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.
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
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 to fully understand the making of Mystic Manor, we first have to recap of the frantic creation of one of Disney’s most well loved classics.
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 meant to accessed via a graveyard off 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.
Though the manor itself materialized along Disneyland's waterway 1963, its gates 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
His counterpart, Marc Davis (designer on 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.
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."
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…
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 and saw the process in-depth in the must-read entry on Paris’ iconic Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune.
They'd similarly work their magic at Disneyland Paris' Haunted Mansion. There, the ride was embedded into the extravagant and dramatic romance of 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. So astoundingly unique is this one-of-a-kind ride, it earned its own in-depth entry, Modern Marvels: Phantom Manor that's well worth a read for Disney Parks fans the world over.
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...