Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (NY: Disney Editions; 2015). That's the
re-named third edition of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY:
Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009). Also essential reading is Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized
Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014; 2nd ed. 2016).

This site is not affiliated in any way with any Walt Disney company. It is an independent
fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
All images that are © Disney are posted under commonly understood guidelines of Fair Use.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

How the Haunted Mansion Changed the Game

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When Disney commissioned a 50-state survey in anticipation of Disneyland's 50th anniversary in 2005, the three favorite attractions of all time were:  (1) Space Mountain, (2) Pirates of the Caribbean, and (3) The Haunted Mansion.  But even though the HM ranks third in a survey of the general public, it is well known that it enjoys the most passionate and devoted fan base of any Disney park attraction.  (Can you imagine trying to do a blog like this for Space Mountain?)  Someone might argue that the steam train crowd is much larger and equally fanatic, but the Disney trains are only one set among the many other steam trains out there, and I'd say it is that collective that is the object of the train enthusiast's ardor, not just the Disney specimens (however lovely they may be).  From time to time there have been attempts to gin up an internet following for Pirates of the Caribbean, but despite the ride's broad popularity, the response to these attempts has always been tepid in comparison with the Mansion.  In terms of its cult following, the Mansion is in a class by itself.

One of my all-time favorite HM photos.  July 1964, fully five years before opening.  Thanks to the haze, the building itself looks like a ghost, doesn't it?
You can easily imagine it just...fading away, like a mirage, leaving only trees where once it stood.  (Photo from the indispensable Gorillas Don't Blog)

If today the HM is widely recognized as one of the crown jewels in the Disney parks, it will no doubt be surprising to some of its fans (especially the younger ones) to learn that the HM was once regarded as something of a disappointment.  True, it generated a lot of excitement when its doors finally creaked open.  Early reviews were positive, and it was responsible for setting a new park attendance record the weekend following its debut (August 16, 1969: 82,516 guests).  To judge by those early crowds, the HM was an unqualified hit.

Ugh, I shoulda brought a magazine.
(pic from Disney twenty-three [Fall 2009] 28)

Did I say magazine?  I shoulda brought a book.
(August 16, 1969. This photo has also been identified with the opening of POTC two years earlier)

Nevertheless, the early excitement didn't last very long.  The Imagineers themselves were less than enthusiastic about their latest production.  It's well-known that Marc Davis was dissatisfied with it.  He thought that too many cooks had spoiled this particular broth, too many good ideas had been compromised on the way to execution.  Rolly Crump has been known to articulate a similar view.  He believes that the overall show quality suffered a major blow when they finally decided once and for all against the walk-thru format and went with the omnimover system.  When Ken Anderson got around to seeing the attraction for the first time, he said that frankly he was "very disappointed."  There was from the beginning a segment of the public that was disappointed with the lack of real scares, but there is evidence that after a year or so the public in general had also begun to cool on the new attraction.  The HM was celebrated in a March 22, 1970 episode of The Wonderful World of Disney.  When that program was rerun later in the same year, you could find notices like this one in the TV listings:


That's unusually snarky, but it jives with my own recollection of those early years.  The consensus was that the Haunted Mansion was
good, but not great.  The early prophecy published in the Chicago Tribune, August 17th, 1969, turned out to be eerily accurate:


Some of you Forgottenistas may well wonder why this attraction, so admired today, was regarded as a bit of a letdown after the initial excitement had worn off.  I think it's because the Mansion did not meet the public's expectations.  It did not fit the trajectory established throughout the course of the sixties by a succession of increasingly spectacular new attractions.  This was the golden age of audio-animatronics.  When the Tiki Room debuted in 1963, it was a real jaw-dropper, a quantum leap beyond anything that had preceded it.  But Walt barely let people catch their breath.  He astonished them anew at the 1964 World's Fair with the audio-animatronic wizardry of Mr. Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, and Magic Skyway.  Lincoln was brought to Disneyland in 1965.  It's a Small World and Primeval World (from Magic Skyway) came in 1966.  By that point we were beginning to expect at least one miracle per year from Mr. Disney.  And sure enough, this dazzling parade continued into 1967 with the multiferous wonders of the New Tomorrowland (including the Carousel of Progress) and Pirates of the Caribbean.  In those days it seemed to us that Disney was committed to topping itself each time it unveiled a new attraction.  They intended to leave no jaw undropped, no mind unboggled, world without end, amen.


You know, I think that to some degree this crescendo of marvels was a mirage.  From the Tiki Room to Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress was indeed a leap forward, but that was it.  1964 proved to be the AA climax, the point beyond which '60's technology simply could not go.  But Walt was nothing if not a marketing genius, and since most Disneyland guests had never seen the World's Fair, the skillful introduction of 1964 attractions in '65, '66, and '67 created the illusion of continual technological progress.  The Disneyland version of Small World was much larger than the NYWF version, using sheer scale as part of its "wow" factor.  The same was true of POTC.  From a purely techno point of view, there's only one AA figure in Pirates (viz, the Auctioneer) that is of comparable complexity with the Abraham Lincoln figure or "Father" in the COP, but no one seemed to notice that.  With Pirates, once again sheer scale and the quality of showmanship gave the impression that the ball continued to move downfield in every sense.  What will those R & D geniuses at Disney come up with next year?  They haven't disappointed us yet!

Then 1968 goes by.  Then half of 1969 is gone.  All eyes are impatiently set on the next miracle-in-waiting.  Great Caesar's ghost, what technological marvels will the Mansion display when it finally opens?  What eye-popping explosion in show scale?  And a haunted house!  Can you imagine?  We couldn't wait.


Are we ready???  This is a joke, right?

But what we expected was not what we got.

The Haunted Mansion was the first major new Disneyland attraction since forever that did
not represent ANY advance of ANY kind in either size or technological sophistication.  Zero.

Oh, there were a few fresh new tricks, notably the "Leota effect," but once you figured that one out (I swear, my brother and I figured her out after one day), it was obvious that it did not represent anything new in audio-animatronics.  The entire show was no bigger than Pirates—in fact, it was smaller—and the AA figures were no more sophisticated—in fact, they were less.  Not that the show wasn't amusing, it's just that we had come to expect . . . more.


Now, you could make a case that this deviation from the script was a fluke.  The team at WED was indeed a little numb, almost in a state of shock, after Walt's passing, and the HM was the first attraction completed without Walt around to make the big gutsy decisions, adjudicating the debates over fundamental issues like show concept and design, which were still in a state of flux in 1966.  (Pirates was well past all of that when Walt died, and it could coast to the finish line.)  It would be tempting to conclude that with the HM they settled for a pale imitation of POTC, as if they were anxious to just finish the damn thing and clear the pipeline of Walt-era projects so that they could pause, regroup, reassess, and redefine themselves for a totally post-Walt world.

That's a tempting analysis, and there may be some truth to it, but on the whole I don't subscribe to it.  For one thing, there was still a relatively easy way to keep the carousel of progress spinning, and that was through scale.  Everyone knows that the HM fa├žade was built in 1962 and just sat there for seven years, but did you know that the show building out back was not built until late in 1968?  They could have chosen to make the ride noticeably longer and bigger than POTC and satisfy public expectations that way.  Marc Davis had gags galore.  There were plenty of unused ideas.  Hey, how about a haunted kitchen?  a haunted bath?



You could also argue that the HM was simply the point where they decided to end the charade.  Perhaps you can successfully top yourself with each new outing for awhile, but sooner or later it's going to defeat you.  No one can do that forever.  Better to commit yourself to variety and to quality, eliminating impossible forms of competition with your own past.  I think that this argument too has some merit.  Seen this way, the HM was the pivot point, the watershed that made possible '70's attractions like the Mickey Mouse Revue, Country Bears, and America Sings.  As I recall, no one felt pressured to compare those attractions with Pirates to see if they represented the next step upward on some kind of endless golden ladder.  Rather, people recognized intuitively that they were creative departures, utilizing AA technology to do something different.  "Hey look, we've had birds, people, dolls and dinosaurs, but this time they're bringing cartoon characters to life."  Thanks to the Mansion, each major new attraction would now stand or fall on its own terms, evaluated not as to whether it was bigger or technologically more sophisticated than the last one but as to whether it won over the audience with old-fashioned, well-crafted showmanship.  Did it create a believable world unto itself?  And did the things that transpired in that world connect with the human experience—that is, did the show have a heart?  (Of course this had always been the only essential question, but impossible expectations about presentation were now mercifully eliminated.)

You can stop a train by deliberately applying the brakes and coming to a graceful halt, or you can have a wreck.  That'll do it too, you know.  By the above analysis, the HM could have been a disaster, and it would still have served a useful purpose historically, bringing one era to an end and freeing up the options for the next.  But time marches on, and most younger guests today don't know or care which old ride came before which old ride.  Sorry, my peers, but the perception of 1960's Disneyland as one big shining crescendo of upward progress is a memory that belongs to us old fogeys.  As that mental picture has faded, it seems that the estimation of the HM as a top-tier, all-time classic seems to have grown, until we are where we are today.  Obviously, it didn't change the game by being a train wreck!  Therefore, an essentially negative evaluation of the HM, defining it in terms of what it was not, won't do.  What it was, positively, will be the subject of our next outing.


17 comments:

  1. As I think we all know, the anticipation of an event is more often than not more exciting than the event itself. Short of something absolutely amazing, I don't think there was any way the HM was going to live up to the hype of 7 years. Actually, I do believe there would have been one way and that would have been if Walt had been alive. He would have given the HM direction, focus, and the singular vision that would have been his. Plus I think he would have challenged the Imagineers to give the HM the wow factor everyone was expecting.

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  2. Ah yes, but in light of the fact that many people consider the Mansion to be the best of the best (and even those who don't rank it that high still put it somewhere in the top tier), one has to wonder how Walt could have produced something better. Back then, what the Imagineers thought was its chief defect (lack of a unified vision) is thought by many today to be its greatest strength. The tension and interplay between conflicting concepts is endlessly interesting and somehow works to advantage with a haunted house. I don't think that was obvious to anyone at first. It may be heresy, but I have to ask: would the HM have been quite so good if Walt had lived?

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  3. If Walt had lived, it *might* have been even better. Much of what's there now had been developed and approved by Walt during the last few years of his life. It's difficult to speculate what changes Walt would have made to the final product, but one could always hope that any changes he might have made would have only made it better.

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  4. One thing we know is that Walt was enthusiastic about Rolly's take on the project. The "Museum of the Weird" was Walt's own idea. To judge by the 1965 TV special, he saw no essential disharmony between Rolly's approach and Marc Davis's, although he apparently did understood that Rolly's stuff would have to have its own venue. It's difficult to know how involved he was in the HM project after the World's Fair was over and done. It appears that he gave the assignment to the various Imagineering teams and then let them loose, only checking in occasionally. It's obvious that a lot of big, fundamental issues were still unresolved at the time of his death.

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  5. This post brings back foggy memories of an 11 year old being a bit let down by the HM. The anticipation was huge and so was the hype. I had read that Disney News Mag you posted many times over. I too had seen the facade 3 years earlier and was heartbroken that it was not open yet. This left too much time to imagine what was inside. Part of the problem is that people have expectations of what a "Spook House" should be with big scares and Disney can't go there. Instead, we got an effects driven musical comedy.

    As a kid, I did not like the whole "Omnimover" thing as I wanted to explore the house, not ride through plastic figures. I thought it was gonna be a full on walk through. I had Disney's "Chilling, Thrilling sounds of the Haunted House" record and played it over and over. I thought the HM was going to be some kind of extension of that. The ride was good, but not great, in my 11 year old imagination, expectations were not met, it was depressing. Pirates was so over the top jaw dropping nothing could top that. They slid downhill from there till Space Mountain. Bear Country as a new "land" was even worse. CBJ was a show that made me think imagination was dead and WED was bankrupt. If you grew up with new "lands" being the 67 T'land, or POTC being a "new ride", then all else is a "fail". Why were they not breaking any more new ground? Walt WAS dead after all. But, in the end, like the Peoplemover and ATIS, they all grow on you into classics over time ;-) Eleven was a pretty good year.

    Thanks for reviving those old memories of 11 year old skepticism.

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  6. Hey, thanks for confirming what the mood of the day was back then. A lot of people hereabouts might have a hard time believing the once upon a time the HM was thought by many to be a dud.

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  7. Where was that picture of the animatronic head from?

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  8. August 1963 issue of National Geographic. That's Lincoln's head.

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  9. Lincoln's face made it into the Mansion twice, re-sculpted into "Aunt Lucretia". First as one of the staring busts, and again on the Ballroom mantle as an actual bust.

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  10. It would be interesting to see a "six degrees of separation" matrix of an AA figure into all the different shows. Like the Auctioneer head, etc.

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  11. I noticed in the crowd scene that the two cameo plaques at the entry gate were polished brass, I had forgotten how beautiful they were back then.

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  12. They were indeed. And the shiny golden look didn't last even one year before they began to brown (and eventually green). I'll probably do a post on the plaques at some point. Meanwhile, here's a nice color side-by-side:

    http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y32/danolson/old%20disneyland%20bride/plaques69and10.jpg

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  13. "—and the AA figures were no more sophisticated—in fact, they were less. Not that the show wasn't amusing, it's just that we had come to expect . . . more."

    You know, it's kinda funny, but I have always thought that the limited (and somewhat 'stiff') movements of the ghosts in the HM were a massive ASSET in creating a creepy, unnatural feel to the whole thing...I mean, these are CORPSES, after all...the fact that they move in an unusual manner ADDS to the effect for me...the pirates in POTC are SUPPOSED to be 'people', (and they NEVER really came off that way for me), but these are UNEARTHLY residents.

    For me, the animations of the HM ghosts and ghouls has always been PERFECT...I wouldn't 'upgrade' or change them for the world...

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  14. Well, actually - these are not supposed to be corpses, for the most part. They're spirits.

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  15. Still...they move in an 'otherwordly' way...they SHOULDN'T 'seem alive' as the POTC characters do...I truly think the way the HM figures move benefits the 'creep factor'...I just love them to death...;)

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  16. There was a clip of an animatronic face in the Disneyland TV special that showed the use of something spring-like to make the mouth shape change -- something I don't think we saw until the Mr. Potato Head figure. Early film footage of the Jungle Cruise shows some amazing animations with the mechanical animals back then, including an animal that seemed to stand up and run around in a circle. There were many mechanical things from that era I expect just wouldn' "last" repeated use -- and it took decades for them to greenlight new ways to do them. I think this is an indication of what could have been with someone like Walt "hey, brother, go on a trip and I'll go ahead and greenlight a few high dollar expansions when you aren't here to stop me" Disney at the helm.

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    Replies
    1. It's often forgotten that it's not just a matter of creating a wondrous effect, but creating a wondrous effect that's tough as nails, running 16 hours a day or more, six or seven days a week, and relatively quick and easy to repair.

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