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The Headless Horseman heads on out, expanding his turf beyond Walt Disney World for the 2013 Halloween season

Jim Hill

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The Headless Horseman heads on out, expanding his turf beyond Walt Disney World for the 2013 Halloween season

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You think -- what with all the attention that he's been getting lately -- you'd think that the Headless Horseman would have a bigger head. If he had a head, I mean.

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To explain: Until relatively recently, if you were looking for a cinematic representation of this particular Washington Irving tale, you'd basically have no choice but to default to Disney's 1949 package feature, "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad ." Where -- thanks to Mary Blair's art direction and Woolie Reitherman's muscular animation -- that particular version of the  Headless Horseman made a very big impression on moviegoers.

And Walt ... He knew that. But Disney could then never quite figure out how to capitalize on the popularity on this particular character. During the early development phase of The Haunted Mansion for Disneyland Park (back when this attraction was still supposed to be a walk-thru), the Imagineers toyed with the idea of having this experience climax with the arrival of the Headless Horseman. With the idea being that the Wizards of WED could -- through the judicious use of stereo speaker placement as well as some projected effects -- give the impression that the Headless Horseman atop his fiery steed had just ridden up and was now lurking right outside of the mansion. Which was why -- especially if you were a theme park visitor who liked your head just the way it was (i.e., still attached to your neck) -- it would probably be a good time to vacate The Haunted Mansion.

But once the Mansion got re-imagined as a ride-thru rather than a walk-thru, that version of this attraction's finale got tossed aside like last year's jack-o-lantern. Which isn't to say that the Imagineers had entirely given up on the idea of bring Ichabod Crane & his headless nemesis into the Disney theme parks. Far from it, in fact.

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You see, in the late 1960s, rather than make the three dark rides that were supposed to be built for the Fantasyland section of WDW's Magic Kingdom just be carbon copies of the three dark rides that were already in Disneyland Park's Fantasyland section, WDI wanted to do something similar but different. So -- instead of "Snow White's Scary Adventures" -- the Imagineers wanted to do a dark ride themed around "Sleeping Beauty ." Which was to have featured some pretty scary encounters with that Mistress of All Evil, Maleficent.

And in the place of "Peter Pan's Flight" ... Well, WDI had long wanted to do a "Mary Poppins " - themed attraction where Guests would climb aboard those magical merry-go-round horses and then go bounding off into that colorful English countryside that Bert had drawn for his chalk sidewalk drawing. (Just so you know: There was an alternate attraction proposed for this part of Fantasyland. One that -- it was felt -- would be a far better fit for this medieval-themed area  of that WDW theme park. And that was the "Wizards Duel" dark ride. Where Guests would have found themselves right in the middle of that manic scene from "The Sword in the Stone " where Merlin & Mad Madam Mim are doing battle. And you traveled from room to room in this ride, you'd narrowly avoided being hit by magic spells yourself.)

And -- finally -- in the place of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," the Imagineers wanted to do a "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" ride. Where Guests were to have first boarded these giant, hollowed-out jack-o-lanterns that featured a central steering wheel just like the ones inside of the giant teacups found at the Mad Tea Party ride. Which meant that -- as your jack-o-lantern moved through the dark & scary forest right outside of Tarrytown, NY (i.e., where Washington Irving set the story of Ichabod Crane) -- you'd then be able to spin this super-sized pumpkin around. Which meant that you then had the option of steering your ride vehicle so that you always look directly at the Headless Horseman when he suddenly appeared OR spin your jack-o-lantern in the opposite direction. So that you could deliberately avoid being face-to-face with that headless fiend.

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These three / four dark rides all sound like great additions to WDW's Fantasyland, right? So why were they never built. Blame Roy O. Disney. Who -- when the proposed construction costs of the Walt Disney World Resort began to balloon from the originally projected $100 million to a budget-busting $400 million -- began actively looking for ways that the Company could contain costs in Central Florida. And when Roy O. was told about these three new dark rides that were in the works for the Fantasyland section of WDW's Magic Kingdom theme park, he reportedly said "Why are we reinventing the wheel? We already have three rides in Southern California that people love. Let's try and save some money here by replicating those dark rides and then sending them to Central Florida."

Which isn't to say that the Imagineers were willing to give up entirely on their dream of  bringing some of Washington Irving's world to Walt Disney World. Which is why they then added the Sleepy Hollow Inn to that theme park's Liberty Square section. And if you knew anything about Sunnyside (i.e., the old Dutch stone house that Irving bought in Tarrytown, NY and then greatly expanded), you'd then realized that WDI has "borrowed" the unique roof shape from Washington's home and then made a key feature of this quick service restaurant.

But just because the Headless Horseman couldn't find a permanent home in WDW's Magic Kingdom didn't then mean that this Disney Villain couldn't then find a seasonal excuse to pop up on property. For a number of years now, the Horseman has galloped down Main Street, U.S.A., just ahead of the Mickey's Boo-to-You Halloween Parade at every Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom. And for a while there, he'd also make his presence known to those who dared to venture into that dank cypress forest where Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground is located. Where the Headless Horseman would then come roaring up out of the darkness aboard his fiery steed and frighten those poor souls who'd been brave enough to sign up for a Haunted Hayride.

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But sadly, due to some contract dispute and/or insurance-related issues, Fort Wilderness' Haunted Hayrides & carriages have been discounted. And what's become of the Headless Horseman? Well, on the heels of Tim Burton's 1999 film, "Sleepy Hollow ," the Horseman successfully made the transition from being just an animated menace to the realm of live-action horror film star.

And just over the past six weeks, the Headless Horseman has expanded his turf. Shifting from the big screen to the small screen as the central villain of "Sleepy Hollow." Which is this new drama for Fox that's already proven to be so popular with viewers that -- although we're only five episodes into this "Sleepy Hollow" 's first season -- network executives have already renewed this show for Season Two.

And meanwhile over at ABC Family, the Smurfs have just managed to put their own tried-and-blue ... er ... tried-and-true spin on this Washington Irving tale from 1820. And as you can see by this clip from "The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow ," the Headless Horseman is still a force to be reckoned with.

And speaking of which ... If you happened to be passing through New York State over the next few days, you might want to consider dropping by the really-for-real Sleepy Hollow. Which is where -- now through November 11th -- there are all sorts of Headless Horseman-related activities currently going on. Everything from the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze (where over 4,000 hand-carved pumpkins illuminated the mysterious woods & buildings found at Van Cortlandt Manor) to Horseman's Hollow (which is where -- for 13 nights only -- historic Philipsburg Manor gets transformed into this terrifying landscape filled with witches, ghosts and undead soldiers). There's even a Haunted Hayride -- where just like on the old Fort Wilderness version -- Guests find themselves being pursued by the Headless Horseman himself as they roll through the woods.

Which is why -- given how successful the Headless Horseman has been in 2013, how this creepy character's career has been exploding lately ... Well, who knew that you didn't need a head to get ahead these days?

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  • I saw this title and thought maybe, just maybe, Headless Horseman was coming to Disneyland!  No such luck though I guess :(

    Here in So. Calif. to the East in Oak Glen there is an apple picking place (and much more) called Riley's Farm.  Every year for select weekends they have a special event and put on the play Sleepy Hallow.  I went a few years ago and it's very well done.  Toward the end of the play the guests all go outside and stand by a trail and wait --- and then along comes the Headless Horseman on a large black horse laughing manically and carrying a real flaming pumpkin which he throws down on the ground where it bursts open, flames and all.  As I said, it's very well done.

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