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Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, editor

2003 Haunted Mansion Holiday

A look at this year's merchandise “special” event

Tuesday, October 7, 2003
by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, staff writer

Something about Disneyland's recent merchandise special events has been bothering me.

Shortly after the Pirates of the Caribbean event last May, a regular reader asked me why I had not written a review of the event. After all, MousePlanet columnists have been known to race home from events and stay up all night to provide our readers with next-day coverage. I can even remember providing real-time updates during one such event. Here it was, a week later and nary a peep from my keyboard. “What gives?” they asked. “Was it that bad?”

The truth is, nothing about the Pirates event—good or bad—inspired me to write about it. There simply wasn't that much to say. The event was exactly as advertised, there were no major disasters, and it certainly wasn't a repeat of the cursed Pirates anniversary event in 2000. Even so, I went home vaguely dissatisfied, yet unable to pinpoint the source of my disappointment.

After attending the 2003 Haunted Mansion Holiday event last week, the problems with the Pirates event—and other recent Disneyland events—came into focus: the events are all about the merchandise, with very little focus on “special.”

Disneyland has hosted a lot of events over the past five years, and learned many lessons about what to improve and what to avoid next time. By and large, the merchants take these lesson to heart, and avoid making the same mistake at the next event. Disneyland has these events down to a near-science, and they keep getting more efficient, even as the events grow larger and larger.

Unfortunately, “efficient” doesn't always leave room for “special,” and frequent event attendees have started to voice their concern that these merchandise special events are more about the merchandise, and less about the experience. In the drive to sell more merchandise to more people in less time, those elements that once made these events so magical have fallen victim to the demands for scale and efficiency.

If you've come here looking for all of the details of the Haunted Mansion event, don't worry—I'll get there eventually. With photos and everything. But first, let's go back a few years.

Once upon a time, Disneyland hosted after-hours park events for annual passholders. These events were all about “special,” doing things that day guests would never experience. As for the merchandise, it was there if you knew where to look, and most people didn't care.

Then came the “fooled ya” Main Street Electrical Parade Farewell Party in 1996, and the disastrous Light Magic “dress rehearsal” annual passholder premiere in 1997. After that, passholder events went the way of the Electrical Parade, which was resurrected at Disney's California Adventure park, and far less magical.

The AP “exclusive” sneak peek at DCA in 2001 turned out to be a mix-in (where a semi-private party where guests already in the park are allowed to remain) with guests of a corporate party, and the AP “preview” of A Bug's Land this past October was held after the area had already been soft-opened for nearly a month to cast members, the media and the general public.

In 1999, Disneyland started planning “Enchanted Evening” events, starting with the Haunted Mansion anniversary. Of these, the Mr. Toad event is still the gold standard by which all other events are measured. The event was small and intimate, the entertainment top notch—I still get goosebumps when I read Sue Kruse's account of the Headless Horseman finale—the food plentiful and excellent, and the merchandise served as a souvenir of the event, not its central focus.

Lesson 1: Most people attend special events for the experience, and will pay top dollar for a unique experience.

Unfortunately, small events don't produce a large profit margin, and the Disney rule book equates breaking even with failure. Organizers realized that for merchandise special events to continue, they needed to cram more people into them and sell more merchandise.

…Along came the disastrous Pirates of the Caribbean anniversary event in May 2000. Disney raised the guest count without making necessary adjustments to the staffing and infrastructure, and the results were long lines and really cranky guests.

Lesson 2: Bigger isn't better when you aren't prepared.

The merchants took this lesson to heart, and were much better prepared for the 2002 Divas event. Unfortunately, that event suffered from bad weather and a hastily devised “Plan B.” Yet one thing that this event won praise for was the entertainment. From transplanted Doombuggies to a killer rendition of “Reflections,” people still talk about that show.

Lesson 3: Great entertainment makes a great event, and can even save a bad event.

As the events got bigger, they also focused more heavily on merchandise. Really expensive merchandise, ranging from $700 vases to $8,500 paintings. If these offerings were a bit out of your price range, you could always settle for the same assortment of logo merchandise—a pin, a watch, a jacket, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a few assorted resin doodads. The time-consuming process of selecting and picking up the merchandise took up so much of the event that attendees complained they had spent $200 for the privilege of waiting in line to spend more money.

Lesson 4: Inefficient merchandise distribution can kill an event.

In 2001, Disneyland hosted its first Haunted Mansion Holiday event. Fans of the Haunted Mansion and Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas snapped up tickets the moment they were on sale; then hundreds canceled when Disney announced five days before the event that the headliners, Burton and composer Danny Elfman, would not attend after all. Despite no-show celebs and merchandise distribution problems, those who had forked out the $200 for the dinner package went home happy. Many declared the dinner to be the best event meal served at Disneyland, and the special gifts and activities were enough to satisfy most attendees.

Lesson 5: Dinner is the most important meal of the day, especially when you're paying $200 for it.

When I reviewed the first Haunted Mansion event, I said that Disneyland seemed to have a handle on the “special event” aspect, but needed to work on the merchandise. By the time the second Haunted Mansion Holiday event rolled around, Disneyland's event staff had a whole new game plan: Merchandise selection and pickup was held before the event started, and was conveniently located at the Grand Californian hotel so customers could take their loot back to their hotel room or cars. The event was tightly scheduled and well-staffed, and ran like clockwork.

Not surprisingly, some attendees complained that the event was formulaic and overscheduled, and the event itinerary read like a to-do list:

  • Item 1 - Ride the Haunted Mansion.
  • Item 2 - Watch (yet another) panel discussion.
  • Item 3 - Eat dinner.
  • Item 4 - Go home.

The event planners learned how to make the event bigger and more efficient, but seemed to lose sight of why people came in the first place. The event wasn't all that special, the entertainment was lackluster, and the dinner disappointing. But everyone got their merchandise in a timely manner, and there wasn't a huge line outside City Hall at the end of the night. Based on those criteria, the event was a resounding success—but it wasn't special. The planners had gone to the opposite extreme. This time, the merchandise was handled well, but there was very little that was special about the event.


Based on those criteria, the event was a resounding success—but it wasn't special.


The Pirates of the Caribbean movie premiere event this summer was another example of a well-executed merchandise event completely lacking in “special.” The least-expensive package was little more than a $55 movie, and the $200 dinner barely an improvement.

Apart from the panel discussion, offered only to the dinner package guests, there was no experience at that event that a regular day guest could not have had for less money. A ride on an unaltered attraction—we were hoping for live pirates, a dinner in the Blue Bayou—while the ride was still open to the public. And a screening of the movie at the local AMC theater just didn't meet my criteria of a special experience. Is it a surprise that Disney sold less than half of the dinner packages they offered, and ended up cutting an entire dinner seating as a result?

Which brings us, at last, to the 2003 Haunted Mansion Holiday event. Which lessons did the event planners retain while creating this event, and which did they forget?

The event


Jack returns to the Haunted Mansion, and finds a new house guest. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The event started, as all events do these days, with registration and merchandise distribution at the Grand Californian Hotel. The process looked deceptively simple. We checked in and collected our information packet. Everything was in order, with one small exception: a merchandise item we had requested during the Random Selection Process but had not received was suddenly available—did we want it? We indicated that we did want the item, and were told that we would have to come back in about 20 minutes—the sole person who could work the merchandise distribution computer was on a break. The cast member took back our information packets, saying that we would need to pick them up when we came back.

We returned as instructed, paid for our additional item, and joined the line of people waiting to collect their merchandise. This line was long and slow-moving, as each customer inspected every item in their purchase for flaws before they left the room. Once through this process, we went to look at the “event store,” where unsold event merchandise was available for sale. If the sparse quantity of leftovers is any indication, the event was a rousing financial success. After surveying the remaining items, and deciding that we did not need a $900 vase or the T-shirt, and we went in search of the third Random Selection Process collection point.

Minor digression: Disney started using the Random Selection Process to distribute limited edition items at merchandise events. The system works like a lottery, with each attendee listing the items they would like to buy, and the computer randomly assigning the available items among the interested customers. Each attendee gets a first- and second-hance form, with any merchandise left after round one distributed during round two.

Invariably, people are awarded more merchandise than they want—a husband and wife might both request the same item in hopes that one of them will get it, and then they wind up with four of them. During the first few RSP-driven events, customers were responsible for buying everything they were awarded. A few raised a stink, were allowed to return their merchandise after the event—and Disney suddenly had a batch of returned event merchandise with nobody to buy it. Now, Disney allows customers to cancel unwanted items before the event. These items are awarded during a “Last Chance” RSP. All attendees are given a third RSP form with their information packet, with directions to turn it in at the registration desk once they know what they want.


Bob Baker, Dave Avanzino and David Bird wait to meet event guests. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

After submitting our third RSP forms, we went to the Artist Meet and Greet, held in the Wedding Garden of the Grand Californian. Many of the artists who created the event merchandise were on hand to meet collectors and answer questions. These are the kinds of special opportunities that make events like this so great—a chance to really talk with the artist who created that $1,600 sculpture you just bought, or who painted that vase you are about to take home.


Oogie Boogie left a set of clues outside the Haunted Mansion. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Unfortunately, the meet and greet was so far off the beaten path, and so poorly signed, that most event guests never knew it was happening. After an hour with very few visitors, the artists were moved inside, closer to the registration desk so they could meet more attendees.


Unfortunately, the meet and greet was so far off the beaten path, and so poorly signed, that most event guests never knew it was happening.


With merchandise disposed of and artists met, it was time to enter the park for the event. We joined a large crowd trying to enter Disneyland, many of them wearing the event-credential lanyard given to all attendees. Someone in front of us complained, “It's not like they didn't know they would have 1,200 people trying to enter Disneyland right now!” Once through the crowded entrance, we made our way to the Haunted Mansion for our “special” ride through the 2003 version.


Oogie Boogie placed the first of his 10 surprises in the pet cemetery. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

We made our way through the gates, up the steps, and down the Stretching Room with no delay, only to be met with a wall-to-wall press of bodies once we reached the hallway. As we turned the corner, we saw the reason for the delay. Large sheets of “paper” displayed before the loading area listed the name of every event guest, and everyone felt compelled to stop to find their name. In the past, these lists of names have been displayed inside the attraction, making it hard for people to catch their name as they rode by. This placement of the lists made is possible to take a photo of your name, but also made for really long lines, with only every second or third doombuggy getting loaded.


Props and costumes from the upcoming Haunted Mansion movie are on display in the Disney Gallery. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

We rode through the Mansion, trying to spot all 10 “Oogie Boogie” references and look for other changes to the ride. The new Oogie Boogie animatronic figure is incredible, and it was fun to have something new to look for. As we exited the ride, we were given our first gift of the evening: a resin Oogie Boogie pumpkin, a replica of one of the “hidden Oogies” in the ride.

From there, we popped into the Disney Gallery to see the new exhibit of props and art from the upcoming Haunted Mansion movie. We decided against a trip to Le Bat en Rouge to see the new Nightmare merchandise, as the line of people waiting to get into the tiny store was still out the door.

The loot

In addition to the limited edition merchandise created just for the event, Disneyland merchants created two different collections of core—or open stock—merchandise. The first collection is based on the 2003 Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay, and includes logo shirts, pins, snow globes, Christmas ornaments and assorted souvenirs. The true highlight of this collection was the long-awaited Haunted Mansion Holiday CD, something collectors have been demanding for the past two years.

The second collection is based on the classic Haunted Mansion attraction. This merchandise is just fantastic, with Disneyland-specific themes and graphics. Disneyland fans can finally have a toy model of the original Haunted Mansion, instead of the WDW version previously offered. As one longtime collector wrote, this new collection is a “gold mine for the Mansion collector.” This is one of the greatest attraction-specific collections ever created, and Mansion fans spent the weekend snapping up the great new souvenirs.

After visiting the Gallery, we made the long walk to the Fantasyland Theater for the evening's entertainment. We arrived, 30 minutes before show time, to discover that the seating area reserved for the dinner package guests was already full. Closer to the stage, the area reserved for VIPs was nearly empty. Right along with “they should have known 1200 people were entering the park,” comes “they also should have known they were going to have to make room in the theater for them.”


We arrived, 30 minutes before show time, to discover that the seating area reserved for the dinner package guests was already full.


To their credit, event managers quickly realized that there was not enough seating, and opened up the lower sections to dinner package guests. My husband went to get drinks and cookies from the tables scattered around the theater, but returned empty-handed—they had run out of hot water (for cocoa) and cookies. “I have a feeling they weren't expecting this many people,” he remarked, as we watched cast members scramble to bring out more snacks and drinks. Unfortunately, this is a comment he would repeat several times as the event wore on.


Ken Page and Randy Baumberger share the stage. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

As we waited for the show to begin, we surveyed the stage. The entertainment at the last two events consisted of panel discussions with the animators and voice talent from The Nightmare Before Christmas. After two years, we were ready for a change. Yet the stage was set with a host chair, podium and two guest chairs. A few hopeful souls speculated that perhaps Burton and Elfman had decided to appear, but most were expecting another hour with Glenn Shadix.


Ken Page and a helper use the wheel to select the next act. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The lights dimmed and an invisible announcer started to introduce the host of the show, but was quickly interrupted by the voice of an equally-invisible Oogie Boogie. Suddenly, the fabric backdrop was ripped away and the chairs and podiums were carried off. In their place were a curtained box, a large roulette wheel and a live band, as Oogie Boogie welcomed us to his Boo-lesque Revue.


Behemoth and a Bunny take center stage. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Two performers turned the roulette wheel around to reveal Randy Baumberger, the Senior Vice President of Operations for the Disneyland Resort, tied to the front. After a bit of banter with the still-unseen Oogie Boogie, the real surprise was revealed when Ken Page, the film voice of Oogie Boogie, stepped on stage.


Dr. Finklestein finds that he has a brain after all. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix

The crowd went wild. In fact, the crowd did not settle down for the next 25 minutes, as Oogie Boogie's Boo-lesque Revue took the stage. The show took the format of a variety show, with Ken Page coming on-stage between sets to spin a wheel which would “randomly” select the next act to appear. The crowd loved these interludes, with one large group chanting “Wheel! Of! Fortune!” during a spin.


The crowd went wild. In fact, the crowd did not settle down for the next 25 minutes, as Oogie Boogie's Boo-lesque Revue took the stage.



It's the hard knock life for Lock, Shock and Barrel. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The audience reacted with glee as each group of characters took the stage for their act, especially when the pun in each skit became apparent. Werewolf sang “Bad Moon Rising” and “Hound Dog,” while Mummy belted out “Unchain My Heart” to the witch who had captured his heart—in a jar. Behemoth and a giant pink Easter Bunny brought the crowd to their knees with an interpretive ballet set to the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” Dr. Finklestein portrayed a very demented Scarecrow with his rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain.”


Jack tells Sally, “I've got boo, babe.” Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The trio of Lock, Shock and Barrel gave a whole new interpretation to “Hard Knock Life” from Annie, and Dracula's version of “Some Enchanted Evening” left the object of his affection weak in the knees. Sally fell apart—literally—during her solo performance of “All of Me,” but managed to pull herself together enough to play Cher to Jack Skellington's Sonny during a duet of “I've Got You Babe.”


Mayor and Clown put on a happy face. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Clown with the Tearaway Face had everyone rolling in the aisles with “Send in the Clowns,” followed by a duet of “Put on a Happy Face” with the Mayor. Santa Claus was encouraged to perform “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” pausing between verses to beg the audience to free him from Oogie Boogie. Santa was joined by Jack as Sandy Claws, and the two finished the song as a duet.


Jack and Santa sing an awkward duet. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Finally, Ken Page brought the house to its feet with a live performance of “Oogie's Song,” and was joined on stage with a costumed Oogie Boogie. (Is it too much to hope that this character will be seen around the Haunted Mansion?) Page finished the song by exclaiming, “That was fun!” This was the first time the singer had performed the song live, the first time he had performed it outside a studio, and the first time he had sung it in the 12 years since he recorded his dialogue for the film.


This was the first time (Ken Page) had performed the song live, the first time he had performed it outside a studio, and the first time he had sung it in the 12 years since he recorded his dialogue for the film.



Ken Page comes face to face with his alter ego. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The show was a complete success, and our dining companions called it the best event show ever. I truly hope that Randy and his team are looking for a home for this show. Forget Mickey's Detective School or the holiday show of the year, Oogie Boogie's Boo-lesque Revue deserves a longer run. The Fantasyland Theater is being handed over to the Snow White production, but there has to be a place to stage this show. If Disney can put a Moto-X arena in DCA, it can build a new stage, seats and a shade structure in the Festival of Fools arena.


The cast takes a final bow for an appreciative audience. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

We left the theater on a high note, and I was ecstatic to see the return of great special event entertainment. In fact, had I known how the rest of the night would turn out, I would have skipped dinner and left immediately so as not to spoil my mood.

The dinner

Have you ever attended an event, then read another person's account and wondered, “Did they go to the same event I went to?” I certainly have, and I always wonder how someone can have such a miserable time at an event when I'm having a blast. Sadly, now I know, because I watched it happen not two feet away from me.


The Blue Bayou was converted into a spooky banquet hall. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

When we arrived at The Blue Bayou for dinner, we were shown to our table and greeted our eight table mates. We chatted about the event and munched on the cheese tray set at our table. I spotted some of the people responsible for the terrific event show, and went over to pay them my compliments. Jack Skellington came out onto the balcony and greeted the guests, and announced that the first course would be served. And it was—to nine of the people at our table. My poor husband, however, was passed over, and finally had to ask for his salad.

Would you believe the same happened with the entree? While the people around us were eating their meal and singing along with the live entertainment, Tony was trying to catch the attention of a waiter to bring his meal. When his food finally arrived, Tony found it to be cold and unappetizing, with the clever potato “mushroom” not only undercooked, but actually rotten inside.


When his food finally arrived, Tony found it to be cold and unappetizing, with the clever potato “mushroom” not only undercooked, but actually rotten inside.



Most diners were served this clever dessert. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The final straw was when the dessert course was presented—to all but four people at our table. Apparently someone undercounted the desserts, and the restaurant actually ran out midway through serving our table. A manager apologized and we were served a dessert from the new French Market menu. Just as we were finally served dessert, Jack came out and wished everyone a good evening. Moments later, a crew came out on stage and started to tear down the sound system and decorations—while a full third of the restaurant was still eating.

As we exited the restaurant, we were handed our second event gift: a sketch of Jack as Sandy Claws to go with the Jack and Sally sketches we received at the two previous events. A manager also told us, “They are keeping the Haunted Mansion open a while longer, so you can go ride it again.” We walked over to the Mansion, and reached the gates just as they were locked for the night. A cast member asked, “Did you get to ride it at least once?” When we said we had, he said, “Well, then come back tomorrow.”


We walked over to the Mansion, and reached the gates just as they were locked for the night. A cast member asked, “Did you get to ride it at least once?” When we said we had, he said, “Well, then come back tomorrow.”



Old and new Haunted Mansion merchandise is available in the Disney Gallery. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Next we decided to see if the line to Le Bat en Rouge was shorter than it had been earlier in the day, and discovered that the shop had closed while we were still at dinner. “Well, apparently we're done,” grumbled my completely irate husband. So we made our way towards Main Street to check on the status of our third RSP. Along the way, we stopped to fill out our event surveys. Let us just say that hungry men do not leave nice comments on surveys.

A friendly cast member was stationed on Main Street to explain that a power outage had prevented the merchants from running the third RSP drawing, but that we would be notified by mail if we were selected for anything, with the items shipped to our homes for free. Then we walked to the exit, where were asked to write our names on a piece of paper to receive our final event gift. We both signed our names, and the cast member said, “Thank you, have a good night!”

Um, OK, but where was our gift? “Oh!” she exclaimed, “didn't they tell you back there?” Apparently they had run out of the final gift—a metal Oogie Boogie ornament—and would be mailing it to us later.


Apparently they had run out of the final gift—a metal Oogie Boogie ornament—and would be mailing it to us later.


Thus ended the 2003 Haunted Mansion Event. It started well, if a little slow, got better and better—and then ended with a dull thud. Taken individually, any one of these things would have been understandable. Mistakes happen, desserts disappear, dinners run long… But the convergence of these things on one person makes all the difference between a great event and a disaster. I sat two feet from my husband the entire evening, and had a much different event than he did. And, sadly, a lot of what we experienced was because someone—or a lot of someones—didn't remember that bigger isn't always better.

We already know that there will be a Sleeping Beauty Ball in February, a Tower of Terror event in the spring, and another Haunted Mansion Holiday event in 2004. Merchandise special events are a definite part of Disneyland's future.

Unfortunately, I think the best events may be in the past. I wish for a time machine so I could go back to the day I decided not to attend the Mr. Toad event, and talk some sense into my younger self. Since I can't, the best I can do is present my suggestions for special events, in the hopes that a future event will be as magical:

Put the “special” back into special event – Give us an experience we can't get any other day. Let us walk through rides, let us go backstage, let us see and touch things day guests never will. Let us meet people we have never met, tell us stories that aren't already published in Disney history books.

Look for another reason to throw a party – I love the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean as much as the next person, but there are a few other rides out there. How about an Enchanted Tiki Room event with a special performance of the original full-length show? A Mad Tea Party? Trick or Treat in Toon Town? Peter Pan anniversary? The much hoped-for Disneyland Train event? A behind-the-scenes Fantasmic event?

Reformulate the formula – The last few events have been efficient—but predictable. Perhaps we've explored the limit of the ride/show/dinner formula.

Add more variety to the event merchandise – There is a limit to the number of Haunted Mansion Holiday charger plates any one person can own, and I think that number has officially been achieved. The ten people at my table last night came up with a list of 30+ items we'd like to see you offer, and there wasn't a single vase on it. We love to take home pieces of the rides - models and miniatures are wonderful treats.

Bring back quality – The first Haunted Mansion Holiday dinner was the best ever, and everything since then has been a disappointment. In the drive to become uber creative, the food has become increasingly inedible, the courses fewer and the portions smaller and smaller. Guests should not leave an event dinner wondering how late the local McDonald's is open, as was the discussion at our table.

Surprise us – Headless horsemen riding down Main Street, fireworks off the Castle—magical and memorable. “Sorry, come back tomorrow”—not so magical.

After the event, another returning attendee said, "overall it seems that now the “special” has gone out of the event."

Oh good—it's not just me.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Adrienne here.


ABOUT THE EDITOR

Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix is the super-shopper behind MouseShoppe, your personal and unofficial shopping service for the Disneyland Resort, and the owner of CharmingShoppe, a Disney collectibles store located in Anaheim.

In addition to scouring the park to find you the latest and greatest merchandise, she keeps you updated on all of the merchandise events happening in the parks.

If you want to talk to her about this column, merchandise, or events, contact her here.

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