I had the pleasure of taking a long weekend to visit Disneyland in late October, partially to stay at the Grand Californian (nice, though not a great value), partially to see the new A Bug’s Land play area (very well done), but mainly to see the Haunted Mansion Holiday makeover that I unfortunately missed last year.
Walking through New Orleans Square early that Saturday morning, I felt a sense of terror, dread, foreboding…but not because I’m scared of ghosts. Haunted Mansion is a classic, after all—one of my very favorite attractions—and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to screw it all up. So many things could go wrong: how would Disney’s ghouls match up with Tim Burton’s undead? Sure, they’re both “scary” in an un-scary sort of way, but aside from that, they seem to hail from completely different universes. I could visualize a handful of cheap plywood cutouts of Nightmare figures nailed up, blocking the view of the ballroom, graveyard, etc., positioned in just such a way to obscure the classic scenes behind. So imagine my surprise when I tell you that Haunted Mansion Holiday is excellent. So good, in fact, that I’m not even sure I want them to bring the original Haunted Mansion back.
There is a fair amount of plywood in the new attraction, actually, but I have to compliment Disney on how it handled this: it never looks cheap. And as a bonus, there’s much more “dimensional” work than I would have expected, most dramatically, the curlicue mountaintop that towers over the graveyard sequence. The Jack Skellington Audio-Animatronic figure moves much more impressively than the figure it substitutes for. And the additions are anything but tight-fisted: every room in the attraction is liberally covered with Nightmare figures and artifacts. You’ll clearly recognize this as the same attraction you’re familiar with, but very little is unchanged. There are even standout effects, too: the replacement of the graveyard’s singing busts with…well, instead of giving it away, let’s just say it’s a much more arresting effect than the singing busts ever were. Some Mansion fanatics might be disappointed that the regular Mansion scenes and figures are so de-emphasized, but I think the designers made the right choice. Going “half-way” would have produced the least satisfactory result. A stingy application of Nightmare characters to two or three rooms in the Mansion would have managed to infuriate both the Nightmare fans that wanted to see more, and the Mansion fans whose attraction had now been corrupted.
I walked out of the Haunted Mansion with a big smile on my face, and that hadn’t happened in a long time. Haunted Mansion Holiday’s designers knew exactly what they were trying to show us—one of the more charming aspects of the film, namely, the Nightmare spooks’ complete inability to comprehend Christmas—and as great as the original Haunted Mansion is, its designers never quite figured this out. The original never commits itself to being either funny or scary, and ends up not totally delivering on either count. In fact, a similar problem inhabits many of the classic Disney attractions created in the ’50s—’60s era. So many veer back and forth between painstaking realism and corny humor. They fail to set a consistent tone.
I especially noticed this while riding Pirates of the Caribbean later that same morning. Incredible pains were obviously taken by the original designers to make the swamp-like boarding area realistic. As much as is possible in a theme park, the whole thing is impressively subtle. (A shooting star does pass overhead with astonishing regularity—perhaps every thirty seconds or so—but in general, it’s fairly restrained.) The next scene in the grotto shows a couple of realistically detailed rotting skeletons with pickaxes and shovels, pirates who failed in their search for buried treasure. This is cool: something straight out of the Treasure Island universe that Disney’s pirates hail from. It’s realistic, at least in the context of the movie-ish world the ride has placed us in, and it’s a little scary.
Next is something confusing: another skeleton standing on the deck of a wrecked ship, turning the ship’s wheel in a torrent of simulated rain. I always thought they should have had the skeleton’s hands lashed to the wheel so that there would be some excuse for why a skeleton would be piloting a ship. But no…I kind of feel like we’re supposed to think that we’re seeing a skeleton consciously piloting a crashed ship. Why is this skeleton alive when the previous ones were so obviously dead…like they’re supposed to be? The realism of the initial scenes starts to dissipate.
The ride then shifts tone, from moody creepiness to outright gags. In the next scene we see more “living” skeletons, one of them swilling grog. (It’s a neat effect, but exactly how is that supposed to be happening?) A haunted harpsichord plays itself. A comically carved wooden sign reads “Thar Be No Place Like Home.”
If the rest of the ride maintained the corny tone, it might have been fine. But it doesn’t: the scenes for the remainder of the ride jump back to the realism we saw in the beginning. Pirates of the Caribbean is about mood and atmosphere, and when a jokey sign pops up saying “Stow Yer Weapons,” the ride makes painfully clear to me that it is artifice. I knew that, to be sure, but for a while I’d forgotten.
The “classic” Haunted Mansion has some of the same faults, though they are less severe than the ones in Pirates. After a trip through a creepy hallway with doors bulging, presumably holding back the scariest ghouls you could imagine, another sign—this one reads “Tomb Sweet Tomb”—takes you right out of the scary universe and into a cartoon. Fans might claim that this is part of a deliberate effort to tone the ride down, and it probably is; the designers wanted to make you laugh in-between the scary stuff to lessen the intensity of the ride. That sounds plausible enough (though I’m not sure that a needlepoint reading “Tomb Sweet Tomb” truly qualifies as funny), but for me it’s distracting and lessens the experience. TIME Magazine film critic Richard Schickel observed the same thing in his 1968 book The Disney Version:
What is frustrating about [Disneyland] is that it is not better than it is, that just when something has about captured you, caused you willingly to suspend disbelief, the “imagineers” rudely nudge you awake and whisper, “Just kidding, folks.” On the submarine ride, for example, all is going reasonably realistically, when the ship suddenly glides past a mermaid and the trip is spoiled by the intrusion of this obviously fictional creature…Another example: there is a train ride…that takes you past extremely artful dioramas, showing various geological ages. When the age of the dinosaurs is reached, there are excellent moving models of the great creatures, far more artfully done than any you are likely to encounter in a museum. But then you notice the baby tyrannosaurus [sic] represented as just breaking out of their eggs, and, wonder of wonders, they are cuddly and adorable. The dear round bottom of one is wiggling comically as he shakes off his shell. The message, apparently, is that cuteness existed as an ideal in nature long before man appeared.
Disney tends to resist going for the easy laughs in its more recent attractions: rides like Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones are completely consistent from queue to exit, never once wavering from their sober tone. And by “sober,” I don’t mean boring, or overtly serious. These rides aren’t boring, nor do they take themselves too seriously. They’re fun—obviously giant-sized toys—but they’re seeking to tell a single story and create a single emotion.
Despite the issues I’ve raised, I love both Pirates and Haunted Mansion. So why should I bother criticizing them? Maybe Disney will notice and take the opportunity to smooth out the experiences during their much-anticipated re-works for Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary. Unlikely, though. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m surprised you could paste over a classic attraction with plywood and a new soundtrack, do it at a fraction of what the attraction originally cost (in real dollars, at least), and make it a more satisfying experience. I hope the folks at Disney are surprised, too, because I know that next time I ride the classic Haunted Mansion it’ll be hard not to think of Jack Skellington.