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WDI's X-Scream Makeover of WDW's Haunted Mansion: Part 1

Jim Hill

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WDI's X-Scream Makeover of WDW's Haunted Mansion: Part 1

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Plussing. It's a practice at the Disney theme parks that reportedly dates back to the late 1950s. When Walt -- while he was visiting Disneyland one weekend -- supposedly overheard a mother tell her child: "We don't have to go on the Jungle Cruise again. We saw that ride the last time we visited this park."

Ever since that time, the Imagineers (following the Ol' Mousetro's specific instructions) have made a habit of adding new figures & effects to already well-established rides, shows and attractions. With the hope that these "freshenings-up" will then give theme park visitors a compelling new reason to revisit an old favorite.

And when it comes to the Haunted Mansion at WDW's Magic Kingdom ... Well, it's not like this Liberty Square favorite hasn't ever been plussing in the past. Diehard fans of this dark ride will be glad to tell you about the haunted hearse that was added to the queue area back in 1997. Or -- for that matter -- the blinking Leota tombstone that went "live" in 2002. Or the Mr. Toad statue that appeared in this attraction's post-show Pet Cemetery in 2005.

But as for the attraction itself ... With the exception of those singing busts in the Graveyard sequence (Which -- what with the technical upgrades that were made during this most recent redo -- are now using fourth generation digital projection technology), the rest of the Haunted Mansion remained mired in the 1970s.

No. It was worse than that, actually. Many of the little touches that used to really add to this attraction's charm (How many of you remember that cool blast of air that you used to feel just as the Ghost Host mentioned that the Mansion featured " ... hot and cold running chills" ?) had been broken for a decade or more. And given that -- back in the 1990s -- Mouse House management made significant cuts to WDW's overall maintenance budget ... The money just wasn't there to make any significant repairs to this dark ride.

So the Mansion moldered for years. With the leak in the roof continually ruining the carpet in the attraction's Foyer (You thought that that distinct whiff of mildew that you used to catch whenever you entered this show building was deliberate? Yet another application of that smellizer technology that the Imagineers first introduced at EPCOT Center back in 1982 ? Think again, folks. That moldy smell was real mold growing under the carpets and along the baseboards in the Haunted Mansion's entrance area) and the attraction's AA figures losing a lot of their original animation. All because ...

Well, to be blunt, because many members of WDW management didn't give a rat's ass about this 36-year-old fan favorite. They preferred that the money that had been budgeted for Walt Disney World be spent on new rides & shows for the resort. Rather than being wasted on maintaining and/or upgrading already existing attractions.

Mind you, there were a few folks left at WDW who remembered the old ways. Particularly Walt's belief that you should plus already established rides & shows. With the hope that these additions would then give the guests a pleasant surprise the next time they rode that particular attraction.

Which is why -- for over five years now -- these Disney insiders have been fighting for a Mansion redo. One that would not only restore this once state-of-the-art dark ride to its former glory, but also fold in a few new tricks along the way.

But the good news is ... All of that nagging and noodging eventually paid off. With Mouse House managers ultimately agreeing to give the Imagineers $30 million to make some desperately needed repairs to the 36-year-old structure as well as upgrade the interior of this Liberty Square attraction.

Mind you, they then only gave WDI three months to get all of this work done. You see, WDW's Haunted Mansion had to be back & running again by no later than September 13th of this year. "Why For that particular date ?," you ask. Because if the Mansion wasn't back on line by then, Disney then risked disappointing the thousands of people who had already purchased tickets to the very first night of Mickey's Not-so-Scary Halloween Party. Which was scheduled for September 14, 2007.

Obviously, this was a very ambitious project with a nearly impossible deadline. But as Walt Disney once said: "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." So once the Mansion closed its doors back on June 7th, the Imagineers immediately got to work. And 95 days later, the construction walls came down to reveal ... Well, not exactly " ... a disquieting metamorphosis." But -- rather -- a newly enhanced version of an old WDW favorite.

Indeed, as one enters the outdoors portion of the queue for this Liberty Square attraction, one may find it difficult to put their finger on what exactly has been changed about the exterior of the Haunted Mansion. Oh, sure. The awning that covers the Colonnade is now blood red. Which does a much better job of matching the color of the brick that was used to build this Dutch Gothic-style manor house than the old green awning did. But -- beyond that -- things outside of this show building don't look all that different.

Which is just WDI wants you to think. That there's been no real changes made out here. That everything is as it ever was at Disney World's Haunted Mansion.

Truth be told, some pretty significant work was done in the Colonnade area. First by widening the width of the queue. Which means that -- for the first time ever -- the exterior portion of the Haunted Mansion is now wheelchair accessible.

Secondly, by putting a third more of this attraction's outside queue space undercover ... Well, that means a couple of hundred more tourists are kept out of the elements -- sheltered from that blistering Florida sun and/or those pounding afternoon rainstorms -- while they wait for their chance to experience the Haunted Mansion.

Beyond that ... The exterior of this dark ride (Even though it's just been completely repainted) looks pretty much as it always has. Oh, sure. The dark paint that used to cover the door that you actually enter this show building through has been stripped away. It's been replaced by a new stain & varnish that finally allows you see to see the wood grain underneath. But -- again -- we're talking about mostly subtle changes. Things that casual visitors to this Liberty Square attraction won't (and -- to be honest -- really shouldn't) notice.

But once you enter the Haunted Mansion's foyer area ... Well, this is where Disney diehards and/or hardcore Mansion fans will really begin noticing the differences. Gone forever is that mildew smell. Not only did the Imagineers repair that roof leak, they also had new carpeting installed. The wallpaper that lines the upper third of the room is also new. And for the wood panel that cover the bottom 2/3rds ... Just as they did with the door that leads into the Foyer area, WDI stripped all of the paint off of that paneling. They then covered this wood with a new dark strain as well as a clear coat of shellac. So that the natural wood grain in this area really pops.

Though I'd imagine -- given what's now going on with Master Gracey's portrait over the fireplace -- not all that many tourists are actually going to notice the popping wood grain in the paneling.

Gone are the days when this "Picture of Dorian Gray" effect used to be achieved by having two behind-the-scenes slide projectors working in perfect synchronization. Where -- as each slide cross-faded into the next -- we got to see the master of the house slowly deteriorate. Now Disney's gone digital. And the crystal-clear image that you see in the portrait above the fire ... Well, it now morphs from one painting to the next.

The end result is a much, much smoother effect. Where if you keep a close eye on this digital projection as the Ghost Host does his spiel, you can now see Master Gracey's clothing shrink and fray. The flesh on his once youthful face melt away to reveal the grinning skull underneath.

Speaking of the Ghost Host ... The Imagineers made a point of preserving Paul Frees' narration for the Haunted Mansion. Not changing a single syllable of what this Disney Legend says of the course of this much beloved attraction.

But that said ... That doesn't mean that the guys at WDI haven't tried to improve on perfection. Frees' voice tracks (Which were recorded back in 1969) were all first digitally remastered, then given a sinister sounding breathy undertone. Making it sound as if Paul really were speaking to us from another realm.

Next -- thanks to the huge number of new speakers that the Imagineers installed as part of this most recent Mansion redo -- the Ghost Host now literally sounds as if he's moving unseen throughout the entire room. Floating just above our heads as the door to the Portrait Gallery (AKA the Stretching Room) slides open and Frees intones "Kindly step all the way in and make room for everyone. There's no turning back now."

It's inside the Portrait Gallery that the audio enhancements that WDI has made to the Mansion really become obvious. Where once there were only 7 speakers, there are now over 70. With dozens of them hidden away in that new grillwork that's been installed along the floor of the stretching room.

And some of the choices that the Imagineers have made here are just so smart ... I mean -- for over 36 years now -- this chamber with "no windows and no doors" has been stretching, right? Well, if that's really the case, then why is it that we've never heard the wood that makes up the Portrait Gallery creaking & groaning as this room undergoes its supernatural transformation? Well, now you can.

Add to this the selective use of Disney's binaural sound system ... Which can best be heard right after that lightning strike reveals the corpse that's hanging just above the scrim in the Portrait Gallery. As thunder rolls and the stretching room plunges into darkness, you can then actually hear bats (Who have supposedly been frightened by the thunder & lightning) swooping down into the Portrait Gallery, trying to find their way out of the Mansion.

Mind you, not all of the audio effects that the Imagineers had originally proposed for this portion of the Haunted Mansion wound up making it into the finished version of the attraction. An earlier, much louder version of that lightning strike & the thunder rolling inside of the Portrait Gallery wound up getting scaled back. Mostly because the cast members who took part in early tests of this revamped Liberty Square attraction said that the first version was so loud and (and -- because of all those new sub-woofers that are hidden in the grillwork around the base of the stretching room) felt so strong ... Well, it nearly scared the crap out of them. Which is why the lightning-strike-and-thunder-roll audio effects that the Imagineers had originally proposed were scaled back by 50%.

And then there were the Gargoyles. Who -- in this original version of the newly enhanced Portrait Gallery -- were supposed to have a speaking role. According to the revised script for this sequence, every time the Ghost Host paused in his spiel, the Gargoyles would then chime in. Repeating the very last word or phrase that the Ghost Host just said.

Here's an excerpt from the revised script for this sequence in the Haunted Mansion:

GHOST HOST: Is this haunted room actually stretching?

GARGOYLES: Stretching.

GHOST HOST: Or is it your imagination, hmmn? And consider this dismaying observation: This chamber has no windows and no doors ...

GARGOYLES: No doors !

Sounds pretty cool, don't you think? The only problem is -- during those after-hours, cast-member-only tests that were done on the revamped Mansion -- the Imagineers noticed that whenever the Gargoyles spoke, the people inside of the Portrait Gallery would then begin talking amongst themselves. Saying things like "Did you hear that? I think that the Gargoyles just talked." Which -- because of all thenew conversations that were suddenly springing up around the stretching room -- then made it rather difficult to hear the Ghost Host's next line.

Faced with the fact that this one audio enhancement (Which -- thanks to the binaural technology that was used to deliver the Gargoyles' dialogue into the Portrait Gallery -- made it sound as if these long-silent statues were now speaking directly to you) unintentionally undermined the effectiveness of the rest of this classic sequence in the Haunted Mansion ... The Imagineers reluctantly cut the Gargoyles' speaking role. Except for one tiny little snippet that you can still hear toward the end of the stretching room scene.

Which is why you really want to linger in the Portrait Gallery after the doors have opened and the rest of the other guests are hurrying along the Entrance Hallway. As the Ghost Host says " ... and let's all stay together, please," you can hear the Gargoyles say "Stay together." Which is then followed by this eerie child-like laughter that briefly bounces around the stretching room before it then fades away.

As we head down the Entrance Hallway (Which now features the exact wallpaper and wood treatments that we saw out in the Foyer of the Haunted Mansion. Which -- in theory -- then helps to unify the look & design of this whole part of the attraction), we hear the Ghost Host say " ... a carriage approaches to carry you into the boundless realm of the supernatural."

And we will eventually get in that carriage and go explore the rest of this newly enhanced dark ride ... But -- in the next installment of JHM's "X-Scream Makeover" series -- we're actually going to talk about the changes that the Imagineers made to the Mansion's Omnimovers. Making this 36-year-old ride system safer & better sounding for all WDW visitors.

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  • Great article, Jim!  Reminds me why I keep coming back to your site every weekday.

  • Man, I don't know if I'm the only one, but I sure thought this article was well worth the wait!!

    Great job, Jim! This is the kind of stuff that got me coming here in the first place and it's for sure the stuff that keeps me coming back.

    I am SO looking forward to reading the next 4 installments. Having just gotten to experience the "new" Haunted Mansion (during MNSSHP, no less) I'm still fresh off my "WOW!" experience with it ... what the Imagineers did there was truly, truly amazing.

    Can't wait to read more!!

  • I was just down to the Magic Kingdom in early August and stood outside  the Mansion in Liberty Square and pondered what was happening inside this attraction. Now, thanks to JHM I will find out. The next time I am able to go down this classic will be the first place I go.

    I also agree with Walt's philosophy of changing and revamping rides and attractions to keep quests on thier toes!

  • Ooh, another multi-part series for Jim to not finish!

    What's the over/under on how far he gets? I'll bet he doesn't make it to part 4.

    (just kidding, keep up the good work Jim!)

  • Earlier this year I was in California for Star Wars Celebration and took a side trip to Disneyland.  It was my first experience with the Orleans Square version of the Mansion.  I was both extremely impressed at what I saw and almost physically nauseated thinking of its comparison to what we have in my own backyard here in Florida.  Well, be healed friend, as Liberty Square has nothing to be ashamed of anymore!  The upgrades lift the east coast mansion to the top of the heep.  I won't spoil any of Jim's upcoming articles, and will save further comments until after, but I will make one observation that I just learned from Jim.  As a seasoned guest at the Magic Kingdom, I and my party would always make our way in the Stretching Room to the 'secret panel' that leads to the Doombuggies, this in order to be quick in the queue to board our macabre chariots.  After reading Jims article, I'll now linger to listen to the end of the Stretching Room spiel!  And thanks for the clarification that it is still Master Frees' vocals we hear.  We were debating whether the noble Corey Burton had stepped in to fill the master's shoes!

  • This is simply the best "plussing" I've ever experienced at Disney. After seeing what has happened to some other WDW classics (Journey into the Imagination anyone?) I was quite worried about this project. But wow...it's amazing. Sometimes I need to take a long lunch break to sneak down to Disney just to get a fix. I used to skip the Haunted Mansion every couple of trips, but now I have to go on it multiple times just to try and catch all of the new stuff. Thanks for the story Jim, lots of stuff I haven't noticed yet but will keep and eye and ear out for in the future.

  • Looks and Sounds great I hope they continue to Plus other attractions in the Magic Kingdom  ...

       and I hope these new changes are not added to Disneyland for one I would like uniqueness at each of the parks wow what a concept

  • Now this is exactly the type of article that hooked me on this site to begin with!

    These 'plussings' were not only much needed but great improvements. The audio improvements alone seem incredible.

    Great story Jim... looking forward to the others in this series!!

  • Great article Jim.

    I've always loved the Haunted Mansion, and I can't wait till I'm in WDW in January to experience it.

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