It was August 1969 and I had just turned 9 the month before. Summer was rapidly coming to an end so, as a treat, my Dad let me go with my summer camp group on a day trip to the Magic Kingdom. We were scheduled to leave early the morning of the 12th which was a Tuesday. We would spend the entire day at the park and return early the morning of the 13th. Little did I know that this would be the most memorable trip I would ever take to Disneyland.
In spite of the time that has passed, there are memories about that trip that will stay with me forever. The scent of orange trees that hung in the air as we drove into the valley. Driving into Anaheim, clamoring to see the first glimpse of the Matterhorn. Arriving at the front of the park, hearing that familiar train whistle from the Disneyland locomotive, while the Monorail could be seen gliding on it's regular trip around the perimeter of the park. Even after I have grown and raised my own family, when we vacation in The Magic Kingdom, we still look to see who will get that first glimpse of the Matterhorn, and now, the spires of Space Mountain. But when you're 9, everyone seems to tower around you; add to that one very crowded amusement park and you have the makings for a real adventuresome trip. As we boarded the Greyhound bus, there were about 25 kids and several chaperones. As we arrived at the park and all converged just beyond the ticket booths, it occurred to me that having that many kids trying to decide what to do is a lot like a traffic jam. But in spite of that there's something really exciting about going to Disneyland with a whole group of kids. Being as democratic as we could be, everyone took turns picking the rides that we would go on. Most popular ride almost always gets first priority. At that time rides like the Matterhorn and Pirates of the Caribbean were top-flight. This was the era before Space, Splash and Thunder Mountain. Walking through the park other guests could be overheard talking about the newest attraction that had just opened that day. All around I heard phrases like, "Haunted House", "Spook House", and of course it's official name, The Haunted Mansion. Hearing this piqued my curiosity. As exciting as it was, I felt a certain amount of trepidation. What exactly was this ride like that I kept hearing about, was it scary or was it fun? Ironically, when Walt Disney's passed away, this was one of the first attractions to be opened after his death and for the Imagineeers, trying to decide the scope of the ride was a major obstacle.
It wasn't long before the conversations in our group were revolving around going to the freshly constructed New Orleans Square to see the most technologically advanced Pirates of the Caribbean, but more importantly to visit the seemingly quiet Southern Antebellum Mansion standing amidst a grove of trees with the Disneyland Railway running close behind the property. As we crossed from the hub of the park thru Adventureland arriving at New Orleans Square, my anxiety was increasing, but I didn't dare tell anyone. We had decided to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean and then work our way over to the Haunted Mansion. Weaving our way thru the turnstiles towards Lafayette's Landing laughing and talking, I tried to laugh too, but deep inside I felt almost nauseated. I could see the Mansion from the entrance to the Pirates attraction and my active imagination was weaving visions of faceless phantoms reaching out to grab me. But it looked so neat and clean on the outside, that it only made me more fearful. It was difficult to enjoy the ride because I was so preoccupied with going to a very foreboding Mansion. As we disembarked from the bateaux, my mind was racing.
The fear of the unknown had taken a front seat and now I had to come up with a way to stall the inevitable. Suddenly like switching on a light, it came to me. The bathroom! Of course, no one would suspect an innocent trip to the restroom. After all relief was a part of everyday life, and I needed some. I quickly excused myself and was off for the safety of a metal stall and a simple sliding bolt. I thought I was out of the woods, but okay, now what? If I sat here long enough maybe they would forget about me and my problems would be over. How would I get home? I know, I could walk. No, wait, it was too far. I lost all perception of time. How long had I been in here? Maybe they would go on the ride and then come looking for me. Oh darn, I missed the ride. Oh well, no big deal. Panic was slowly easing its grip and I was starting to breath a little easier, when out of nowhere, I heard my name. I recognized the voice. It was my camp counselor. I'd been found out! He called my name again. Maybe if I don't answer he'll go away. He asked if I was okay and I don't know if it was the concern in his voice, but I found myself answering, "Yeah I'm okay". "I'll wait for you outside, we don't want to ride without you". "Without you". Something about that sounded necessary. I didn't really want to miss out. Fear is strong, but belonging can be a powerful ally. Even if its just going through a haunted house. As I walked out of the shadows of the restroom, and back into the sunlight, I saw my counselor sitting there waiting for me. He looked at me with concern. I guess it showed. "Are you sure you're okay"? "Yeah, I'm sure". "Well come on let's go". The tone coupled with his companionship was the relief I needed. And I never did have to go to the bathroom .
As we walked past the large trees, I could see the large two-story cream colored building coming into view. With its trademark weathervane and signature green trim, it was a striking contrast on that warm summer afternoon. It was very warm, extremely crowded but more importantly it was the opening day. But not just any opening day. This was the beginning of a non-stop run for an attraction that is considered the benchmark for all other truly classy haunted house dark rides. And I was hiding in the bathroom. As we made our way through the turnstiles I remember all the attention to detail. As it sometimes happens with Disney attractions, the ride queues can be changed with such effectiveness and subtlety, that you sometimes find yourself asking, "was that there or wasn't it"? Such is the case with the Haunted Mansion. Being able to see the original placement of the crypts and gravestones is part of Disney history. The thing that makes the house itself seem so ominous is that it is so quiet, clean and well kept (at least on the outside). All the windows are covered with shades and curtains making it impossible to peek in. There are no giveaways, no sound, nothing. Not until you get to the edge of the porch.
The familiar strains of the organ and the mansion's theme song can be heard and is now instantly recognizable. I remember distinctly that one half of the door entering the mansion was on a track and the other half was on a hinge. The flickering candles, the texture of the original wallpaper and those great words "Welcome foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion", was truly creepy as I was trying to keep close to my group. Passing from the foyer to the gallery, the high ceiling and long oblong portraits made me feel even smaller than I was. It is really amazing to talk to people and realize that many still don't realize the significance, at least, in Disneyland for the berm and what lies beyond. Many just enjoy the ride for what is was intended and don't know just how much planning went into making this attraction a reality. The attention to detail keeping just what is supposed to be viewed and everything else invisible is expertly executed. The concept of space management was never more important than on this ride and its sister attraction, The Pirates of the Caribbean. As we exited the gallery I found that lightning effects had my attention as much as the paintings which changed with the subsequent flashes. As I had mentioned earlier, periodically, Disney will change portions of dark rides for a number of reasons. Weather it be for effectiveness or renovation, sometimes the changes are so subtle its hard to remember if something had been changed or not. The paintings, the sťance room and the bride are good examples of that. I dare not forget to mention the Hatbox Ghost. I can't honestly say if he was there when I rode the ride the first time, because at some point either after the "soft opening" or the official opening, the figure was removed for lack of effectiveness. Leaving the portrait hallway and making a sharp left to board the doombuggies, the limbo effect behind the load area was memorable as well as the faint shadows of the doombuggies as they slowly squeaked along their path. Ascending to the second floor I was craning my very short neck to see what was behind and beneath our buggy. By this point fear was replaced by curiosity, and one of my favorite phrases, "how did they do that?" My most favorite effect, the Endless Hallway was next which has to be one of the best examples of blending illusion with engineering to produce a truly eerie effect. If you pay extra close attention, the ride is actually "broken" into two halves artistically speaking. The first half of the ride which incorporated a lot of Rolly Crump's atmosphere and effects are darker and more ominous in tone, while the second half was more fun spirited presentation that was created by Marc Davis. And that was how Disney solved the dilemma of "scary or silly". They had both. In most haunted houses, dread builds as the ride progresses, while the Haunted Mansion is just the opposite. "Leave them laughing" was the watchword. As myself and my counselor continued on our journey, we slowly crept along the crooked hall past the conservatory, corridor of doors and probably the simplest effect which is located in the clock hall. Entering the sťance room the momentum started to pick up with activity literally taking place all around us. Never has the simplicity of using black lighting and day-glow paint been blended so effectively with engineering and technology which is used to conjure up the Madame Leota personage. By this time I was just staring at all the activity with my mouth open, not being able to catch every thing that was happening. That's pretty much how the rest of the ride is laid out, a lot of activity taking place in every corner of the "stage". One of the biggest illusions is located in the ballroom as the ghosts attend a very swinging birthday party. This effect dates back to the early 1900's, and required a setup without the roof being put into place until after this was completed. There was a slight break in the pace as we entered the attic with the ghost bride waiting by the window as we descended into the graveyard. I remember leaving the attic with the buggy rotating completely around and dipping to a 45 degree angle. It was as if we were sinking and where more appropriate than in a graveyard. The black lighting and use of scrims made the seemingly see-through characters seem more lively as they romped and frolicked in their playground. The bicycling ghosts were really funny and the ghoul trying to bury himself in the brick pier at the end of the ride was a way of saying to us, "see ya later". The assemblage of characters, atmosphere, humor and yes, some jump-out-of-your-seat scares, was a tribute to the imagination of Disney, Crump, Davis and many others
The mind of a nine year old boy changes gears rapidly from one emotion to another. What started as very frightful experience ended with me thinking, "if its this much fun the first time, I can't wait to ride it again.
Kip is a freelance writer and an avid Disney historian and collector. Additionally he owns his own photographic company that specializes in available light and motion photography.
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