Dark Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion

May 1, 2018 — I’m so late to this Halloween party, that my jack-o’s not just rotten, it’s seeded several generations of pumpkin patches. As an avowed aficionado of all things grim and ghostly, I’ve been a mere sad onlooker to everyone else’s fascination with Disney’s Haunted Mansion. And that’s for the simple reason that I’d never, ever been to any world or land with the word Disney in front of it. And I knew that was a black mark on my spooky creds. Which is kind of hilarious.

Sure, I dug the Haunted Mansion conceptually and from afar. I love that the Disney Parks have a dark spot. That there’s a pleasure in wearing bat wings on your head when everyone else is wearing mouse ears. That, of course, Disney would design and deliver a dark ride of such overwhelmingly high quality in a category of ride where you have to pick the bar off the floor to raise it. And all the art and stories about it that I saw online always wowed me.

But I didn’t quite get the Haunted Mansion. Just couldn’t.

Well, now I do.

It’s like that scene in Cheers where Woody has sex for the first time, and then instantly understands every joke ever told to him in the bar. That’s me. The second I walked out of that dark ride and into the Orlando sunshine, I was an insta-fan. But let me stop there. It feels dumb for me to write about this ride the way I normally write about oddity when most of you know more about it than I. So what I thought I’d do here is list ten things that stuck out to me after my first time in the Haunted Mansion. Not all the factoids and history tidbits that you can dig up online. Just what jumped out to me, personally, during my very, very first impression.

Basically, here’s a newb’s view on the boo.

1. The Pet Cemetery

Exiting the ride, you pass a pet cemetery with funerary sculptures of everything from snakes to cats to monkeys. For a brand that has built its empire on the backs of anthropomorphic animals, featuring a pet cemetery is brazen.

2. The Theme Song 

Every Halloween, I listen to Grim Grinning Ghosts and Paul Frees’ narration. Now I have a context for it. It’s like listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller for decades and then finally seeing the video.

3. The Doom Buggies

I fell in love with those cars the second I jumped onto the moving walkway with the yellow bats painted on it. They could have just been regular track cars painted black and nobody would have faulted them, but they looked like they belonged in the living room of the Addams Family. And the fact that they were designed so that the high backs hide the cars from each other and isolate you in that creepy mansion is perfect. Brilliancy lies in the small touches.

4. The Mechanical Failure

I assume this isn’t part of the usual ride, but at one point it completely stopped for about five minutes. And I’m assuming it’s not usual because of the non-spooky teenage voice that came over the speaker and told us we’d be continuing the ride shortly. But the ride halted with my Doom Buggy stuck right beside that guy who’s trapped in a coffin. The poor dude opened and shut it and screamed to be let out for that entire five minutes. My four year old, who shared the Doom Buggy with me, trepidatiously asked me, “Is that a zombie or a vampire?” She asked this less out of curiosity and more because she had no idea how to process the situation. Incidentally, my wife was in another Doom Buggy with our eldest, and she got stopped in a spot where the levitating candelabra slowly floated toward them the entire time. I’m not sure whose experience was creepier.

5. Addams Family Time

There’s this sweet spot for us spooky folk that is devilishly hard to hit, one that scratches our itch for the morbid without scarring us on the one end or making us feel silly on the other. The Haunted Mansion nails it. It’s both legitimately creepy and legitimately friendly. There’s a reason I and my four-year-old and my eight-year-old and my pregnant wife could all do this ride. And I would say this is the secret to its success even above the quality of the ride, except that I believe that the real reason for its success is in #6.

6. It’s a Dead Man’s Party

Most haunted house attractions and dark rides are predicated on the concept that all the ghouls and ghosties are trying to scare you away from the place. But the Haunted Mansion wants you to stick around and party. Those grim grinning ghost “come out and socialize.” That’s why it’s such a cool ride. And that’s why you want to go back. You know that party is going on without you.

7. The Bat Weather Vane

The mansion itself, at least the one in Orlando, isn’t really that creepy looking. Maybe at night in a lightning storm. However, in the harsh light of Florida, it just looks like an elaborate edifice in a park full of elaborate edifices. But then you see that bat on the weather vane above it all, it draws you like some kind of bat signal in the sky. Somebody should really use that idea in a story.

8. Transparent Ghosts

Even if it’s the century-tested Pepper’s Ghost trick, there’s just something that doesn’t beat sharing a physical space with transparent ghosts. Like, it’s exactly how ghost encounters in real life should be.

9. Memento Mori 

I mean, there’s a gift shop called Memento Mori in a kid’s park full of princesses and big-eyed animals. You can’t not love that. This goes back to the whole paradox of the Haunted Mansion in the first place: That you can’t get your spooky badge unless you visit the Happiest Place on Earth™.

10. The History

The second I was back at the resort, I jumped on the Internet and lost myself in the rich backstory of the Haunted Mansion. And, sure, I’ve been on those sites late at night in the past out of curiosity, but now I’m on them out of obsession. I almost ruined my time at the Animal Kingdom the next day because I spent all night learning about Disney’s dark side.

If I ever return to Disney World or find myself in Land or Paris or Tokyo or whatever, it’s going to be 100% me just doing this ride over and over again until I’m an expert on it.