(This post took me 3 days to write—I’m sorry if I got a little carried away!)
This is my favorite backstage moment to date: Taking a tour of the Haunted Mansion ride in the Magic Kingdom.
Most of you know I’m a Disney nerd, but did you know that I wrote a 55 page paper on Disneyland and its counterparts? Did you know about 15 pages of that paper was devoted to the Haunted Mansion ride in particular? Let’s just say, I’m a fan. If you’re a fan too, check out this site: www.doombuggies.com!
I thought I knew a lot about the ride going into it, but upon leaving, things make a little more sense, and I was blown away by some of the effects—especially when I got to walk right up to them and see how the illusions were created.
The tour took place at 7:00am, in order to get us out of the ride before the park opened at 9:00am. The lights were all turned on and the animatronics were active, but during our walk-through, the tour was devoid of sound—creepy.
Where to begin? Well, probably with a little background knowledge. The Haunted Mansion is the only ride that is present in all five Disney parks, it has gone through numerous re-imaginings as well as displacements, since the story is different in each park it has traveled to. Here in Walt Disney World, our haunted mansion is modeled after the Victorian Gothic style. The original, in Disneyland, went through 15 years of construction—marred by Walt’s death, which came at a time that left the ride without much direction, and a fractured storyline to boot. Eventually the “people-eating,” continuously loading ride, cycles the guests through a series of tableaus, in which something spooky or funny or both occurs. Here’s Disney’s version of the summary: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/magic-kingdom/attractions/haunted-mansion/
Since the plot was unfinished, the Cast Members who became near and dear to the ride began creating stories that would flesh out some of the haunts, and answer a few of the guests’ questions. I like the mystery of the ride—it has its own goofy but surprisingly eerie feel.
I want to tell you everything, but I’m sure you’d get bored, so I’ll just glance over some of the highlights.
We started our tour in the stretch room—if you’ve ridden the Haunted Mansion before, you’ll know it. It’s a circular room with no windows or doors which is the area in which the Ghost Host introduces you to the Haunted Mansion. Halfway through the narration, the pictures on the walls begin to stretch, revealing what you thought was a mildly interesting portrait, to be the last ever image of some residents directly before their demise! Well, we listened to it once just as a Guest would, but then we listened to it again, and this time, we laid down on the ground and watched the ceiling rise—it gives you a strange sense of vertigo—especially when the ceiling comes back down in preparation for the next group of guests. Additionally, at the end of the narration, when the Ghost Host has ushered the Guests into the queue, if you linger in the room, you can hear the gargoyles on the wall whispering to you things like, “stay together,” “move quickly,” and finally, “get out!”
Our tour continued through the loading area, in which the doom buggies were spookily still. We passed by the library, in which our two servant guides, Ginger and Judy, showed us the first of six instances in which Tim Burton’s, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has been incorporated into the ride—a book on the floor with Jack Skellington’s likeness on the cover.
In the greenhouse where a dearly departed, and also nearly reanimated, family member has been laid to rest, the original narrator of the ride, before the Ghost Host’s disembodied voice overtook the role, made his first appearance—Lucifer the Raven. We got to pet him!
A few of the more haunting illusions were debunked for us. For those of you who have ridden the ride before, do you remember the floating candelabra in a long, endless hallway? Well, the hallway is pretty long, but it isn’t endless. From the forced perspective of the doom buggy, you may believe that the hallway goes on forever, but actually, about 30 feet down, there is a mirror, covered by a scrim that reflects the hallway back at the eyes of the viewers—similar to the effect some restaurants use when they put mirrors on their walls to make it look like there’s twice as many tables as there really are.
A lot of the effects in the Haunted Mansion really do rely on smoke and mirrors! For instance, in the Ballroom, where you see ghosts coming in and out of existence, you are looking down on the ballroom itself, right? Well, underneath your doom buggy, there really is a swinging wake going on. The animatronic figures are all very real, but what you’re seeing as you lean out to catch a glimpse of the deathday party is a reflection created by very specific lighting that is thrown upon an enormous plexiglass wall. Incredible, really! It’s called Pepper’s Ghost Effect if you wanted to read more about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pepper%27s_ghost. The funny thing is though, since it’s a reflection and everything is reversed, there is one tiny boo-boo. When you look at the dancing couples, the girls are leading the guys!
We were able to view the ballroom from all three sides—from the doom buggies, as a witness to the animatronics feasting and dancing from underneath the buggies, and finally we got to walk out into the ballroom itself! The detail in there is amazing. I saw the Hidden Mickey up close which is made by the cast members by rearranging the plates on the dinner table, and the cobwebs that were so finely constructed that now that the original maker is dead, even the Imagineers can’t figure out how he did it. The organ’s stops are engraved with names of some of the Imagineers that were integral in the making of the entire ride. And the funniest thing I saw was a book open on a table near a comfortable armchair that turned out to be a very old tome on taxes, and it was open to the page that concerned family casualty clauses.
The graveyard scene was a cacophony of effects, that even when I was walking through it slowly, I wasn’t able to see everything. The ghosts here are different than those in the ballroom—they are animatronic figures wearing what looks like a clear raincoat that when lighted properly gives their outline a very eerie effect.
If you’re a connoisseur of Hidden Mickeys (http://www.hiddenmickeysguide.com/) like me, then you might be interested to note that there’s a very prominent one right as you’re about to leave the graveyard. When you see the opera singing ghost, look to your right, and there should be a painting of a phantom, in his hand is a traditional tri-circle h=Hidden Mickey.
Oh, and I just want to point out one more thing about the graveyard. You know that dog with the man holding the lantern at the beginning of the cemetery by the gates? He looks so sad and hungry and scared that it makes me sad every time I see him. Well! He has a pile of treats in front of him, so once he looks down, he’ll be a much happier, healthier pooch.
The final scene in which the hitchhiking ghosts follow you home was very entertaining to figure out. This scene takes advantage of the fact that people can see their reflection on a mirror as well as see through plexiglass at the same time. The hitchhiking ghosts (Phineas, Ezra, and Gus, respectively—apparently Ezra (the tallest) is bad luck according to our guides) are actually on a turntable, and they follow the guests along as you watch that figure as well as yourself continue to the exit of the ride.
You may be interested in the actual story of the Mansion. Well, Disney’s official take is that whatever the Guests make up is the real story, but the Cast Members who hold out on their own version will tell you that Master Gracey, the owner of the Mansion bought it with his young fiancée and got the house for very cheap—not that they knew, but it’s discounted price was because of the few unwanted extra residents—the ghosts! On their wedding day, the husband found the bride with an unfortunate salesman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time—Master Gracey hung the young man (the man in the stretching room) and killed his bride in a jealous rage and threw her engagement ring out the window. You could see her ring at the exit to the ride up until a few years ago when the story was redone and the ring was covered over. The real curse of the mansion came though, because Madame Leota was infatuated with Master Gracey, and since he didn’t return her affections, she bewitched the entire house.
Now, the story of the bride in the attic actually has somewhat of a plotline. The Doom Buggies follow her through 5 different marriages, in all of the scenes, there is a picture of the groom and bride, their wedding certificate, and two ceramic figurines of the pair—the groom’s is always beheaded. She goes from peasantry to practically royalty, and gains a strand of pearls for each husband in the pictures in which she is displayed.
Fun things to know about the Haunted Mansion:
-There are chess pieces on the top of the house, but it’s missing one piece: a Knight, since there is a suit of armor inside which it’s supposed to represent.
-There is a spare Madame Leota head in the back room!
-Whenever you see sheet music on near a piano or an organ, it’s always a rendition of “Grim Grinning Ghosts” the song sung by the busts in the graveyard (Thurl Ravenscroft, the broken bust, is the voice who sings “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch—though many claim he’s supposed to look like Walt Disney, it’s not true, they just DID look like each other in real life!)
-One of the Cast Member stories concerns the lady who is blowing out the candles in the ballroom—apparently she always had parties which upset Madame Leota during her séances. The psychic then cursed the woman to die in 13 years, hence the 13 candles on the birthday (oops, deathday cake).
-There is a pet cemetery on the way out of the haunted mansion which includes a duck, a snake, a poodle, and… Mr. Toad! He’s hidden in the back left corner, and was put there to commemorate Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride which is no longer in Fantasyland. He was replaced by the Winnie the Pooh ride.
-Some of the faces of the ghosts are recycled. Ceasar, seated opposite of the ghost blowing out the candles, has the same face as an old lady who is arriving from the hearse.
-The hearse at the front of the park is a real antique, and has been used in a few Western films to boot!
-The candles seem to flicker because they are made of tiny pieces of flexible plastic that are blown about by fans.
-There has been a recent addition of staircases that lead to nowhere (right before Madame Leota), which is inspired by Sarah Winchester’s Mystery House in San Jose (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester_Mystery_House)
-The girls in the ballroom are wearing dresses that were originally used for the Disney Princesses! Originally, the princesses were able to walk around and move freely through the Guests, so the Imagineers wanted something that could be easily laundered, but now, with the viewing opportunities so much more controlled, the dresses have become more elaborate and the older versions have become obsolete—so they found their way to the Haunted Mansion!
Katy: I went to a few classes of a class called Marketing Me and it was… well, stupid and kinda a waste of time. So I’ve dropped it, in preference of doing my own thing, but most people don’t take classes in the summer anyway, and I’ll probably sign up for a theatre course in the Fall when my hours won’t be so horrendously crazy!
Sonja: No, actually! We don’t have to, though of course I have. I know a few Cast Members who haven’t ridden either Rockin’ Roller Coaster or Tower of Terror because they’re not fans of those kind of attractions. Though, in the break room, there is a poster that has a very detailed description of the ride, so we’re at least supposed to be familiar with it, so we can answer questions like: does Rockin’ Roller Coaster go upside down? (Yes, it has one loop and two corkscrews).
Mom: Check the clocks next time you’re there! But the date is October 31, 1939. I don’t usually get to interact with people from other areas—even the break rooms have places where certain “areas” sit. Kinda highschool-ish. I do have costume envy. Especially for those who work in the countries in EPCOT, anyone at Animal Kingdom, and particularly those who work at the Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique. And, yes! They really, really do, do my laundry for me—and for the thousands of other cast members working there.
One Disney “secret” I’ve learned so far? Nowhere on Disney property will you find a stick of gum for sale. It’s a cleanliness thing. You’ll find plenty of mints, but no gum!