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Imagineering Fans Call This Disney's Best Ride in Decades. Here's Its In-Depth Story.

Seemingly year after year, progress dictates that theme park attractions – even fan favorites – give way to what’s new and next. That’s why we’ve built an in-depth library of Lost Legends entries – features that tell the full stories forgotten fan favorites from beginning to end to paint unabridged, unedited pictures of how those closed classics came to be, what they were like to experience firsthand, and why they’re gone today.

In our Lost Legends series, We’ve survived Disney’s scariest attraction ever, Alien Encounter; we met Dreamfinder and Figment on Epcot’s lost Journey into Imagination; we’ve been blasted to the moon and back on Disneyland Paris’ one-of-a-kind Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune; we saw why Disney designed, dropped-in, then disassembled The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure, and so many more.

But by looking back, sometimes we admittedly fail to look up – to see that, right now, living legends abound, and some of the greatest attractions that will ever exist are available to guests at theme parks around the world. And that’s why our new series, Modern Marvels, is here to dissect the in-depth, complete stories of current classics… We want to take a look behind the making-of these E-Ticket wonders and what a sought-after ride-through is like. Already, we've gathered the scoop aboard The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and unraveled the ancient curse behind Revenge of the Mummy.

Image: Disney

And what better Modern Marvel to celebrate than a ride often listed among Disney’s best? In fact, some park fans proudly declare Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland the best 21st century attraction in Disney’s catalogue… even though few of Disney's most die-hard fans have actually ridden it! So today, we’ll help out by touring you through the “haunted” history of the concept, exploring Hong Kong Disneyland, then going for a sought-after spin on what may indeed be Disney’s best ride in decades.

As with all of our in-depth ride entries, we'll dissect the hidden history of the concept, trace its creation, and then take a ride ourselves... so strap in, because this mysterious story begins on the other side of the planet and decades before Mystic Manor was even a sketch on a notepad.

A Haunted Mansion

To not bury the lede: there would be no Mystic Manor if there hadn’t been a Haunted Mansion first. The stories of these two rides couldn’t be more different, but they’re intrinsically tied to one another –not in style; not in substance; but in spirit. That’s why the unusual siblingship between these two dissimilar-yet-so-familiar attractions made it into our thought-provoking list of Disney attractions with “spiritual sequels.”

So any in-depth look at Mystic Manor must begin with a quick recap of the frantic creation of one of Disney’s most well loved classics.

Image: Disney, via Insights and Sounds

You may already know that plans for a Haunted Mansion predated the opening of Disneyland. In the earliest initial sketches of the would-be park by Disney Legends Harper Goff and Ken Anderson, a walk-through haunted house was present. At first, it was in a ramshackle Midwestern home on a hillside along Main Street, U.S.A. Then, the plan moved to the new pocket being designed to expand Frontierland – a New Orleans Square that would see the manor recast as a stately, white, Antebellum plantation house as part of the story of the Rivers of America.

Image: Disney

Though the manor itself materialized along Disneyland's waterway 1963, it didn’t open that year. That’s because Walt and his team had been called away to the 1964 – 65 New York World’s Fair to build headlining attractions for the State of Illinois, General Electric, Pepsi-Cola, and Ford Motors. (Their resulting attractions, by the way, would be transplanted to Disneyland at the Fair’s close as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, “it’s a small world,” and a Lost Legend: The Peoplemover, respectively.)

So 1963 came and went without the mansion’s doors opening. Then 1964. ’65. ’66.

And in December of that year, Walt died unexpectedly of lung cancer.

Across the company, projects stalled. The team Walt had left behind didn’t know how (or even if) they should proceed on Walt’s pet projects without him.

Image: Disney

So as 1967 dawned, the beautiful white plantation house still sat empty. And worse, Walt had never said aloud what exactly he expected to go inside of it...

Museum, Mausoleum, or Musical?

Image: Disney

Before Walt’s death, he’d seen a few plans cooked up for the haunted house designed by Disney Legend Rolly Crump. His “Museum of the Weird” concept would’ve seen guests walk through unusual galleries of illusions, inexplicable wonders, and theatrical tricks. Some of Rolly’s concepts did stick and eventually make it into the final Mansion, like a séance chamber, coffin clocks, a disappearing organist brought to life through the 19th century Pepper’s Ghost illusion, and gypsy wagons.

Image: Disney via Doom Buggies

But Rolly Crump’s Museum of the Weird was also decidedly more ethereal, with otherworldly candle men made of wax, encounters with tikis and totems, a chair that would spring to life and interact with guests, mirrors with faces, and man-eating plants. The mind-bending tour would’ve seen guests encounter unusual finds from around the globe, made weirder by their disconnectedness.

Ultimately, Walt liked the idea of the “Museum of the Weird” and suggested it might make a wonderful restaurant connected to the mansion, somewhat like the Blue Bayou’s relationship with the nearby Pirates of the Caribbean. But when Walt died, so too did any consideration for the vacant plantation house in New Orleans Square housing a Museum of the Weird. 

Image: Disney

A second concept for the haunted house was born thanks to the 1967 debut of New Tomorrowland and its headlining Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space. That “micro-adventure” dark ride had pioneered use of a brand-new technology Disney had trademarked: the Omnimover, which made our list of the Seven Modern Wonders of the Theme Park World.

Image: Disney

When the team left behind after Walt’s passing determined that the low-capacity walk-through should instead become a high-capacity ride-through using the Omnimover, the Museum of the Weird storyline seemed like a smart fit for the queue leading up to the ride itself… but without knowing what that ultimate ride would be, it remained in limbo.

Ultimately, the infamous story of the Haunted Mansion came down to two opposing viewpoints.

Image: Disney

The legendary Claude Coats (background animator, mentor to Tony Baxter, and designer of Pirates of the Caribbean, Adventure Thru Inner Space, and Lost Legends: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, World of Motion, and Horizons) believed the Haunted Mansion should be an atmospheric, spooky tour past endless hallways, cryptic vignettes, and frightening, characterless environments – “scary sights and sounds," like the famous "limbo" boarding area, drawn by Coats above.

Image: Disney

His counterpart, Marc Davis (designers of the Jungle Cruise, The Enchanted Tiki Room, “it’s a small world,” The Carousel of Progress, and Country Bear Jamboree) instead believed that this Haunted Mansion should be a “frightfully funny” tour packed with whimsical ghost characters, zany dark ride gags, and songs

And without Walt to cast the tie-breaking ballot, it came to X Atencio (who wrote the script for Adventure Thru Inner Space, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion, as well as the theme songs for the latter two, “Yo-Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and “Grim Grinning Ghosts”) to settle the score by merging the concepts together to create the perfect mix: an atmospheric, unsettling, prologue of haunting vignettes that gradually grows into a sing-along spook-filled finale.

Image: Disney

The final Haunted Mansion – the one we know and love today – balanced it all, using the cutting edge Omnimover ride system as a character in and of itself – the "Doom Buggy."

Hauntings Spread

Image: Disney, via Doom Buggies

The Haunted Mansion finally opened in 1969 – six years after the mansion itself had been built. Of course, the ride was instantly recognizable as a shining beacon of Disney’s design and storytelling, and that made its inclusion any future Disney Parks all-but-assured.

So when Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, it, too, featured a Haunted Mansion that had expanded slightly upon Disneyland’s, albeit within a new context…

Image: Disney

Walt Disney World designers had supposed that the real New Orleans was simply too close to Florida to make it “exotic” or “romantic” for locals, so they axed New Orleans Square in favor of a historic 1700s colonial harbor called Liberty Square. Fittingly, the mansion was redesigned as a redbrick Gothic revival manor overlooking the Rivers of America.

When Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983, its Haunted Mansion was virtually identical to Magic Kingdom’s, except that the cultural shift saw the creaky colonial manor placed in Fantasyland with a few more “fanciful” embellishments to make it feel at home there.

Less than a decade later, a fourth Disneyland-style park opened in France. However, Disneyland Paris represented the most radical departure yet. We explored the incredible lengths designers went to to meld the park’s attractions into a more romantic, literary, European style in our list of Disney classics that look entirely different overseas, and saw the process in-depth in the must-read entry on Paris’ iconic Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune.

Image: Disney

In any case, Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris was embedded into the extravagant Frontierland and given a new backstory tied together with Big Thunder Mountain and all of the land’s rides, restaurants, shops, and attractions to form one overarching continuity.

Put simply, the Haunted Mansion became a staple of a visit to a Disney park. Some parents track their child’s growth with a height-measuring notch carved in a doorframe; others take an annual photo in front of a landmark. But for the Disney crowd, a child’s maturity is most dutifully measured by his or her willingness to confront the “terrors” that await inside the ghostly manors at Disney Parks across the globe.

In 2005, Disney opened its first ever Disneyland-style park to not feature a Haunted mansion. In fact, Hong Kong Disneyland didn’t have a lot of what you’d expect from a Disney Park. At least, not yet

Read on as we blaze our trail toward the misty jungles of Mystic Point...

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There are 6 comments.

I'm quite surprised to see no mention of the original designs for the ride and it's subsequent "toonification" here. Also no mention of the "Splash Pirates" concept once touted for this park seems unusual, given the lack of focus on Mystic Manor and more general discussion of HKDL.

As one fortunate enough to have been able to ride Mystic Manor I can attest to its brilliance, however I don't think that it's the greatest Disney attraction. As marvelous as the ride system is the ride itself is missing that sense of scale you get in rides like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates and Splash Mountain. The experience is tight though and it feels magical like the other Mansion rides. It would be a solid addition to any park lucky enough to have it.

That would be interesting to learn about. Usually these articles are so thorough. Not that I didn't love this article. Would be interesting to learn about that. Any links to learn more? What is the Splash Pirate concept?

Great article, but the description of the ride system is quite misleading. Yes, it's very impressive and yes, it is trackless. However, the system isn't as complex as Hunny Hunt and they're isn't a randomness to how the cars move through the attraction. Each of the four cars, while each being slightly different, will always follow the same route. For example, if you rode four times in car 1, you'd get the same experience four times. Hint: try for car 3 - the ride ops will be fine if it hasn't been filled already - this one will spend the most time in the final room, allowing to see everything in detail. Car 2, only joins the final room at the last minute and you miss a lot of it.

Mystic Manor is an attraction I would love to see but it will never happen unless it comes to the U.S. It is an absolutely perfect attraction for WDW's Adventureland. Alas, there is no room. Solution. Build a new, state-of-the-art Jungle Cruise in Animal Kingdom where there is plenty of space and it themes perfectly. This opens tons of space in the currently limited real estate of Adventureland. Room for Mystic Manor, Indiana Jones, and a totally revamped Shanghai version of the Pirates of the Caribbean changing that ride from the afterthought shortened version of the original to the glory it deserves.

I am a little bit concerned with the way that Disney parks in the US are starting to head. I really think that the success of Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout will determine which direction Disney Execs will go with the future of the parks. The "problem" is that honestly that is what the people want. The majority of the theme park attendants are not people who long for the days of riding in a bucket overhead of the slowly circling nautiluses (nautili?) they want the latest thrill that Disney has to offer. Unfortunately I agree with the article that they really kind of almost have to build out their IP more in the parks. It's what the people want, it makes the most business sense, and makes for more synergy with movies and TV shows and such. But that leaves us the Disneyworld/Land enthusiast longing for the days you could sit in a slow moving bucket looking down on the even slower moving nautiluses gliding by.

In addition to that the Asian Disney parks pretty much have a blank slate in terms of brand recognition, especially in Shanghai, so that they can do an incredibly unique Pirates ride based on the movie instead of the original Walt Disney attraction. Another factor is the fact that Imagineering has a seemingly blank check to draw from since it isn't the Disney company itself that has to foot the bill.

Unfortunately because of these factors I only see this getting worse. The Asian parks are going to get more innovative while the US parks will continually develop more IP based attractions. Not that that is always a bad thing. Pandora and Star Wars Land seem like they will be a whole new level of immersive and interactive. It's just not exactly what those of us who read and comment on Theme Park Tourist want.

This would be the perfect attraction for WDW's Adventureland and there is a great way to fit it in. Create a vastly improved Jungle Cruise in Animal Kingdom, where it is a perfect fit and gives AK another much needed attraction. That opens up a ton of space for Mystic Manor, Indiana Jones, and a Shanghai version of Pirates vs. the afterthought downsized version of its California brother.

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