The Haunted History of Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Walt Disney, Disney World, Disney Land, Haunted Mansion, ride, history

Disneyland isn’t known for being the scariest place on earth, but the Haunted Mansion has been its spookiest staple for decades. But how did it become the home for 999 happy haunts?

Walt Disney conceived the idea of a walkthrough “ghost house” before Disneyland was even created. In the mid-1950s, he approached Disney Imagineer Ken Anderson and artist/Imagineer Harper Goff to create concepts for the attraction. Goff was also a major contributor to the Walt Disney Company after meeting Walt Disney when they were both looking to purchase the same model train.

One of Goff’s major roles was art director on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Within the Haunted Mansion’s ballroom scene, you can actually spot a spooky apparition playing the same pipe organ that Captain Nemo plays in the film .

Walt Disney, Disney World, Disney Land, Haunted Mansion, ride, history

The captain plays a mean waltz.

At this point, Disneyland had opened to the public with much success, but the Haunted Mansion remained unfinished.

Most of the concept art featured dilapidated houses with a rundown, abandoned feel, but Disney wasn’t a fan of a ruined building sitting in the middle of his pristine park. Imagineers wanted a decrepit mansion, to which Disney’s famous responded, “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.”

During the mansion’s planning stages, the structure was changed quite a few times. From a rural mid-western house to a manor atop a hill looming over Disneyland’s Main Street, the Haunted Mansion finally became an antebellum-style mansion that fit nicely with the New Orleans Square motif.

Walt Disney, Disney World, Disney Land, Haunted Mansion, ride, history

Makes you want to sip mint julips, really.

In 1963, the exterior of the mansion was complete, but the interior was still being designed. The mansion was delayed due to both story line problems and the 1964 New York World’s Fair projects Disney was working on. The attraction was previewed in a 1965 episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, but was still unfinished.

Even after Disney’s death on Dec. 15, 1966, the Haunted Mansion was still incomplete. A portion of the mansion labeled the “Museum of the Weird” was designed by Imagineers Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, but was ultimately cut from the final attraction. Although concepts from the museum — chairs with faces, for one — made it into the final mansion, the aforementioned ghostly organist, séance chamber, busts, and portraits ultimately won out.

At the same time as the museum segment was scrapped, the attraction was changed from a walkthrough to incorporate an omni-mover. This was fit with the “doom buggies” we see in the Haunted Mansion (and many other Disney Park attractions) today.

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Why walk when you can ride?

In the summer of 1969, the Haunted Mansion finally opened its doors, and remained almost completely unchanged since — with exception of The Nightmare Before Christmas overlay that transforms the mansion from just before Halloween to just after the New Year, a tradition since 2001.

The final attraction featured many famous illusions and special effects like the stretching room with the disappearing ceiling, the floating candelabra, and the ballroom filled with ghostly figures dancing and partying.

Of course, the Hatbox Ghost needs a mention as well: he’s an animatronic that appeared in the original Haunted Mansion’s attic scene. It became obvious during the preview nights in 1969 that the visual effect of the ghost’s head disappearing from his shoulders and reappearing in the hatbox was not working.

Walt Disney, Disney World, Disney Land, Haunted Mansion, ride, history

Real scares require trial and error.

According to Imagineer Chris Merritt, the effect didn’t work because of the illusion’s distance from the doom buggies, so the Hatbox Ghost was soon removed. Even though he was only ever seen by a select few, a photo of the character is seen during the hallway sequence, and in 2009 he appeared in art and souvenirs for the Haunted Mansion’s 40th anniversary.

The Hatbox Ghost became something of a white whale for Disneyland fans, so in April of 2015, Disney confirmed that the Hatbox Ghost would return the next month, just in time for the 60th anniversary of Disneyland. The Hatbox Ghost stands out among the much older special effects, but it’s fascinating to see the animatronic return after 46 years of absence.

Hopefully this shed some light on one of Disneyland’s most beloved attractions. The list of mysteries surrounding the Haunted Mansion is endless, so feel free to share your own nightmarish knowledge in the comments below!

Article by contributor JJBSterling.

2 thoughts on “The Haunted History of Disney’s Haunted Mansion

  1. I was lucky enough to got to Disneyland in Anaheim in April and see the Hatbox Ghost and it was worth the wait! Legit write up brotha and I wonder what they are going to do with him durring the Nightmare Before Christmas transformation?

    1. Hatty is sticking around for the Halloween/Christmas overlay in the mansion! He’s in his regular spot and has added a spooky holiday brooch to his top hat.

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