates of the Caribbean proved so crucial to its success, Walt wanted him to help guide this new masterpiece. At the same time, Claude Coats, a Disney background painter who was known for designing many of Fantasyland’s famous storybook rides and providing the layout for Pirates of the Caribbean, was brought in for his familiarity with the spookier aspects of fairy tales.
However, there was one problem with this dynamic duo; both had completely different ideas for what the Haunted Mansion’s tone should be. Marc wanted the mansion to be funny and lighthearted, believing that a real haunted house would be too scary for a family establishment like Disneyland. On the other hand, Claude Coats believed that you shouldn’t even make a “haunted house” attraction in the first place without making it scary. The two conflicting ideologies became a temporary problem, so much so that Walt was forced to bring in a third party to reconcile the two of them.
Xavier ‘X’ Atencio was an animator at the studio in whom Walt saw something very special. Even though Atencio had never written a script before, Walt thought he would be good at it, and had him assigned as the lead writer on Pirates of the Caribbean. Walt’s insight would prove prophetic as that ride became what many consider to be the greatest ride in theme park history, and Atencio’s lyrics for “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me” would be sung around the world; remembered by thousands to this day! Walt thought Atencio might be able to pull it off again with the Haunted Mansion.
Again, Walt Disney was right! Atencio managed to somehow juggle Claude Coats dark tones with Marc Davis’s silly characters and create a script that balanced the macabre with the satirical. After a few drafts, a final story focusing on that “retirement home for happy haunts” was approved. This final draft would tie together separate side-stories based on Marc Davis’s unforgettable characters under one sinister-looking roof of Claude Coat’s design. Finally, the Haunted Mansion had the story it deserved, and although Walt never got to see the finished product due to his untimely passing in late 1966, the ride would have made him proud. The Haunted Mansion opened to critical acclaim in 1969 and has been entertaining guests for 50 years!
It may have taken over 15 years to create, but it was worth it! And with 999 happy haunts to visit, you’ll want to hurry back again and again! After all, there’s room for a thousand… Any volunteers?
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