Sunday, August 14, 2011

Graveyard Playground

Alright, so I'm posting on Sunday instead of Monday or Friday. It's still this week, give me a break.

Since I was old enough to walk, my favorite theme park attraction in all the world has been The Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World (Orlando, FL). Despite all the project turmoil and personal tragedy its creators endured, the mansion ended up a masterpiece of atmosphere, detail, and fun, the hallmarks of classic Disney. Filled to overflowing with clever gags, eerie characters, and evocative music, millions of people have made their way through this retirement home for the dearly departed since it opened in 1971 (the original opened at Disneyland in California two years prior).

It was also the perfect way to introduce young'uns to spooky concepts. The place was just unsettling enough to be interesting, but once you got through to the end of the ride, you realize that all the ghosts (at least, all the ghosts you come across) are a jovial sort who just want to have a good time, and there's no real danger. Outside though, the brick and mortar looms over guests like a living thing, and the wolf howls don't help to ease your sense of fear.

For 40 years, the mansion remained largely unchanged. Oh sure, there'd be audio tweaks, and they did add a new bride to the attic, but for the most part all 999 happy haunts kept themselves to themselves, waiting for us inside. That is, until this past April, when Disney employees (I refuse to call these jokers Imagineers, they don't deserve the title) made huge, expensive, and idiotic changes that forever altered the vibe of this once-great attraction.

The day the mansion died.

I'm not going to go into detail about the additions that have been made. It's been covered in the media aplenty, and sites like and the immensely readable Long-forgotten (which are both required reading if you're a mansion, or even Disney, fan) have covered the subject pretty thoroughly. I'm just going to share my thoughts on these changes, and what they mean for the mansion in general. After careful reflection, my opinion is thus:


I'm not using hyperbole here. The new queue has ruined what the ride was going for, what men like Yale Gracey and Marc Davis worked so hard to create. Before, the place felt like an actual house, with some pretty nasty stuff potentially inside. There's things you had to block out to appreciate the story -EXIT signs, the ride vehicles, fat women in track suits pushing you out of the way, etcetera- but taking the imagined elements of the house by themselves, it worked like gangbusters. Or ghostbusters. Before seeing the ghouls for yourself and understanding they're not actually out to kill you, the exterior of the house and the ambiguity of the infamous "ghost host" gave off a menacing air. The experience of the Stretch Room could even be seen as a threat to your bodily safety. It's not until it's all over that you see that these dead pricks just have a sick sense of humor.

Now, all of that is negated. The cartoonish new busts outside, coupled with the sea captain's tub crypt (which squirts water), and the poet's mausoleum (which has an annoying voice asking for help to complete stupid poems) betray any inherent spook factor the building had. They don't fit stylistically with the rest of the mansion, in which the inhabitants are either photo-realistic, slightly caricatured, or more grotesque. These new characters would be at home in Fantasyland, but in Liberty Square? In the courtyard of a Victorian brick mansion? They look ridiculous.

Worse, they destroy the mansion's integrity. As my fellow fan Dan Olson has pointed out, all questions asked about the story, the characters, or other niggling doubts could, prior to the new queue, be answered with reason and logic. The mansion had rules. It's doubtful that the creators consciously debated every issue that could have arisen from more skeptical or curious minds, but whether through accident or design, the imagined world kept to its own laws. The new stuff chucks that out the window and says "There's ghosts, so it's all crazy, all wacky, anything goes!" What?

The changes regarding the hitchhiking ghosts aren't quite as severe. The idea of allowing those three to actually mess with the guests in the mirror is a fun one, and the technology exists now, which it certainly didn't in the late 60s. The problem is, they've set themselves a challenge to keep up now. People quickly become bored with the "latest and greatest." The old effect worked just fine. The ghosts may not have been able to grab your face and put it over their own, but everyone liked it. And people who try to argue for the new stuff cannot say that the original effect was outdated, because let's be honest here, the effect was way outdated before Disney ever used it for the hitchhikers. Most of the big moments in the Haunted Mansion -the ballroom, the hitchhikers, the hanged man- rely on tricks that stage magicians used and perfected back in the late 1800s! And that was the main reason, in my mind, for the mansion's charm (and looking at the posts on the Doombuggies forums, I'm not alone). The mansion as a place and as a ride hearkens back to old spook shows, ghost stories, classic tales of murder and things that go bump in the night. Real Poe and gas-lamp kind of stuff. But now, we have a crypt that looks like a tub that squirts water. Idiocy, plain and simple.

It's difficult not to be upset about this. As I've said on this blog before, when you're able to go on a ride you first experienced as a small child and have the exact same experience, essentially reliving a memory, that's powerful psychological stuff. It's an amazing feeling. The people behind these changes have taken that away from millions of fans. It will never be the same. And there's no chance of them taking this out; it cost a pretty penny, so I'm told.

We shouldn't be surprised. Disney has been slipping for years now. It started when they added Jack Sparrow to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I love those movies, I love the character. But the ride inspired the movies, let's get that straight. You can't change a classic because some guests are too stupid to know the ride came first.

I'll still visit the Mansion when I head to Orlando this October, but it will be with a heavy heart. I just pray that the line that allows you to bypass the new queue will be open and I can enter without having to look at that drivel.

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