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Keep an eagle eye out for The Haunted Mansion’s Hatbox Ghost

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Keep an eagle eye out for The Haunted Mansion’s Hatbox Ghost

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While I was out at Comic-Con last month, I was slipped a preview copy of the Fall 2009 issue of Disney twenty-three magazine. Which features a terrific cover story, “Celebrating 40 years of Frights & Delights at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.”

D23 Magazine Fall 2009 Issue cover
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

This 10 page article (which – FYI – was written by Ed Squair of the Disney Photo Library) is worth the magazine’s $15.95 asking price all by itself. It’s loaded with seldom-seen pieces of concept art for the attraction. Not to mention great pictures of The Haunted Mansion from August of 1969, back when this Disneyland favorite first opened to the public.

But – me personally – my favorite part of “Frights and Delights” is all the legwork that Ed had obviously done for this story. Tracking down longtime Walt Disney Company employees and then interviewing them, in an effort to unearth previously untold tales of The Haunted Mansion.

Toward that end, Squair – prior to writing this piece – sat down with veteran Imagineer Tony Baxter. Back when Baxter was just a lowly hourly cast member at Disneyland in the 1960s, he became obsessed with this yet-to-officially-be-opened attraction. To the point that Tony actually slipped in through a backstage door, hoping to get an early preview of the Mansion’s effects. Only to then be rudely hustled away by a Security Host.

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion large opening day crowd
Opening Day at Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion: August 9, 1969.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

But then (as Squair recounts in “Frights and Delights”) – just a few days before The Haunted Mansion opened to the public, Baxter’s luck changed.

As part of testing the ride before opening, a call went out to Disneyland Cast Members who were “willing” to ride through the Mansion for two hours. Tony’s hand shot up.

Marc Davis conception of the Hatvox ghost for the Haunted Mansion ride
Marc Davis’ original concept sketch for the Hatbox host.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

“We just kept going round and round and round without getting off. When we’d get to the séance circle with Madame Leota, we’d talk to each other and say, ‘Did you see this, did you see that?’ and look for those details the next time around.

It was during this preview that Tony got a rare look – several good looks, actually – at the most famous ghost that has almost never been seen in the Mansion, with the exception of our ghost host, of course. The Hatbox Ghost, a legendary attic haunt whose head faded away with each beat of his bride’s heart only to materialize in the hatbox he held, disappeared from the Mansion forever before it opened to the public.

Hatbox ghoast as he was originally positioned in Disneyland's the Haunted Mansion
The above image is Dan Olson's Photoshop recreation of what many Haunted
Mansion enthusiasts believe the Hatbox Ghost may have looked like while
this AA figure was still on display in the Attic sequence of Disneyland's
The Haunted Mansion attraction

As the story goes, he was too scary, but the simple truth is that the effect just didn’t work well. For years after, the Doom Buggies would turn towards that now-empty spot to give guests a view of the phantom that was no longer there.

The Hatbox Ghost has become a true Mansion legend, appearing in many pieces of merchandise: a big figure (one of which is in my living room), several pins, a poster, and even as featured on the cover of The Story and Song From The Haunted Mansion album – and, oh, take a look at the cover of the magazine you’re holding in your hands.

Haunted Mansion O-pin event poster
For further information on The Haunted Mansion O-Pin House, please
click on this link. Copyright 2009 Disney . All Rights Reserved

A curious aside about ol’ Hatbox: Nobody knows just what became of him after he left the Mansion.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Shelly Smith recently shared a story with me that she’d heard directly from that late great Imagineer David Mumford. Who – along with the equally talented & much missed Bruce Gordon – wrote one of the very best Disneyland history book, “The Nickel Tour: A Postcard Journey Through 40 Years of the Happiest Place on Earth .”

Disneyland Nickel Tour book cover
Copyright 1995 Camphor Tree Press. All Rights Reserved

David was obsessed with uncovering lost pieces of Disneyland history. Take – for example – the hours that Mumford spent prowling around behind-the-scenes at Sleeping Beauty Castle. He was absolutely determined to find Maleficent’s goons, who had reportedly been walled up & hidden away when the Castle Walk-thru was first overhauled ‘way back in the 1970s. It was dusty work, but David eventually did find those goons. He then shared this triumph in theme park archaeology by sending along a photo of these long-forgotten figures to “E” Ticket magazine.

Hatbox Ghost Goons
 Copyright The “E” Ticket Magazine. All Rights Reserved

Anyway … Getting back to the Hatbox Ghost … Mumford was equally determined to discover the ultimate fate of this failed AA figure. He just assumed that Ol' Hatbox had been packed up back in 1969 and then sent off to one of WED's warehouses.

Well – as it turns out – that wasn't exactly what happened with the Hatbox Ghost. You see, Imagineering had a waste not / want not culture in the early 1970s. So – when it came time for Marc Davis and Co. to create Disneyland’s next big AA-based attraction, “America Sings” in 1973 …

Hatbox Ghost poster
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… they just stripped the Hatbox Ghost AA figure for parts and then used those extra pieces of equipment to construct “America Sings” Audio Animatronic host, Sam the Eagle.

Mind you, it was Marc himself who reportedly told David about the Hatbox Ghost’s fate. And given how hands-on Davis was when it came to the development & construction of both The Haunted Mansion as well as “America Sings” ... Well, I guess that’s about as close as we’re ever going to get when it comes to getting a definitive answer as to what ultimately became of Ol' Hatbox.

Hatbox Ghost Eaagle
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

That said, there is one other Haunted Mansion-related question that remains to be answered: Given that so many of the AA figures from “America Sings” were recycled for Splash Mountain, one has to wonder … Did the inner workings of the Hatbox Ghost get reused yet again? And – if so – whose skin is he in right now over there in Critter Country?

Any guesses?

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  • fabulous, fabulous article.

  • Forget which book it was, but I'm pretty sure it was an official Disney release that said Sam the Eagle and the owl did not make the move to Splash Mountain because they were too recognizable as the hosts of America Sings.

  • It articles like this that got me interested in your blog in the first place, all those years ago.  You're back on form Jim, keep it up.

  • A home run, Jim!  WTG

  • Very interesting article!

    (This is Mary, btw. Finally logged in to my old account)

  • Your story was featured in DisMarks! Here is the link to vote it up and promote it: http://dismarks.com/GeneralDisney/Jim_Hill_Keep_an_eagle_eye_out_for_The_Haunted_Mansions_Hatbox_Ghost

  • Love the articles on attractions... keep up the good work Jim.

    BTW, you have the incorrect year in the caption of the opening day photo... 1969... NOT 2009

  • Mapo's Legend  Ivar is the one to ask what happened to the Hat Box Ghost and what has he become.

  • Well i think the hatbox ghost dosn't mess around

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