“When hinges creak in doorless chambers and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls, whenever candlelights flicker where the air is deathly still, that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight.”
The first concept for a Haunted Mansion materialized as a pencil sketch in 1953, as WED (Walter Elias Disney) designers were planning Disneyland in California. The original concept, which placed the haunted house at the end of Main Street, U.S.A., was discarded long before the Opening Day designs were finalized, but the idea for a haunted house did not die. Some say it took on a life of its own.
In 1957, Walt Disney asked Imagineer Ken Anderson to develop a haunted house show for Frontierland. Ken researched all manner of ghosts and ghouls, and even made up a story about a haunted seaside retreat belonging to the spirit of a long-dead sea captain. He designed a decrepit southern mansion to be suitably creepy, with slamming shutters and a weed infested yard. Envisioned as a walking tour, a maid or butler would guide guests through the house, pointing out the secret passages, changing portraits, and inanimate objects that came alive. When Walt reviewed the show in October of 1957, he had a couple of concerns about the attraction. For starters, he was less than impressed with the low capacity a walking tour afforded. With Disneyland attendance rising, the demand for a new attraction also required that it have a high-capacity guest volume. The other thing that bothered Walt was the look of the drawing for the exterior facade. He did not want anything looking ramshackle in his pristine park, particularly a broken down, weed-ridden house. He was quoted as saying, “We’ll take care of the outside, and we’ll let the ghosts take care of the inside.”
Ken Anderson began revamping the storyline and in 1962, it looked so promising that Disney special effects wizard Yale Gracey was added to the team. In 1963, a stately southern mansion appeared along the Rivers of America, next to an area that would soon be known as New Orleans Square. A sign outside of it read: "Notice! All ghosts and Restless Spirits... post-lifetime leases are now available in this Haunted Mansion! For reservations, send resume of past experience to: Ghost Relations Dept., Disneyland. Please! Do not apply in person!" Hopefully, guests did not hold their breath in anticipation of the scheduled 1963 opening. Even as the mansion was being built, Walt Disney was asked to create four shows for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Moving all of his designers to this major new effort, the Haunted Mansion once again sat empty, waiting for a show.
The lessons Disney learned at the World's Fair directly affected the Haunted Mansion. Imagineers created a breakthrough in show ride technology, the OmniMover system. This new system allowed Disney to transport large numbers of guests continually through a show. The individual cars could be programmed to automatically turn and tilt, directing the Guests' attention to a particular point at precisely the right time. The New York World's Fair shows had also propelled the new Audio-Animatronics system to sophisticated new levels, offering yet another layer of magic to this already magical show.
In 1964, Walt Disney assigned Imagineer, animator and character designer Marc Davis, and background artist Claude Coats to the Haunted Mansion team. Since everyone assigned to this team was already busy creating Pirates of the Caribbean, concept development for the Haunted Mansion was slow. Sadly, Walt Disney died in December 1966, just months before the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Although Walt had personally supervised many scenes in the Haunted Mansion, his passing left the show to be completed without its creative leader. The team rallied, and on August 9, 1969, the doors of the Haunted Mansion finally creaked opened to curious guests for the first time. Two years later, this popular show made its debut as one of the Opening Day attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Although the show itself was essentially the same as its Disneyland counterpart, the building's exterior took on a completely new look to match the colonial theme of its new land, Liberty Square. Rather than a sedate southern mansion, the Haunted Mansion was transformed into a gothic manor from the eastern seaboard. Dark bricks, stone finishes and ominous turrets created the perfect setting for a haunting. Over the years, the addition of a family graveyard, unkempt gardens, and a pet cemetery have kept interest in the mansion from "dying" out.
Someday soon, we’ll take a tour of this morbid mansion. In the meantime, special thanks to Disney Gene reader and former Cast Member Matt Dempsey for providing much of the behind-the-scenes information on this beloved classic!