I couldn’t have been older than six or seven years old when I first stepped foot inside The Haunted Mansion. Even at that young age I was already attracted to scary stuff, so on my first trip to Disneyland, I was drawn more to the creepy house in the middle of New Orleans Square than I was to the flying Dumbos or spinning tea cups.
I’m not one of those super brainy people who can remember every significant moment of their childhood, but I can recall my first time going through The Haunted Mansion in vivid detail – probably because it was slightly traumatic.
I can still remember the musky smell of the foyer and the booming voice of the Ghost Host which seemed to reverberate inside my head. When you’re an adult, you’re keenly aware of the tricks of the ride, but when you’re a kid, you don’t see the wall slide shut behind you, leaving you trapped inside the portrait room, which the disembodied voice gleefully points out has no windows or doors. I didn’t know I was in an elevator. I just knew the room was stretching and it was too dark for me to see my mom.
It was in this darkness that a grown man near me started freaking out. He got on his hands and knees and was searching the floor. He called out that he had lost one of his hard contact lenses and people were helping him search for it, including seven-year-old me. My imagination was so caught up with all the slimy, dead, grasping things that might slither out of the blackness and grab my searching hand that I was caught totally off guard when the scariest moment of the ride happens.
The Ghost Host teases everybody in the room that they’re trapped and there’s no way out except, perhaps, his way… And with a lightning flash the solid ceiling disappears revealing a surprisingly realistic skeleton hanging from a noose followed immediately by the room turning pitch black as a scream echoes around the chamber.
I know I was scared. I know I cried. I also know that’s the moment I fell in love with theme parks in general and The Haunted Mansion in particular.
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion 50th Anniversary Celebration
2019 marks the attraction’s 50th anniversary, and I happened to be in Southern California when Disney Parks offered a terribly expensive special event ticket to celebrate that big milestone. Everything lined up, and I found myself amongst the 999 happy haunts that occupy Disneyland in the dead of night.
The day began with…a long line. It is Disneyland, after all. The wait began at 9:00am at the Disneyland Hotel, where we all picked up our credentials and had access to the event store. All sorts of limited edition merchandise was on offer, from ghastly pins to prints from artists like Shag to clothing and purses and Funkos and just about everything else you could imagine having a hitchhiking ghost printed on it.
Because of the limited nature of these things (and the undoubtedly profitable resell value of limited Disneyana merch), this was the busiest moment of the whole event. It took about two and half hours for me to spend too much money, but also secure the best Christmas presents ever for my nephews Max and Rocco (coolest uncle of 2019 or of all time? I’ll let you be the judge) and maaayyybe a glow-in-the-dark Park Exclusive Madame Leota Funko Pop and a lenticular Hatbox Ghost pin for me. But I got what I wanted, and then returned home for a much needed nap before the real stuff went down.
The after hours event didn’t kick off until “the 13th hour,” aka 1:00am. While the crowd grew in front of the Disneyland gates, I spent my time scanning it and taking in all the great Haunted Mansion-themed cosplays. Lots of cobwebbed butlers, a few black widow brides, some familiar grim grinning ghosts from the cemetery, and even a couple guys dressed up as Alexander Nitrokoff, the stretched portrait guy in the red and white striped boxers standing atop a TNT barrel. I clocked a few tween-aged kids, one of whom was dressed up in baller Hatbox Ghost cosplay, and had the thought that their parents were rad as hell to bring them to an all-nighter event like this before the gates opened and we were led into the park for the kick-off at New Orleans Square.
It was just about 12:30am when we happy haunters entered the park and the first signs of the Haunted Mansion celebration materialized. On the balcony of The Golden Horseshoe stood a ghostly group of a cappella singers in blue makeup and cobwebby Victorian-era costumes. “The Cadaver Dans” started with Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party,” and as we were all lined up next to the iconic paddle steamer, The Mark Twain, I heard them cycle through Disney-friendly stuff like “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid and then on to some odder tunes, like Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho Theme” and The Addams Family theme song.
Just before 1:00am, the barriers dropped and everybody crowded around the Rivers of America, made slightly more ominous than usual with rolling clouds of fog illuminated with the purples, greens, and blues you associate with The Haunted Mansion. Organ music echoed throughout New Orleans Square as all the replica old-timey gaslights along the river brightened, making glowing gold orbs in the mist.
The mood was set and when the 13th Hour finally arrived, the opening ceremony on Tom Sawyer Island began with a welcoming message from our Ghost Host, a laser display that projected The Haunted Mansion’s wallpaper onto the island, and Madame Leota herself appearing to invite all the ghosts to come out and mingle with us foolish mortals in celebration of their 50th anniversary of retirement. The Cadaver Dans returned, “Grim Grinning Ghosts” was sung, dancers came out, and, of course, a barrage of sparkly fireworks ended the opening ceremony. The crowd immediately scattered to seek out all the nifty photo ops, food offerings, and available merch they could.
My plan was to hit Big Thunder Mountain Railroad first. My reasoning: some attractions were going to close at 3:00am and Big Thunder was one of those, so why not hit it early? On my way, I just happened upon one of the exclusive photo opportunities just as it opened, so I had to take advantage of it. The ticket included unlimited photo downloads, so it seemed silly to not do at least one. Gotta get that value, right?
So I ended up waiting maybe a minute and a half for a photo with Constance, the ax-wielding bride, and I have to say the cast member playing her was super into her character. She chatted me up, inquiring about my bachelor status first and then about my wealth. I had to let her down gently on that front. I write about movies and pop culture stuff on the internet, unfortunately. That was okay, she said, I had some time to acquire more wealth and then I should come back. She also delightfully informed me that her second husband was a very rich man. So rich, in fact, he bought that lovely mansion in the distance before his…accident. It’s that kind of level of detail and commitment to lore of the park that sets Disney above the rest of their competition. The illusion of being completely submerged in a different place and time is astounding.
Photo achieved, I set out for Big Thunder. Much to my dismay, it appeared closed. There was nobody going on the ride and I didn’t hear any running carts or delighted roller coaster screams. I walked up to the cast member at the front of the attraction and asked if the ride was down and got a friendly laugh in response. No, the ride was fully operational. It was just empty.
My friend Aaron and I walked through the deserted turnstiles and on to the loading platform, where we were directed to the back middle of the ride and were boarded right away. Feeling like a kid in a candy store, I enjoyed the ride, especially the little distant glimpse of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (which I still haven’t gotten a chance to visit), and then was even more blown away when we pulled back into the loading area and there was still nobody there. They let us stay in our seats and ride again. I ended up riding Big Thunder three times in a row and could have done a fourth, but my time at this event was limited, so I went to hit up the other stuff in the park.
Before the night was over I made sure to take advantage of the walk-on privileges on Indiana Jones, Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the birthday boy itself, The Haunted Mansion. All the other rides were their typical selves, but for this event they made sure the Mansion was a special experience.
It was dramatically lit up, which was cool, but the real surprises were inside. My first whiff of that was when I heard metallic clanking at the beginning of the ride. The long hallway with the floating candlestick was coming up and sure enough, one of the suits of armor had an actual, living cast member in it. They’d stay still for a few seconds and then jump to a fighting stance as the Doom Buggies slid by.
They also inserted a live actor into the ballroom section, sitting at the table having an animated conversation with the animatronic ghosts around them. Finally, at the end of the ride, they took out the animatronic Gus, the hitchhiking ghost with the long white beard, and replaced it with a cast member. It was so cool that I ended up riding Haunted Mansion two more times just to really let the experience sink in. The third and final time was especially amazing, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.
Time was already slipping away, and I wanted to make sure I took advantage of the free food vouchers that came with the badge. I ended up getting one of the famous Monte Cristo sandwiches (served on a Haunted Mansion wallpaper square of paper, no less), an absolutely delicious punch concoction, and a very tasty blueberry cheesecake desert molded in the shape of a Doom Buggy with a white chocolate hitchhiking ghost stuck in the middle of it.
While I do admit I gave in to the temptation to ride a few attractions multiple times, I still feel like the three hours went by way too fast considering the longer queue lines for the photo ops and food. There were a few experiences I just flat out didn’t have time to hit, and for $300 a ticket, I would have expected to get a chance to experience everything the event had to offer.
The biggest thing I missed was a ride on the Mark Twain, joined by the “SCAREolers” who sang spooky tunes as the boat cruised around the Rivers of America. The first trip out was almost overflowing it was so packed (which is probably why I got to ride Big Thunder three times in a row), and I couldn’t make the timing work on the other departures. It’s not really that big of a deal, it just feels like the event was priced at such a level that anything I could have done but didn’t get to do was a wasted opportunity. I can’t complain, though, because one of the best Disney Park experiences I ever had happened right at the tail end of the night.
Given that this event was presumably attended by hardcore Haunted Mansion fans, I figured everybody would be rushing the Mansion just before 4:00am, when everything shut down. I knew I wanted to end the night with another run through my favorite theme park attraction, so I braced myself for the onslaught of the crowd only to find myself almost alone in the foyer.
It was 3:58am and it was just me, my buddy Aaron, and a single random dude in the holding area. The doors stayed open for a minute, but nobody else came in and I got what amounted to my own private Haunted Mansion experience.
I soaked in the ambiance of the foyer, before the door to the portrait gallery slid open, and was once again triggered back to my childhood first experience on the ride. Except this time, there wasn’t a crowd of people, no adult dude freaking out about his contact lens falling out of his eye. This time, it was a nearly empty room.
Perhaps I choked on that Monte Cristo and I died out in the park. Was this my ghostly retirement? Was I about to join the 999 happy haunts and finally get them to the nice, round number of 1000? Those ridiculous thoughts swirled through my mind as I took the empty elevator room ride down to the ride itself, strolled leisurely past the changing paintings towards the busts that follow your every move, and took a moment before climbing aboard the final Doom Buggy of the night.
I’ve had a very privileged career and don’t have much of a bucket list left. One of the things on there is to get to do an after-hours walkthrough of the Haunted Mansion, an invite-only special VIP thing that cool people like Guillermo del Toro get to do. Maybe I’ll get to scratch that off the list at some point in the future, but this experience was pretty dang close.
The amount of history that radiates off this place is unreal. Walt Disney might not have made it to see The Haunted Mansion open, but it does still have his personal touch on it. That same feeling you get from the other attractions he personally oversaw, like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Tiki Room, is alive and well inside The Haunted Mansion. If The Overlook Hotel from The Shining is a place that keeps the stains of the evil deeds and evil people that have passed through its halls, The Haunted Mansion is the opposite, a place where the creative cloud that surrounded Uncle Walt and his team of Imagineers, including but not limited to Harper Goff, Ken Anderson, Rolly Crump, X Atencio, and Marc Davis, still lingers.
Happy 50th Birthday, Haunted Mansion. Here’s to the next 50 years of scaring the shit out of a couple more generations of kids.
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