Imagineer David Mumford, the author of the following article, spent his entire career working at Walt Disney Imagineering, eventually arriving at the position of WDI Senior Principal Show Set Designer. He has co-authored or contributed to several books on Disney history (including the magnificent "Disneyland - the Nickel Tour,") and was an expert in Disney lore and trivia.
The Tale of the Haunted Mansion
By David Mumford
Walt Disney Imagineering
Editors note: The following article appeared in The Disneyland Line, prepared by Disney University Cast Communications for the Cast Members of The Disneyland Resort, October 29, 1993, Volume 25, Number 42. The information contained herein is © 1993 The Walt Disney Company.
In the spring of 1963, an elegant antebellum mansion mysteriously appeared along the banks of the Rivers of America. Disneyland Guests approaching the house found the iron gates chained and tightly locked. The only clue as to what might be inside was a sign stating that Disneyland Ghost Relations was currently taking applications for spirits wishing to enjoy active retirement on these happy haunting grounds. The mansion stood empty for more than six years. Finally, on August 9, 1969, the old doors creaked open to guests for the first time, beckoning "foolish mortals" to venture inside The Haunted Mansion.
Actually, more than a dozen years had passed while the Imagineers at WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) designed, created, and built this landmark attraction. One of designer Harper Goff's first Disneyland illustrations from circa 1951 depicts a creepy, bat-infested "haunted house" high on a hill. In one of the earliest conceptual layouts for Disneyland, Imagineer Marvin Davis indicated a haunted house located near Main Street. The real design of the attraction did not begin until early 1957 when Disney Legend Ken Anderson was approached by Walt Disney to begin thinking about a haunted house experience for Disneyland. Ken knew the attraction would be built near the planned New Orleans area of Frontierland, so he began designing an early 1800s southern mansion. Although Ken researched books on old homes in Louisiana, the final design resembles an actual mansion from Baltimore, Maryland.
Ken's first illustration depicted a dilapidated version of the home. Much to Ken's surprise, Walt was taken aback, saying that he did not want anything looking run-down in his theme park. Ken could do what he wanted on the inside, but the outside was to look pristine.
The earliest plans called for the mansion to be a walk-through. Groups of 40 guests would be escorted through the old house by a butler or a maid, who would tell of the tragic fate of the mansion's original owners. It seems that a wealthy sea merchant built the manor for his new bride (this explains the sailing ship weather vane still visible today atop the mansion cupola). After the wedding, the young, well-brought-up woman learned that her groom was a bloodthirsty pirate. He killed her in an angry rage, but her ghost came back to haunt him. The pirate was so tormented by her spirit that he finally hung himself from the attic rafters. Thus, both of their spirits were destined to remain trapped in the mansion.
As the design of the attraction evolved over the years, little of the original story survived. However, it does help to explain why in the attraction's final design the "Ghost Host," perhaps our sea pirate, can be found hanging from the rafters of the stretching room. This also explains the bride with a glowing heart still haunting the attic.
In 1958, the task of creating the special effects for the Mansion was given to Imagineer Rolly Crump and master "Illusioneer" Yale Gracey. Many of the effects they developed were inspired by some of the grand illusions created by 19th century magicians and from a series of books published in 1913 entitled "The Boy Mechanic."
A 1961 Main Entrance handbill actually announced that the attraction would open in 1963. Drawings from this era reveal that Guests would enter the house and be lowered below the railroad berm via a stretching room. Next, guests would enter one of two identical walk-through attractions. Unfortunately, the Imagineers became too busy with the four major landmark attractions being rushed for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. As a result, the pristine mansion overlooking the River was completed long before the rest of the show plans could be finished. By the time work resumed on The Haunted Mansion after the Fair, significant changes had occurred. Ken Anderson had moved back to Feature Animation at the Studio, so Disney Legends Marc Davis and Claude Coats were called upon to lend their talents to the design.
On a "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" television program in 1965, Walt took Julie Reihm, the first Disneyland Ambassador, on a behind-the-scenes tour of WED. Julie and a nationwide television audience were given a sneak preview of some of the future plans for Disneyland, including The Haunted Mansion. Walt revealed that he was inviting ghosts from all over the world to come live in this new home. To entice new tenants, Walt promised the mansion would have wall-to-wall cobwebs, and "creaking doors and creaking floors." As part of the television show, Marc Davis displayed his metamorphosing portrait of Medusa, as well as the elongating paintings from the stretching gallery. Nearby, Rolly Crump explained about the "Museum of the Weird," a concept for the mansion that never made it into the final attraction. The museum would have been a collection of weird artifacts from all over the world. Some of the pieces included a coffin clock, a candle man, and a gypsy wagon that would come to life.
Another major design change was necessitated due to the Park's growing popularity. The surge in attendance had made a Mansion walk-through attraction operationally impossible. The Omnimover ride system being created for Tomorrowland's Adventure thru Inner Space proved to be a perfect solution. Large numbers of guests could be transported through the Mansion, while designers would have full 360-degree control over which direction and view guests saw. Each vehicle could be programmed to dip and turn at specific moments, thus directing the Guests' attention to important show elements.
The music for the attraction's theme song, "Grim Grinning Ghosts," was composed by Disney "tunesmith" Buddy Baker. The haunting lyrics were penned by veteran Imagineer X Atencio, who also scripted the chilling dialogue for the "Ghost Host." The disembodied voice of the "Ghost Host" was provided by character actor Paul Frees, whose long list of credits included the voice of Ludwig Von Drake and most of the rogues in Pirates of the Carribbean. You can even spot Thurl Ravenscroft (the voice of Tony the Tiger) as the broken singing bust in the graveyard. Eleanor Audley, who had supplied the voice for Cinderella's evil stepmother and the powerful Maleficent, gave voice to Madam Leota, the medium in the crystal ball. The face in the ball is that of the late Leota Toombs, a longtime Imagineer from the Dimensional Design Department.
When the attraction first opened, a portion of the queue included a small cemetery. Humorous epitaphs on the tombstones displayed names of many of the Imagineers who had worked on the attraction. To meet the demand of this popular attraction, the graveyard was removed to make way for more queue space. Some of the tombstones were moved up on the railroad berm and can still be seen there today. Recently, in a salute to the past, a new, humorous Pet Cemetery was added outside the mansion to entertain guests while they wait in line. One of the designers of this addition is Disneyland Design Services' Kim Irvine. Interestingly enough, Kim is the daughter of the late Leota Toombs.
Even though The Haunted Mansion is nearly a quarter of a century old, it remains one of the Park's most popular attractions. Its timeless appeal is a tribute to all of the Imagineers whose quality hallmarks can still be found throughout the Mansion. Once having passed through the portals of the stately home, guests still chuckle at the stretching paintings in the gallery, marvel at the transparent ghosts in the grand ballroom, and follow the raven through the spirit-filled graveyard in hopes of "finding a way out!"
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