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WDI's X-Scream Makeover of WDW's Haunted Mansion: Part 3

Jim Hill

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WDI's X-Scream Makeover of WDW's Haunted Mansion: Part 3

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Picking up where we left off on Tuesday ... I know that this is going to sound a bit bizarre. Particularly given that -- back in 1955 -- Walt Disney built an entire theme park for just $17 million. But $30 million doesn't go as far as you might think these days. Which is why WDI really had to pick & choose where it spent the money that Disney Parks & Resorts had budgeted for this Haunted Mansion redo.

Take -- for example -- that attraction's Music Room sequence. Which features this shadowy figure hammering away at a piano. For the most part, this scene (as it already exists in the Mansion) works. Which is why the Imagineers basically opted to leave this room alone. They only added a few new props (Which -- in this case -- amounted to a couch, a violin & a bass fiddle) to help reinforce the idea that this was where people used to perform in the once-grand manor house.

Of course, one of the advantages of WDI taking a piecemeal approach to the rehab of this Magic Kingdom favorite is that it would then have the dough that it needed to tackle areas of this attraction that were in serious need of some plussing. Which brings us to that not-so-Grand Staircase that used to lead up to the Endless Hallway.

Tell the truth, folks. Whenever your Omnimover moved past past those giant glow-in-the-dark spiders which just sat there motionless on their over-sized webs, didn't you used to think to yourself that "This must be where they ran out of money back in 1971" ? Compared to the rich detailing that you find everywhere else in this dark ride, this section of the Mansion is just ... boring.

Which is why the Imagineers wanted to do something really spectacular with this blank bit of canvas. Drop a new scene in here that -- while it followed this attraction's already established storyline (Which means that we don't actually get to see any ghosts in the Haunted Mansion 'til our Doom Buggy passes through the Séance Circle room and we hear Madam Leota summon those spirits) -- still managed to dazzle Disney World visitors.

Mind you, what helped keep costs down here is that WDI didn't actually have to come with an original concept for this particular Mansion scene. They just recycled something that had originally been proposed for the 1999 redo of Epcot's "Journey into Imagination" attraction.

Strange but true, folks. Back when the Imagineers were initially looking into ways to upgrade & improve the ride-thru portion of this Future World pavilion, one of the concepts that got kicked around was adding a series of rooms that would then celebrate the five senses. You know? Sight, taste, touch, hearing and smell?

Anyway ... When it came to the "Sight" portion of the proposed "Journey of Imagination" redo, the guys at WDI thought that it might be fun to add an area to this attraction that physically recreated M.C. Escher's famous "Relativity" painting. Which shows this seemingly impossible series of gravity-defying staircases.

So the creative team behind the 1999 revamp of "Imagination" got to work. They even built a dimensional model of what this proposed addition to that ride-thru might look like. Which (the way I hear it) really wowed the suits back in Glendale.

The only problem was that Kodak (i.e. the sponsor of this Future World pavilion) was going through this huge financial crisis in the late 1990s. You see, digital cameras first really became affordable to high end consumers right about this time. Which was pretty brought an end to the Rochester, N.Y. -based corporation's extremely lucrative film business. Given the cash crunch that Kodak was facing, the company just couldn't justify pouring tens of milllions of dollars into an ambitious redo of Epcot's "Journey into Imagination" pavilion at that exact moment.

Which is why the Imagineers were eventually forced to abandon fun-but-expensive concepts like that Escher staircase room. Opting instead to go with a much more modestly budgeted revamping of this Future World ride-thru attraction. Which was so reviled by theme park fans when it re-opened in October of 1999 that -- just two years later -- the now-titled "Journey in Your Imagination" quietly closed its doors. So that WDI could then take another stab at rehabbing this Epcot ride.

Now as for that dimensional model that was built of the proposed Escher staircase room ... I'm told that -- for a number of years, anyway -- it was actually on display in the queue area for "Journey into Imagination with Figment." That it was one of those curios stashed in the cabinets that you'd walk by as you made your way to the load area for this ride-thru attraction.

So long story short: The Imagineers -- as they were getting ready to get started on this Haunted Mansion redo project -- began looking through all of the concept art that Marc Davis had originally created for this attraction. But given that all of the drawings that this Disney Legend had done invariably featured ghosts (And let's remember that -- according to the Mansion's storyline -- we're not allowed to see any spirits 'til our Doom Buggy motors by Madam Leota) ... Well, that material was out.

The guys at WDI were beginning to despair that they'd never be able to come up with a ghost-free scene that they could then use to replace the Haunted Mansion's original Grand Staircase. Something sans spirits that still felt eerie and supernatural ... Which is when someone supposedly chimed in with: "Hey, what about that Escher staircase thing that we wanted to build in Epcot's Imagination pavilion?"

And quicker than you can say "Bring back the Dreamfinder," that's exactly what they did. So what you can ride through today over at WDW's Haunted Mansion is just what the Imagineers had originally hoped to install as part of 1999's "Journey into Your Imagination" ride. Minus a few candelabras as well as some spooky footsteps.

And speaking of spooky ... One of the more ingenious aspects of this most recent Mansion rehab are those spooky blinking eyes that you see off in the darkness at the top of the Grand Staircase. Which originally start off by peering at you out of the gloom. But then, as your Doom Buggy comes back into the light at the top of the stairs ... In a really brilliant bit of design, these seemingly live eyes then blend right in with that evil eyed wallpaper that lines the Corridor of Doors.

The best part of this new spooky-blinking-eye effect is not only was it enormously effective, but it was also ridiculously cheap to build. Were the work lights to ever to come on while you were riding through this part of the Haunted Mansion, you'd see that these blinking-eyes-off-in-the-darkness are just a series of light boxes on sticks. But with the lights off ... This effect is downright magical. It's easily one of the best things to be added to the Mansion during its most recent rehab.

And speaking of that evil eyed wallpaper, here's an interesting bit of trivia: As the Imagineers were touring this show building late last year, getting some real sense of the truly awful condition that this Liberty Square attraction was in ... The guys from WDI came across a large roll of that evil eyed wallpaper that had evidentally been left over from the initial construction of this WDW favorite back in 1971.

So that nice, fresh-looking, new wallpaper that you now see as you rolled down the Corridor of Doors isn't actually so new. Again looking for ways to stretch the $30 million that they'd been given as far as it could possibly go, the Imagineers opted to use the wallpaper that was left over from 1971 to repaper this section of the attraction. Pretty neat, huh?

As for the Endless Hallway ... There was a new scrim installed here. And the suit of armor that stands by the entrance to the Hallway has been fully restored. After years of extremely limited movements (due to poor maintenance and equipment malfunctions), the animation that you see this AA figure doing today is just what the Imagineers originally envisioned this supposedly empty suit of armor doing back in the late 1960s. Which is when they first programmed this same AA figure for the original Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

As for the Conservatory ... Again because this scene already worked, the Imagineers felt no compulsion to plus it. They just gave the coffin that's on display here a fresh coat of paint and then screwed a brand-new green lightbulb into the socket that's hidden inside that box. Which (not to tell tales out of school here, but ... ) is what provides that unearthly green glow that seems to be coming from inside the coffin.

As for the Corridor of Doors ... In addition to replacing the evil eyed wallpaper that you see in this section of the attraction, the Imagineers also completely overhauled the audio set-up along this portion of ride track. Thanks to the ingeniuous use of a series of l-o-o-o-o-ng speakers that were installed in this part of the show building, it now sounds as if those unseen ghouls that haunt this portion of the Mansion are actually following your Doom Buggy. The sound here has a new, clear, crisp dimensional quality that it never had before. Which makes this sequence in the dark ride that much more effective.

And speaking of more effects ... Wait 'til the next installment of "WDI's X-Scream Makeover of WDW's Haunted Mansion," when we'll talk about that new floating Leota, the brighter, more colorful Grand Ballroom as well as -- of course -- that brand-new axe-brandishing Bride who now haunts the Attic.

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  • Man, it's about time. I was getting impatient, Jim!

    This has honestly been one of the best series I've ever read from you. I am so enjoying this, I really am.

    Cool trivia about the Escher staircase coming from JIYI ... I wouldn't have thought ANYTHING good would ever come out of that monstrosity. Here's hoping that some time in the next year or two, you're writing a series of articles about how they fixed up that disaster.

  • Very interesting stuff.  Thanks for taking the time to post this.  It's what you do best.

  • Those eyes!  For some reason I keep coming back to those eyes!  I am just totally impressed that the imagineers would take something that has been sitting (hanging!) around for 40 years and tweaked into something special.  As Jim states, you see sets of spectral eyes (ala how many cartoons that use have used this) blinking at you as you roll by.  Their placement begins to conform to a pattern where you begin to see the wallpaper emerge from the darkness.  Some eyes remain lit and blinking at you as they become part of the wallpaper.  This effect is repeated on the other side of the Doombuggy track (first the right, then the left.  To me, it just heightens the eerie feeling, as you travel on toward your encounter with Madame Leota, that someone is watching you!

    BTW Mr. Hill, you did not mention the ghoulish photos hanging in the hall of doors.  I don't remember seeing these before, but have seen them on some websites dedicated to the mansions.  Any story on these macabre mugshots?

    And one more thing, most, if not all, of the Sinister 11 paintings from the old Portrait Hall are now in the queue section (I was trying to discern in the dark if their eyes were replaced with standard paint eyes or if they were just not glowing, so I didn't count!)

  • Great series, Jim! I was at the World this past weekend and indeed, the Mansion is magnificent again. But I do have a question...is the music room supposed to be dark? I mean each time I rolled by (rode the HM 3 times while I was there), the room is almost completely dark, and you can barely see the piano. There's a "window" behind it that casts practically no light at all. Is there supposed to be a lightning effect that I apparently missed (3 times)? Just wondering, because that area of the ride is surprisingly "dead"...and not in a good way. ;)

    Anyhoo, it's nice to see an old favorite spruced up. The sound is indeed amazing. Good job, Imagineers!

  • When I returned from the park last month with news that the Haunted Mansion had been redone, my 14-year-old son immediately asked whether the "stupid" spiders had been replaced. I was happy to report that they had. I am pleased with the renovation.

  • The instrument that the "shadow" ghost is playing in the music room is a piano, not a harpsichord.  It is known as a Square Grand Piano, or more simply a Square Piano.  Not truly square, but rectangular in shape, square pianos were built in great numbers through the 1840s in Europe and the 1890s in America.  It is a genuine antique piano retrofitted with a pneumatic device to activate the keys.

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