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A Super-Spooky Oral History of Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Walt’s ‘Ghost House’ is the granddaddy of today’s Halloween Industrial Complex

As Halloween quickly approaches, people across the country will board ghost-driven hayrides, enter the lairs of serial killer clowns and brave zombie-populated cornfields in search of a good seasonal scare. But of all the haunted attractions in the United States, none is quite as beloved as the one you can find in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square: The Haunted Mansion. It’s one of the nation’s oldest haunted houses, and is frequently credited with giving birth to the haunted attraction industry. But though the iconic ride first opened in 1969 at Disneyland, its origins can actually be traced back to a British toy store 18 years earlier.

In 1951, an artist named Harper Goff considered buying a model train set from a shop in London, until a rival customer stopped him, intent on purchasing the same set. “He turned to me and said, ‘I’m Walt Disney. Are you the man that wanted to buy this engine?’ Well, I almost fell over.” The since-deceased Goff recalled in an interview with the Disney fan club. “He asked me what I do for a living, and I told him that I was an artist. He said, ‘When you get back to America, come and talk to me.’”

Later that same year, Goff went to work for Walt Disney, drawing up the first concept drawing for a theme park called Mickey Mouse Park. The name would eventually be changed to Disneyland, and the park would open on July 17, 1955.

But even on opening day, Disney knew that work on his park was far from over. The legendary mogul still possessed grand plans for expansion. Disney’s team of Imagineers (the engineers of WED Enterprises, responsible for the development of park attractions), worked tirelessly to realize new concepts for the ever-changing park. Chief among Disney’s priorities: building the Haunted Mansion.

Disney had always envisioned some sort of haunted house as a part of Disneyland. In fact, Goff’s initial concept illustration included a sketch for an area featuring a “Church, Graveyard and Haunted House.” Though creating the Haunted Mansion was a priority for Disney, its development lasted over a decade and was fraught with many challenges. But in the end, these efforts would produce one of the most timeless and beloved attractions in the history of Disneyland.

Many of the original Haunted Mansion Imagineers have since passed away, perhaps joining the phantoms of their iconic creation, but I have spoken with those that remain about their work on the famed attraction. So this Halloween, before you visit the 999 ghosts that occupy America’s favorite thrill ride, check out our brief oral history of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Walt Wants a Swanky ‘Ghost House’

Rolly Crump [retired Disney Imagineer]: The Haunted Mansion goes way back to before Walt first built Disneyland. He always wanted a haunted house in Disney even in the very beginning.

Jeff Baham [Disney historian and author of The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion]: For Disneyland, Walt pulled some of his best animators to move into designing the park. And [Disney animator] Ken Anderson had architecture as his background. There were a few early Disneyland artists that were entering ideas [for the Haunted Mansion], but Ken Anderson is the first one that dug into what it was actually gonna be, other than how the exterior would look. He was leading the Mansion process, as pretty much the sole director for the design phase in the late 50s.

Ken Anderson [Deceased Disney Imagineer and animator—his quotes are taken from an archival interview]: [The 1957 proposal for a haunted house walk-through] came directly from discussions with Walt. He knew what he wanted his “ghost house” to look like and I was pretty enthusiastic about it, because I liked the whole idea of a haunted house attraction at the Park. And I envisioned it as a large antebellum mansion, out in the Louisiana bayou, all rotten and moldy… Disneyland had hardly had time to settle [after its 1955 opening] and this was one of the first things that I had to work on.

Baham: Most of Ken Anderson’s concepts were sardonic or funny. There was dark humor and sight-gags. But he also was trying to set up a story. He had this idea that you’d always have a tour guide and there’d always be this monster trying to get you and grabbing the tour guide. He had lots of involved ideas, but you can assume Disney never was fully sold, because the trigger was never pulled.

Anderson: [The Haunted Mansion] was going to be different from the rest of Disneyland, which is all clean and modern. They’d get in there and WHOA — everything would be decrepit and old. But that was one thing that Walt didn’t like. Everything had to be new and swanky and swell. I got done with it and Walt said: “Well, I don’t want that. It’s got to have a different character.” And I thought I’d never see it again…I was never more surprised to find out later that the concept became the basis for the look of the Haunted Mansion as it was eventually built, because Walt didn’t like it. Eventually it wasn’t my project anymore… in 1958 it went on hold and I went to work on Sleeping Beauty. [In 1959] it was turned over to [Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey].

New Direction, New Imagineers

Yale Gracey was a star of Disney’s animation department, and served as art director for the hit film Fantasia. Disney brought Gracey to work for Walt Disney Imagineering Enterprises (WED), where he created special effects for many Disneyland rides. During the Haunted Mansion years, Gracey worked closely with Rolly Crump — another Imagineer to be plucked from animation after working on classics like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmations.

Baham: Walt put Yale Gracey in place, and Walt said, “Here are all these ideas Ken Anderson came up with, can you show me how these can become a haunted house?” So Yale would come up with the illusions and visual effects. He just tried different things: he had all kinds of projections, he came up with the famous Hatbox Ghost gag. Most of the things you see that are “magical” in the Haunted Mansion actually go back to Yale Gracey. And Yale worked with Rolly Crump. Rolly Crump was just a young guy at Imagineering, 20-something, learning about WED and helping to build the various different mechanisms to make things work.

Crump: So when Yale and I started working on it… they put us in a great big room and said, “Okay, go for it.” And we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but we went for it anyway. We actually went over to the soundstage and we built a set with a stairwell and everything. And we started building full-scale elements. We had done them in models, but the full-scale was what we wanted to show Walt. He was thrilled.

Marty Sklar [retired Imagineer]: Yale Gracey was really brilliant at the simplicity of the things he designed, and how effective they were in telling the story. Yale’s illusions set the standard for everything from a special effects standpoint that went into Disneyland.

For Ghosts Who Didn’t Want to Retire

Construction for the Haunted Mansion commenced in 1962. But though the exterior of the mansion was finished by 1963, it remained empty. Disney had other plans for his team of Imagineers — plans that put the Haunted Mansion on hold.

Baham: Development [on the Haunted Mansion] stopped around 1962, because Walt Disney had a revelation that he wanted his Imagineers to put these big attractions together for the 1964/65 New York’s World’s Fair. It was an all-hands-on-deck thing. So the Haunted Mansion got put on the back burner — that’s why the house got built and then nothing happened.

Sklar: The building [for The Haunted Mansion] was there, and park-goers started asking questions like, “What’s it gonna be?” Walt had just been in the United Kingdom, and when people asked him what he was doing there he said he was “gathering ghosts who didn’t want to retire, to put in his Haunted Mansion in Disneyland.” That inspired me to create the Haunted Mansion’s [pre-opening] sign about “ghosts who didn’t want to retire,” and how the Haunted Mansion could be their future home, and ghosts could submit their applications to Disneyland. It really excited a lot of people when they saw the sign that teased what the attraction was going to be.

Doom Buggies From the World’s Fair

Once the Imagineers returned from the World’s Fair, they refocused efforts on the Haunted Mansion. But there were divergent opinions among the team, about how the attraction should function. Walt and many designers envisioned the Haunted Mansion as a “walk through” attraction, but some Imagineers were concerned that a walk-through would be unable to process large volumes of visitors in a timely fashion.

Baham: The Imagineers had to build their own mechanisms for transportation through these high-capacity attractions. Bob Gurr was an Imagineer working on some of this stuff. And he looked at some of the other high-capacity attractions at the World’s Fair, and there was one where the cars were all connected to each other. So directly out of the World’s Fair, he started to come up with ideas about how to take [large amounts of] people through these attractions.

Bob Gurr [Disney Imagineer, developer of the Omnimover]: We saw what all these other companies did with their attractions at the World’s Fair. And I was having a conversation with [design leader] John [Hench] about how to design a ride so you could see the story. And I said, “I like the idea of an endless chain of vehicles because they can’t crash into one another.” And I thought, “What if I take the seats and put them on a post on a chassis [the underpart frame of a vehicle], and then I can rotate the body all the way around and tip it forward and backwards. The chassis just moves along, but we can direct the guest view into the story scenes by simply turning the body [of the vehicle] and pointing them toward the scene.” Well that saves a show designer a lot of time because you go from one scene to another — it’s like a movie. I called it the “Omnimover.”

Baham: As soon as Bob came up with this idea for the “Omnimovers,” they used it on another ride first: Adventure Thru Inner Space. That was what sealed the deal — it was very effective. So they thought, “That’s what we’ll use for the Haunted Mansion.”

Gurr: It seemed to me that the Haunted Mansion was going on for years. Every once and awhile I’d go over to the studio and Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump would have some kind of gag of the week they’d wanna show me. And at that time [in 1965] I was working on the Omnimover idea. [Yale and Rolly] saw that worked for show designers for the Adventure Thru Inner Space, where the cars turned, and we could pop from one scene to another, with a speaker right next to your ears. Well, no one had ever seen a machine like that, ever. And the Haunted Mansion guys said “We got it! We don’t have to make the Mansion a walk-through. We’ll use Omnimovers.”

A ‘Museum of the Weird’

The years following the World’s Fair were highly active for Gracey and Crump, who continued to develop concepts for the Mansion. But during this time, Crump couldn’t help but feel that the Mansion was missing something.

Crump: I’d always felt that there was nothing weird in the Mansion. I always thought it was too straight-arrow and it needed some magic. And I’d seen [Jean Cocteau’s classic French film] Beauty and the Beast, and it had this weird beast and all kinds of arms holding torches in a castle. I thought, that stuff has gotta be in the mansion! So I started doing these little crazy sketches of stuff, and I built models of them. But [senior WED executive] Dick Irvine didn’t like it. He thought it was too weird. So we had a meeting with Walt and they put me over in the corner with my stuff.

Well, the next morning I came to work at 7 o’clock and Walt Disney is sitting at my desk. He said, “You son of a bitch. I didn’t sleep last night. I’ve been awake all night long remembering all this crazy stuff you showed me. And I figured out how to use it: We’re gonna do a Museum of the Weird, and you can put all the weirdest stuff that you want in there.”

With the green light from Disney, Crump began work on his Museum of the Weird, which was to function as an offshoot of the main attraction where visitors could view bizarre oddities, supposedly collected from around the world. But Crump’s work would stop, when an unexpected event would rock the entire world of Disney: the death of its founder.

Baham: [When Disney died] it was a shock to everyone. Everything stopped for a while, but he had plans in place so that things could keep going. I think the main effect that it had on the Haunted Mansion isn’t so much on the progression of development — it was more on answering “Who’s gonna say this is done?” Because Walt Disney would always just be the guy [to approve everything].

Crump: When Walt passed away they didn’t know what to do with me or the Museum of the Weird. Dick Irvine didn’t want me around the final design of the Mansion. We had some little qualms. So, when they were [finishing] work for the mansion, he put Claude Coates and Marc Davis on it, and away they went.

Spooks or Laughs?

With Crump off the project, Marc Davis and Claude Coats emerged as the leaders moving forward. Davis started in animation with classics like Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty, before moving to WED to create some of the park’s most iconic characters. Coats also came from animation, creating vivid backdrops for films like Snow White and Dumbo. This duo would push the project to completion, though didn’t always see eye to eye on direction.

Baham: Marc Davis and Claude Coates were both high-profile guys, who’d worked really well together in [creating] Pirates of the Caribbean. Marc Davis had designed the whole Pirates ride in terms of the gags and activities, and Claude Coates designed the way [the environment] feels and looks. [Disney] wanted them to do the same thing for the Haunted Mansion. But when Disney died, there were no more yeses and nos. I think the main thing Walt Disney’s death caused was consternation about, “Is this gonna be more spooks and thrills or more light-hearted?”

Sklar: Marc Davis and Claude Coats had two different views of what the show should be. Marc’s [vision] was more about humor and fun. And Claude’s was much darker. And the fact that they had two different views of the story was reflected in the ultimate feeling of the Haunted Mansion. I mean it all somehow works, but it’s not exactly a coherent story.

An Opening, at Last

Baham: The Haunted Mansion opened August 1969. Every newspaper had a little feature about the opening. The weekend after it opened there were 85,000 people at Disneyland, ostensibly because of the Haunted Mansion. Which is a big deal, because even today if you get 85,000 at your resort, things have to be blowing up. And if you think 85,000 people back in 1969, when there was no Space Mountain, no Big Thunder, no Indiana Jones — there was really nothing to absorb all these people. It must have been a mess to be there that weekend. So many people!

Sklar: I just remember it was an enormous opening weekend. The reaction from the public was wonderful. It broke all kinds of records. It was the biggest opening Disneyland had up to that point. There were people everywhere, and they all wanted to see the Haunted Mansion.