999 Happy Cooks

An idle observation about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it timeless

At this point, I’ve read two books about Disney’s Haunted Mansion; Rolly Crump’s autobiography, which as you’d expect contains a lot of his stories about working on the attraction and the Museum of the Weird; and I’ve gotten to ride the three versions of the attraction in Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo, plus the Phantom Manor in Paris. So I’ve got some opinions.

To give an idea of how much I like this ride: one morning, I got the opportunity to ride the Magic Kingdom’s version over a dozen times back-to-back — I lost count, but I think it was 16 times? — and if I’d been given the option (and had a bathroom break), I would’ve wanted to ride it over a dozen more. It would be going a bit too far to say that you see new details every time you ride, because there’s definitely a point at which you’ve seen everything, but it doesn’t get old because it’s just fun to be surrounded by all of it.

One recurring bit of information that I’ve seen pop up repeatedly is that many of the Imagineers who worked on the ride — Marc Davis in particular — weren’t happy with how it turned out. In The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham describes how the attraction went through years of design with multiple teams of Imagineers assigned, all with different styles and opinions about how the attraction should be focused. Some wanted stronger story, while other wanted “mood.” A persistent argument, never settled even after the ride opened, was whether the attraction should be funny or scary. Baham cites an interview from Haunted Attraction Magazine, in which Davis says there were “too many cooks.”

Marc Davis was a genius, and his work is indisputably one of the main reasons I love Disney parks so much. But I disagree on this one. I think the apparent lack of focus in The Haunted Mansion is exactly why it’s so timeless, and why I never seem to get tired of it.

For evidence: the Phantom Manor in Paris. It’s more cohesive, more consistent, and more polished. The visual design of the house itself — like just about everything in Disneyland Paris — is striking, and it sets a perfect mood as an Old West version of the Bates house. It’s got a story that (if I remember correctly) is made all but explicit, which fits in as a key part of the fully-fleshed-out story of the entire land. It felt to me like a team had the vision of what they wanted from the start, and they worked to make everything fit. And it didn’t do a thing for me.

The key impression I got of the attraction was that it was overwrought. There’s very little of the fun and humor I associate with the “real” Haunted Mansion. The tone does lighten up in the last act of the ride, but by that point, I was just left with an overall feeling that they’d tried harder to make the story work than to make the experience fun.

Even an attraction I love, the Tower of Terror, loses a little something from its focus on story. The build-up can’t be beat: seeing the tower from a distance, passing the sign into the ominous queue, the path through the garden covered in fog from the misters if you’re there on a hot day, haunting 30s jazz music coming quietly from out of nowhere, an abandoned fountain with a long-neglected statue, the cobweb-covered lobby, and then the preshow that has the lightning from the TV escape out into the real world… it’s just exceptional place-building. But then our characters are zapped into the Twilight Zone, and the whole thing is over.

And while I haven’t ridden Rise of the Resistance enough to be sure, my first impression is that its story is part of what’s kept it from being one of my all-time-number-one favorite attractions. It is a phenomenal piece of design and execution, but I was still left with the feeling “Well, that happened.” It felt over, instead of ongoing.

I get the sense that there’s a long-running “debate” within Imagineering — frankly, probably more within the nerds like me who have strong opinions about Imagineering — about what it means to say that Disney’s strength is “story.” My opinion is that “story” is the best word for it, but that’s only because I can’t think of a good word for “something in between just a themed queue, and a narrative with beginning, middle, and end.”

The Haunted Mansion feels endless. Even as you’re leaving, the ghosts are encouraging you to hurry back. It’s a place, not a story, and it feels as if things are happening inside, and will continue happening forever, even when I’m not there to see them. It’s obviously most similar in tone, design, and structure to Pirates of the Caribbean, but unlike that ride, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching scenes from the past, but from a perpetual present.

Except that’s not quite it, either. One of the things that makes Walt Disney World’s version superior — for the record: California has the better exterior, Florida has the better interior, there will be no further questions — is that it has so many paintings still on display. They’re intensely nostalgic, of a very specific time and aesthetic, which is late 60s camp horror. Some have the quality of the best Scooby-Doo concept and background art, some seem straight out of horror comics like Creepy and Eerie, some feel like cover art of a cheap horror paperback.

Combined with other memorable visual touches throughout the mansion — like the chair next to the endless hallway, or the eyes repeated in the wallpaper — they’re such a specific aesthetic that they feel unquestionably designed. It’s foolish to assign sole authorship to anything in something as collaborative as a Disney theme park attraction, much less one with such a long process involving so many people not just in the original version but with all the refurbs, but the details feel distinctly like they were made by someone. Not a committee, or a project leader, but individual artists. Each adding their mark to the house over the years, like a real mansion.

Disney fans like to make it sound as if originality in the parks is doomed because of the company’s preoccupation with IP over original attractions, as if there weren’t at least a dozen counter-examples of outstanding attractions based on an existing property. I think that’s mostly nonsense, but there is the tiniest of valid criticisms at the core of it: making something as long-lasting as a Disney attraction needs to have enough room for it to be indefinitely expansive. Even if you have a ton of talented people working to the best of their ability, all filling the experience with tons of expertly-crafted details, it’s inevitably going to feel a bit small if it’s kept tight, focused, and cohesive, instead of being given room to grow and be at least a little bit weird.

2 thoughts on “999 Happy Cooks”

  1. OK, having read that, I now have another suggestion for your reading list: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s post-cyberpunk first novel. It imagines a future in which technology has revolutionized everything and humans are effectively immortal, but Disney imagineers still have very intense conflicts over what exactly the Haunted Mansion should be.

    1. Hmmm. I’ve seen that book recommended dozens of times over the years (it’s in the recommended reading of the last Haunted Mansion book I read, in fact), but my semi-irrational dislike of Cory Doctorow has kept me from looking into it. Your description is the first one I’ve heard that makes me interested at all. Thanks!

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