It had been sitting, seemingly abandoned, for years…
The mysterious building in the far corner of New Orleans Square towered above the land in opulent style, causing all guests to wonder at what could be taking place inside it. But they would not wonder for long. Finally, the mansion’s gates were opening, and its secrets were available to the public. Even though its visionary founder, Walt Disney, had been gone for 3 years, the Imagineers were still able to finish the dream. The long-awaited happy haunts were assembling for a swinging wake.
But how did the Haunted Mansion get its start? What made it become one of the most famous attractions in theme park history? The answer to that question is found in the mansion’s origin, way back in time; at the beginning. The very beginning…
In 1951 Walt Disney began brainstorming what would become one of his most important achievements: a Disney theme park. Walt had been frustrated with local parks where kids and adults had so little that they could do together, so he made up his mind to create a theme park where families could do everything together. At the time, this concept was referred to as Mickey Mouse Park and would be located across the street from the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California.
This was where the idea for the Haunted Mansion was born.
Legendary artist Harper Goff was called upon to conceptualize ideas for concepts that might be found in the park. One of these concepts, was a drawing of a graveyard path, leading to a crumbling Victorian mansion off on a distant hill. This would be the first ever mention of a haunted house attraction for a Disney park.
Eventually, the concept for Mickey Mouse Park grew into something much more than a small diversion, and it became abundantly clear that the 11-acre lot across from Disney’s Burbank studio would not be enough space to contain the rapidly growing plans for Walt’s theme park idea. So, a new location was found in Anaheim, and the park was renamed Disneyland.
However, during this time, there were so many concepts for the new park, that they could not all make the final cut. Many ideas were inevitably put on hold, and when the park opened in 1955, many of the attractions that had been created for Disneyland were set aside for future expansions. Harper Goff’s haunting concepts happened to be one of these delayed ideas. Luckily, Disneyland became a smash hit, and many of the delayed concepts were resurrected to accommodate the public’s seemingly never-ending appetite for themed Disney entertainment.
In 1957, Walt brought out the haunted house concept as a possible element of an upcoming expansion to Disneyland. He was planning on opening a brand-new land on the far corner of Frontierland, and he needed new attractions for the area. It would be called New Orleans Square, and would also be home to plundering pirates…but that’s a story we’ll cover later. Walt went live on BBC stating that he planned on building a “retirement home” for happy haunts who no longer had a place to live because their original homes had been destroyed over time.
“The nature of being a ghost is that they have to perform, and therefore they need an audience.”-Walt Disney
The haunted house would be a premier New Orleans Square attraction, and Disney had something extra special in mind for its debut. Being the master storytellers that they were, Disneyland’s “Imagineers” wanted to craft an immersive experience. None of them were content with throwing together a bunch of haphazard spooky carnival ideas and calling it a day. Walt especially wanted a real story, something to provide consistency and quality; elevating his haunted house above the generic ones you’d find at the town fair. To this end, he tasked Imagineer Ken Anderson with brainstorming a story and a possible layout for the haunted attraction.
Ken Anderson had been a Disney animator for many classic films, and he had also previously worked on Fantasyland’s famous “dark-rides”, (like Snow White’s Scary Adventures). And although the Fantasyland rides weren’t meant to be too scary, he knew a thing or two about playful spookiness…and he also knew how to tell a good story. Walt was famous for family entertainment, and it was almost certain that he wanted the haunted house to be much more lighthearted than other haunted attractions found across the country; making Ken Anderson a logical choice for lead designer.
Still, early concepts for the ride tended towards the scarier side of things, and although some ideas stuck, the story would go through several unused iterations before Walt Disney would even begin considering construction. We’ll cover these unused concepts in a future article, but it’s important to know that they ranged anywhere from a concept based on an evil sea captain and his unsuspecting bride, to an idea revolving around an entire family dying mysterious and sudden deaths. There was even a concept based on a never-ending ghostly wedding feast! You can see why Disney didn’t want to use some of these creepier concepts for his family park!
But since he had announced it already, Walt couldn’t delay the project for too long. He had to come up with something concrete to show the public. At the same time, he strove for quality and never wanted to rush anything. So he came up with a clever compromise.
They would begin construction on the facade that guests would see when they visited the park, but take more time to perfect the attraction behind the scenes. So, even though the inside of the mansion was facing major story delays and roadblocks, the outside would soon come along rather nicely. In 1958, Ken Anderson had drafted a pencil sketch inspired by a Victorian-era antebellum mansion. The drawing had a decaying, run-down, and creepy look, which artist Sam McKim made into an official display painting. Walt liked the look of the house, but not the state of repair that it was in. He didn’t want a ramshackle, rotting house to be a visual blight in his pristine and clean Disneyland. So, he told his Imagineers to make the outside look nicer, saying:
“We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.”
At around the same time, Walt brought on Imagineers Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump to design the special effects that would be placed into the ride. Both Gracey and Crump had made a name for themselves at Disney for their technical wizardry and mastery of imaginative special effects. Walt had them spend a huge amount of time perfecting the tricks that would sell the story of a ghostly retirement home. They tinkered away, day and night, crafting the greatest illusions and special effects of their entire careers. In fact, the special effects created by Gracey and Crump for the Haunted Mansion deserve their own article, but suffice it to say that they were so numerous and well-made, that they earned the pair a prestigious new title: “Illusioneers”! This is a nickname which is still used today for Disney special effects artists!
Despite these breakthroughs, the development of the story was not going well. To the untrained eye, it would have seemed like everything was coming together nicely, but in actuality the project was dangerously behind schedule, and the attempts to come up with a satisfying story had so far met with disaster. The Haunted Mansion was slowly dying, and it would take more than a nice façade or state-of-the-art special effects to save it…
Read Part 2 HERE!