Disneyland Haunted Mansion 1969

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"Ghosts, ghouls, witches and bats—all swaying and screaming to the eerie tune of "Grim Grinning Ghosts"—moved into Disneyland's new Haunted Mansion at midnight." —Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Tuesday August 12, 1969

"So the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, which opened with appropriately spectral rites at midnight Monday, is a horrifying delight…." —Malcolm Epley, The Long Beach Independent, Wednesday, August 13, 1969

"After more than 10 years of planning and development, Disneyland opened its Haunted Mansion Tuesday." —Keith Murray, Pasadena Star News, Wednesday, August 13, 1969

"Employees were given a creep preview August 7 and 8, between the bewitching hours of 7 p.m. and Midnight, before the attraction opened to the public. Official opening of Disneyland's 53rd major attraction was Tuesday, August 12."—Disneyland Inside, vol. 4, no. 9 (September 1969); a Cast Member newsletter.

Employee previews of the Mansion held on the nights of August 7 and 8 ran so smoothly that it was followed by unannounced "soft" openings on August 9 and 10, where limited numbers of park guests were allowed to ride.

The exterior of the Haunted Mansion was merely a shell -- requiring guests to enter the "stretching room."

A "Midnight" Press Event was held on the evening of August 11 from 10:30 pm to midnight. Fifty members of the press were given a special press package upon their arrival at the park that included a "Press Ghost" pass attached to a small glow-in-the-dark skull (a "skeleton key") which would be worn throughout the evening. They began the late night by being wined and dined at Club 33 and then Disneyland Ambassador Shari Bescos escorted them to the attraction.

The mansion officially opened as advertised in the newspapers and the park to all guests the morning of August 12, 1969. However, today, the Walt Disney Company claims that August 9 was the real opening of the attraction since that was the first time that a handful of Disneyland guests experienced it.

Eerily, actress Sharon Tate was murdered along with others early Saturday morning, August 9, 1969 by the disciples of Charles Manson, and that event overshadowed all other news that weekend.

While today, we just accept the Haunted Mansion as one of the iconic Disneyland attractions, it was quite a challenge getting to that official opening of the "Phantom Phantasy" as early Disney publicity called it in 1969.

While Walt reviewed many early concepts and previewed elements of the attraction on a 1965 episode entitled "Disneyland's Tenth Anniversary" on his weekly television show The Wonderful World of Color, he never saw the completed show and it was the first major Disney attraction to open without the direct supervision of Walt Disney.

Associated Press writer Bob Thomas who would later author an acclaimed biography of Walt Disney wrote on August 19, 1969 for the San Diego Evening Tribune newspaper: "Many times I listened to [Walt Disney] spin ghostly tales he planned to dramatize in a Haunted Mansion at the Anaheim park. The project went through many states… but Walt was never satisfied with the illusions, and he died before his dream could be realized."

More importantly, Walt was never quite satisfied with a storyline for the attraction and the final one that was presented when the attraction finally opened in 1969 was a hybrid of many different concepts that had been developed for over a decade.

When Walt Disney conceived of building an amusement venue, the idea of including a haunted house was always part of the dream. It would have been an attraction where it was always Halloween 24 hours a day, seven days a week where spirits would gather in the perpetual darkness.

Certainly, "haunted" dark ride experiences were popular in trolley parks and later amusement parks. The famous Haunted Preztel (because the ride track twisted back and forth like the shape of a pretzel) was built in 1927 for Bushkill Park in Pennsylvania. It featured scary heads popping up from the floor, a hallway of doors hiding who-knows-what, a body trying to get out of a coffin and more very similar experiences to what would later be in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion poster greets guests as they enter the park.

Walt definitely saw the small haunted house at the Beverly Park Amusement Center located on the corner of Beverly and LaCienega boulevards in Beverly Hills where he took his young daughters to play but he wanted to make something with more than just the usual cheap scares for his park.

In the first aerial view of Disneyland drawn by Imagineer Herb Ryman to sell the idea of the theme park to potential investors, there is a haunted house depicted. Over the years other Imagineers were involved in the project including Ken Anderson who came up with several concepts for the "ghost house" as well as the iconic look of the exterior of the mansion.

However, despite Anderson's work and some proof-of-concept devices created by Bob Mattey, the man responsible for the squid in the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the electro-mechanical figures in the Jungle Cruise attraction, Walt still felt the work didn't quite capture what he really wanted.

Anderson went back to animation in 1958 to work on the long delayed Sleeping Beauty animated feature. Also in 1958, Walt Disney included a proposed haunted house in his Disneyland souvenir guide as something coming soon to the park. He told newspaper columnist Vernon Scott that in the next year he was planning in a New Orleans section to have a haunted house and a wax museum featuring pirates.

Later in 1958, Walt Disney gave an interview to the British Broadcasting Company to promote his upcoming changes to Disneyland. When Walt talked about the haunted house he mentioned that it would offer a home for all the ghosts displaced from Europe since their homes had been destroyed during World War II.

Imagineer John Hench said at Disneyland's The Art of the Haunted Mansion: The Haunted Mansion's 30th Anniversary event in June 1999:

"The first I'd heard about it was in Walt's talk on the BBC. He must have had a book or he boned up on several terms. I wasn't too familiar with them – poltergeist and some other things and kinds of psychic phenomena.

"He used the opportunity while he was on the air to invite them, the disenfranchised ghosts. He said they have plenty of them in England, and their old houses were torn down and they'd have no place to go, and he wanted these ghosts to come to California.

"He said some other surprising things. He said ghosts really need a place. They need to perform for a certain length of time; they needed to pay for their crime by going through it so many times and they needed an audience – ghosts actually require an audience – and he guaranteed them the best audience in the whole world right here at Disneyland!

"It was really a quite clever way of talking about what he wanted to do. He was explaining a place that could house a great number of ghosts. I think most haunted houses have one or two and that's it. But Walt thought the ghosts would do well together."

By 1959, Walt assigned Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump to the project and they started by looking at all the sketches, storylines and other ideas that had already been developed. Walt himself would drop by to visit them and see how the work was progressing. Gracey and Crump concentrated on effects and not necessarily developing a storyline for showcasing them.

The exterior façade was built at the park in 1962 at the urging of Disneyland art director Harvey T. Gillett who drew almost all of the technical drawings necessary for the structure and created a layout for the construction. There remain questions about how Gillett was able to convince Walt to make the investment since the interior of the attraction was still a work in progress.

However, the exterior was merely a shell with some small workspaces, a large foyer and two enormous Otis elevators because it had been determined that the show building would be across the railroad tracks so guests needed to be lowered to be able to walk under the tracks.

In early 1962, although the final storyline and effects were still not determined and the attraction was still planned as a walking tour, a brochure distributed at the park gates to help explain the construction and walls for curious guests stated that Walt was intending to bring New Orleans to Anaheim.

It claimed that Walt already had "talent scouts" out gathering the "world's greatest collection of ghosts" for the attraction to open in 1963. However, those plans were fortunately interrupted because Walt and his staff turned all their attention to developing and building four attractions for the upcoming New York World's Fair.

It was fortunate because those attractions resulted in the development of human audio-animatronics figures and an omnimover ride system that would later be utilized in the final attraction making it more effective.

In the 1964 Disneyland souvenir book, Imagineer Marty Sklar wrote, "Overlooking the Rivers of America in Frontierland, the facade of an old southern-style plantation house has already been completed. It will be occupied several years hence. No frontier setting would be complete without its ghosts of another day.

"Disneyland's will not live in a ghost town; they will occupy a deluxe haunted mansion. Here, the lonely ghost who seeks the companionship of 1,001 restless spirits can live in a domain of illusion and imagination.

"There will be spine-tingling built-ins that are sure to provide new life for even the most sagging spirits: fresh cobwebs daily, wall-to-wall creaking floors, stereophonic screams, cold drafts and midnight lighting all day long - plus an endless supply of guests on whom the inventive spooks can practice individual talents, from simple scares to supernatural shockers!"

It was Walt who came up with the phase "1,001 ghosts" to reference the popular book 1,001 Arabian Nights and on the aerial map of Disneyland in his working office at the Disney Studio the construction area for the attraction was identified as the home for 1,001 ghosts. It wasn't until later that the concept of 999 ghosts looking for a guest to become number 1,000 became the theme.

However, the empty building still sparked curiosity, especially when Sklar also wrote a plaque placed outside of the gates that stated:

"Notice! All Ghosts and Restless Spirits. Post-lifetime leases are now available in this Haunted Mansion!… For reservations, send resume of past experience to: Ghost Relations Dept., Disneyland. Please! Do not apply in person!"

Ghost Relations was a reference to Disneyland's Guest Relations department. Disneyland was indeed flooded with applications from around the world and sometimes physical items like the mask head of a Japanese ghost.

After the New York World's Fair, completion of the Haunted Mansion was once again delayed by the installation of some of the fair's Disney attractions at the park, the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and the opening of the New Tomorrowland in 1967. In addition, the death of Walt Disney in 1966 and the commitment to the Florida Project were also involved in the delay.

Despite those many legitimate reasons, because the façade had been standing for years behind locked iron clad gates, rumors arose that the attraction was indeed finished but it was too horrifying and someone in a test audience had been scared to death and suffered a heart attack. Different versions listed the victim as a reporter, a woman or an elderly man. Supposedly, Disney was desperately trying to readjust the ride.

Imagineers Claude Coats, Marc Davis and X. Atencio who had all been integral in the creation of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction were assigned to the Haunted Mansion but Coats and Davis had vastly opposing views as to the tone of the attraction.

Coats wanted a scary adventure, and produced renditions of moody surroundings like endless hallways, corridors of doors and numerous characterless environments. He felt that guests would expect something scary from an attraction that was supposedly haunted.

Davis was well known for adding humorous characters and scenes in Disneyland attractions like the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean. He sketched countless gags. He felt that Walt would have wanted a family attraction where the entire family could ride it together.

While writer Atencio was able to accommodate both approaches in his final script as well as the effects created by Gracey and Crump, the attraction still walked a thin tightrope between being darkly foreboding and silly spirited . It was Atencio who came up with the idea that the ghosts were there to socialize rather than terrorize as they gathered for a swinging wake.

By April 1969, the storyline and what would be in the individual scenes was finally locked down. WED's public relations manager Frank Allnutt wrote a detailed confidential memo that named each character and scene that would appear.

A sign designed to look like a tombstone was placed in front of the iron gates to announce the impending opening of the Haunted Mansion in late summer of 1969. It read, in part… "999 Ghosts and Restless Spirits have chosen active retirement in the Haunted Mansion. Should you desire to become number 1000, visiting privileges begin late summer 1969…." At the bottom was the promise it would scare "the daylights out of you."

A sign designed to look like a tombstone was placed in front of the iron gates to announce the impending opening of the Haunted Mansion in late summer of 1969.

On August 5, 1969 just days before the opening of the attraction, a memo was sent to head of Imagineering Dick Irvine from Marty Sklar. Sklar worried that "we have not as yet given this car an appropriate name and I would like to send one to the Park as soon as possible."

Attached to the memo was a list, prepared by Imagineer Bob White, of possible names for the Omnimover that he had collected from other Imagineers at WED.

Some of the names listed were Ghostmobile, Ghost Coach, Phantomobile, Banshee Buggy, Seance Conveyance, and Ghostly Hostmobile. One suggestion got the highest number of votes: Doom Buggy.

As Sklar later explained, at the time California Beach surfing culture used a "dune buggy" as a form of transportation so it was felt the name would resonate with young people.

The narrator, or "Ghost Host," merely referred to the ride vehicle as a "carriage… carrying you to the boundless realm of the supernatural" because the name had not been locked down in time for the recording by Paul Frees.

Promotional articles and teaser photos were sent to newspapers all across the country, and the official storyline was centered around the theme that 999 famous and infamous ghosts had moved in to enjoy an active retirement but with every Disneyland guest having the potential of becoming the one-thousandth.

The final press release said the Haunted Mansion cost $7 million to build and took ten years to develop. It said the attraction had a potential ride capacity of 2,616 per hour (assuming two people per doom buggy).

Disneyland's publicity department created a strong advertising campaign, including outdoor advertising and radio spots in addition to the standard print advertising and reports from the newspaper press.

The radio ads included humor in effort to defuse any potential fears. They featured "in spirit interview" with residents of the manor including a flirtatious Granny Ghoul, Phineas Pock who had died in 1720 and Willie DeWisp, the dead Olympic "hide-and-seek champion".

Billboard advertising featured characters like a headless knight frightening an old property caretaker. Early marketing was designed to increase people's curiosity and emphasizing the characters in order to distinguish it as different than the typical spook house at carnivals and fairs.

Just one week after the Mansion opened, Disneyland set a one day attendance record on August 16 of 82,516 guests eager to enjoy the new experience. In general at that time, weekday attendance at the park was roughly 30,000 that increased to approximately 50,000 on the weekends.

It set a daily attendance record that was maintained for 18 years. That second weekend there was a minimum three-hour wait to ride the attraction and the line snaked all the way to the Hub.

Disneyland also celebrated the attraction with various promotions, souvenirs and mementos including the co-branded Carnation "I Scream" Sundae, which came complete with a little red plastic spoon picturing the heads of the three hitchhiking ghosts and the phrase "visit the Haunted Mansion" etched into the handle. It was only available during the early months the attraction was open and it was advertised by large silk-screened posters throughout the park.

Disneyland quickly stocked some imported tin lithographed haunted house banks (each with a battery-operated ghost to grab the coin) and slapped some decals on imported Japanese Ichimatsu puzzle boxes in three different sizes from a small company in Hikone, Japan.

The Randotti Company produced plaster skulls and customizable miniature (four inches wide, eight inches tall) plaster tombstones with appropriately thirteen different inscriptions that could be customized with a guest's name while Disneyland's Main Street Magic Shop started selling all sorts of spooky items including a special booklet of simple magic tricks called Magic from the Haunted Mansion.

While these items and others were only available at the park, Disney produced records, coloring books, puzzles and even a game that could be purchased by the general public.

Knowing that Walt Disney World was to open in 1971, when Disneyland's Haunted Mansion was being built, to save money, duplicates of interior items were made at the same time and put in storage. As a result the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World was completed months before the official opening date for that park.

Irvine said, "Walt's philosophy was that we would be reaching a different audience in each park so that anything new that was developed could go in both places."

For Disneyland's New Year's Eve party of 1969, the new Haunted Mansion was prominently featured on all publicity material, out shining the headliner band, the Everly Brothers.

The popularity of the attraction has proven timeless, enchanting new generations of audiences and generating new merchandise.

As an advertisement reminded guests: "If you think pale moonlight is romantic, visit the Haunted Mansio… you may have a change of heart. Delightfully dreary. Frightfully entertaining. Our latest census shows 999 haunting creeps in active retirement… and there's always room for one more."



  1. By carolinakid

    I never realized the Haunte Mansion/Tate murders connection. Positively eerie!
    August 9, 1969. I was 9 at the time and even though I was living on the east coast, the murders terrified me. My parents never even used to lock the doors until that late summer.

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