The last time I wrote a header about the Haunted Mansion,1 I talked about how a strange part of its appeal is the way that, unlike most Disney attractions, it isn’t particularly interested in telling a single story. Instead, it’s filled with a plethora of contradictory, even half-baked details; the primary thing giving coherence to the ride experience is the fact that it’s a slow burn, revealing its ghosts gradually and methodically. At first glance, the Mansion seems to be a perfectly nice house — maybe a bit spooky depending on the light or weather, but hardly dilapidated. It isn’t until we’re inside the building that it becomes clear this place is very, very, haunted. And yet, other than the disembodied voice of the Ghost Host, the Mansion’s 999 happy haunts still spend the first half of the ride unable to interact with us directly. It’s only after passing through Madame Leota’s seance room that we witness what the ghost-hunting community would call ‘full-body apparitions.’ And once we can finally see them, we learn the attraction’s big twist: we were afraid for nothing! These ghosts just want to have fun!
Because of the attraction’s ‘anything goes’ approach to storytelling in almost every other respect, fans have taken to treating this one guiding principle as something sacred. Showing us a ghost before we pass through the seance room is more than just a continuity error: it’s virtually the only part of Mansion lore it’s even POSSIBLE to get wrong.
Anyway, guess what Disney did?
Last fall at the D23 Expo, it was announced that, eight years after his Disneyland re-debut in 2015,2 the iconic Mansion animatronic known as the Hatbox Ghost would finally be coming to Walt Disney World as well. Even at the time, this news struck many as anticlimactic, but subsequent details have shown it to be bad as well. For, you see, this particular Hatbox Ghost is not being placed on the balcony outside the attic, where he resides in California, but rather within the attraction’s third scene, the endless hallway.
Two full rooms before the seance room.
For my part, this news annoyed and frustrated me, but I can’t say it surprised me. Lately it’s begun to seem like every new Imagineering project, no matter how small, has to get at least one thing wrong, so in a sad way, placing this animatronic in one of the only parts of the ride where it can’t go is really just par for the course.
Thankfully, there is a counter-narrative at work here. Earlier this week, Disneyland announced a Mansion-related project of its own: a complete overhaul of the attraction’s outdoor queue and grounds. And it looks great!
It’s lush! It’s inviting! It doesn’t give away the fact that there are ghosts inside the way that Walt Disney World’s interactive queue does! It sticks to that slow-burn narrative. The press release describing the project even brings up the idea that the Mansion was built by a sea captain, tying all the way back to the very first pitch for the attraction in the early 60s. Now, look, this is hardly a total slam dunk of an idea, and I’m sure the execution won’t be perfect — if I had to guess, I’d bet these aesthetics are going to come at the expense of operational efficiency: another of Imagineering’s favorite trends lately — but it does at least demonstrate that someone, somewhere, still cares about the internal logic of things like the Mansion, and that someone among the Powers That Be is on board with it.
This does, of course, raise the question of why there’s such a contrast to these approaches. Are there different teams of Imagineers at work on each park? Do the ones assigned to Walt Disney World simply not care as much, and if so, is it because they know their specific clientele won’t care as much either? It’s a depressing thought, but at the same time, it’s also a hard one to rule out.
Feel free to use this space to discuss all things theme- or amusement park!
Optional Discussion Question: Has a (seemingly innocuous) change to a ride or other attraction ever made you like it less, or even ruined it for you?