Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion

by Brian Bennett, contributing writer

Walt Disney died in December of 1966. Disney had been personally involved in the development of Pirates of the Caribbean, the major new attraction that opened with New Orleans Square at Disneyland in spring 1967, just a few months after Disney's passing. He was also very much involved with the design of the new Tomorrowland, which opened in summer 1967. The Carousel of Progress—which had finally finished its run at the New York World's Fair—Adventures Through Inner Space, America the Beautiful (the first of the Circle Vision attractions), Flight to the Moon, and the WEDway Peoplemover all made their debuts. Walt Disney was involved in the development of all of those attractions to varying degrees.

The Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, as viewed from the outside. Photo by Brian Bennett.

After the Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland attractions were done, Imagineering tackled a project that had been planned for a long, long time. Announcements about the Haunted Mansion began as far back as 1965. The Haunted Mansion building—at least the part that can be seen from the park—had been completed years earlier. By 1968, it was time. Thus, the Haunted Mansion became the first major Disney attraction that the Imagineers tackled after Walt Disney died.

A bit of a controversy began among the Imagineers. Should the Mansion be scary or funny? Walt himself gave a clue when he insisted that the outside of the mansion be kept looking fresh and well cared for. In the book Disneyland Inside Story by Randy Bright (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987), Walt is quoted as saying, “We'll take care of the outside… The ghosts can take care of the inside.” Remember that this was the middle of the 1960s. At that time, horror films tended to be campy movies. They certainly lacked the frightening realism of the films of the 1990s and beyond. Just like Walt himself settled on a happy pirate attraction, Imagineering finally settled on creating a happy Haunted Mansion. The Mansion opened in 1969 and quickly became the most sensational new attraction opening in Disneyland history up to that time.

The exterior of the Haunted Mansion is built in a Hudson River architectural style. Photo by Brian Bennett.

It's no surprise that Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom had its own version of the Haunted Mansion right from opening day in 1971. This time, instead of a Southern plantation mansion in New Orleans Square as the residence of the 999 ghosts as at Disneyland, the Imagineers built a Hudson River mansion just off of Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom. The outsides of the two buildings are obviously quite different, but what goes on inside is pretty similar at the two parks.

The Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World has a lovely rose garden. Obviously, years after Walt first decided that the exterior of the Disneyland Mansion should be well-maintained, Imagineering now has some different thoughts.

Landscaping for the attraction is tended with care. Photo by Brian Bennett.

My wife, Barbara, pointed out that it takes quite a bit of effort to have plants that healthy that look so horrible. Kudos to the landscaping team. I can imagine that the idea of having a rundown garden comes from the landscaping done over at the Disney-MGM Studios for the Twighlight Zone Tower of Terror. At the end of Sunset Boulevard the Hollywood Tower Hotel, which has largely been abandoned since the disappearances occurred there in 1939, has a similar look to its garden and courtyard. It looks great over at the Studios… but I wish the landscaping team would “take care of the outside” and let “the ghosts take care of the inside” once again.

One thing that the Hollywood Tower Hotel lacks, though, is something that every well-equipped Haunted Mansion must have: A horse-drawn hearse.

The hearse, driven by an invisible horse, is a hallmark of the Haunted Mansion. Photo by Brian Bennett.

As we continue our walk through the outside queue of the Mansion, we can view the front (south) and side (east) facade from several different angles.

The Haunted Mansion looms above Liberty Square. Photo by Brian Bennett.

I would love to know how large that front door really is. I've never seen anyone standing up at the front entrance to the Mansion. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the front door is really an emergency exit from the attraction inside. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the front door is just a fraction of the size that it appears and that forced-perspective is hard at work to make the structure look larger and more imposing than it really is.

How large is the false entrance to the building? Photo by Brian Bennett.

After rounding the front entrance of the Mansion we can see the headstones of the family plot to the west of the queue. I'll leave you to read the epitaphs for yourself.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A pair of Haunted Mansion tombstones. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A Haunted Mansion tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Madame Leota's headstone was added just in the last couple of years.

Madame Leota's tombstone. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Yep, it's true that her face moves and that those eyes really do…

Eyes wide shut. Photo by Brian Bennett.


Eyes wide open—Pay close attention to Madame Leota's face. Photo by Brian Bennett.

For unsuspecting guests, the effect is quite unnerving. It's not uncommon, while waiting for the next opportunity to enter the Mansion, to see someone in a group of guests emphatically trying convince the others that Madame Leota's headstone is animated.

When we actually enter the Mansion, we are ushered into a small lobby. The effect of seeing some family portraits morph into rather sinister apparitions is another unsettling effect. In just moments, though, a large number of the waiting crowd are asked to move into yet another chamber. This one, we quickly find out, “has no windows and no doors.” Seeing how some of the Mansion's earlier visitors escaped from this room is hardly comforting.

One of the panels in the stretch room. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The same panel, with more of the portrait revealed. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A second portrait, of a friendly-looking older woman. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The kindly old woman is sitting on the tombstone of dear dearly departed husband (who was whacked in the head with an axe!). Photo by Brian Bennett.

We even get to witness how Mr. Gracey himself, the former owner of this Tudor edifice, left the premises. His solution to his earthly problems is not for the squeamish.

After a bit, a portion of the room's wall slides away and all of us guests pile out and start to walk down an oddly shaped hall. There isn't much to see at this point of the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion. The doom buggy loading area of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion features a lot more show. Some of the things that you can see in the queue area at Disneyland, though, can be seen in the Magic Kingdom within moments of jumping into the doom buggy. The busts of well-known writers of ghost stories is one such feature that comes to mind. In Disneyland's Mansion, some of these busts can be seen in the loading area, while at the Magic Kingdom you see these busts as you pass the library after getting into the doom buggy.

One of the things that disappoints me about the Haunted Mansion is the lack of a clear story from beginning to end. The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction clearly shows the attack on the town from the pirate ship, and the ransacking, burning, and eventual theft of the town treasury is a clear progression. The Haunted Mansion, in constrast, does not do a good job of explaining how everything hangs together from beginning to end. Actually, there is a very interesting story being told, but the attraction lacks a good mechanism of making that story clear as you ride from room to room. Instead, you end up seeing a jumble of great effects and scary things, but with no cohesive tie between them.

One comment before going on, it's very difficult, of course, to take good photos inside such a dark attraction. In general, I avoid using a flash when I'm in an attraction so I can avoid harming the enjoyment of others. I was fortunate to be able to take a few pictures on a recent visit, though, because I was surrounded by empty doom buggys (three or four empties before and behind). Even so, you can see that I restrained myself and took only a handful.

This painting is one of the first things you see, mounted fairly high on the wall, after entering your doom buggy. In my opinion, he looks like a character from a Scooby Doo cartoon.

Next time you visit the Haunted Mansion, pay close attention to the sailor's eyes. Photo by Brian Bennett.

This pianoforte is being played by some unseen musician.

The pianoforte in the Haunted Mansion. Photo by Brian Bennett.

And this coffin, with the lid already nailed down, has a less-than-happy resident that is dying to get out.

“Let me outta here!” insists the owner of the bony fingers pushing up the coffin lid. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Down the hall (not in this photo, but in the attraction itself) we can spot a candelabra floating by itself over the floor. The suit of armor is pretty static, but adds some nice atmosphere.

A long hallway protected by an armored knight. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Madame Leota holds her version of The People's Court in the séance room. Her disembodied head has been communicating to “somewhere beyond” for almost 37 years now.

Madame Leota tells her great fortunes. Photo by Brian Bennett.

I was warned. Our ghost host said that the ghosts and spooks of the Mansion were horribly afraid of bright lights, but did I listen? Nooooo… Clearly a flash wipes out any and all ghost effects in the birthday scene.

Up in the attic we can see a lot of old stuff laying around. One “old thing” is this spooky bride hovering by the back dormer. Rumor has it that the owner of this house had just married this bride when he died by hanging (remember the stretch room?). As I understand it, Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris does a better job of actually telling the story of Mr. Gracey and his young wife.

A glowing heart beats in the ghostly bride. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Outside the house and downstairs, this grave digger and his dog are a bit distraught at the goings-on in the back yard. I guess I would, too.

A grave digger and his dog stand outside the graveyard. Photo by Brian Bennett.

After exiting the attraction, there are a few more things to see. A mausoleum for a few more relatives that preferred to be stacked than buried in the plot around the house…

The exit area includes a large mausoleum. Photo by Brian Bennett.

…and another one set aside for a pirate whose final resting place might have fit in better in Disneyland's New Orleans Square than in the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square. It's fun to see how some ideas that carry over from an attraction that was designed for one park miss the mark a bit when added to another.

This mausoleum lists all of the wives of Bluebeard. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Stephen King is probably pretty proud of this recent addition to the grounds: A pet cemetery. Now that's one book I still haven't been able to read. I was creeped out in the first hundred pages and couldn't read another word. I don't have any plans to go back and try again, either.

The exit area also includes a pet cemetery. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Well, I hope you enjoyed a little look at the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion. There's more coming next month, so stop back and see what I have for you in April, OK?