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Behind the Ride: The Haunted Mansion

The Experience: Madame Leota hosts a seance

The Trick: Putting a head in a floating crystal jar and allowing it to speak

“Serpents and spiders, tail of a rat; call in the spirits, wherever they're at. Rap on a table; it's time to respond. Send us a message from somewhere beyond. Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween: awaken the spirits with your tambourine. Creepies and crawlies, toads in a pond; let there be music, from regions beyond! Wizards and witches, wherever you dwell, give us a hint, by ringing a bell!”

I know this spell all too well. The sorceress named Leota casts it ad nauseam, disrupting the rest of me and 998 of my dearest friends. Technically an undead spirit herself, Leota is the clairvoyant who allows guests of The Haunted Mansion to participate in her notorious Swinging Wake.

Image: Disney

The jarring aspect of an encounter with Madame Leota is her appearance. She’s a head in a jar a la Futurama. To achieve this effect, Disney recorded images of a person’s face that they project into the crystal ball. They didn’t hire an actress, though. Instead, it’s the work of Imagineer Leota “Toombs” Thomas, which explains the name…although Madame Toombs has a certain ring to it.

Thomas also had the first crack at the voice of Leota. Her coworkers didn’t find her menacing enough, though. Disney veteran Eleanor Audley, who provided voices in animated classics like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, performs the audio for Leota instead. Since she was the voice of Maleficent and Lady Tremaine, menacing was her specialty, a skill your Ghost Host respects.

The first version of floating head trick involved the a looped projection of Leota’s face on a vanilla head inside a crystal ball, somewhat similar to the Hatbox Ghost of today. Since more distance existed between the Doombuggy track and the crystal ball, track lighting never disrupted the effect. Clever theme park tourists noticed a glare from the projector into the ball, though.

Image: DisneyCurrently, Disney uses a kind of green-screen system to create the illusion of a floating crystal ball. Their HD video rear projection builds Leota’s face directly from inside her head. This tactic works better than projection from a different spot since it removes the reflection issue.

And there you have it. Those are the tricks of the trade that make my home the swingiest joint in the afterlife…but before you go, there's a little matter I forgot to mention. Beware of hitchhiking ghosts! They have selected you to fill our quota, and they'll haunt you until you return! Now I will raise the safety bar, and a ghost will follow you home!  

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