When Disney commissioned a 50-state survey in anticipation of Disneyland's 50th anniversary in 2005, the three favorite attractions of all time were: (1) Space Mountain, (2) Pirates of the Caribbean, and (3) The Haunted Mansion. But even though the HM ranks third in a survey of the general public, it is well known that it enjoys the most passionate and devoted fan base of any Disney park attraction. (Can you imagine trying to do a blog like this for Space Mountain?) Someone might argue that the steam train crowd is much larger and equally fanatic, but the Disney trains are only one set among the many other steam trains out there, and I'd say it is that collective that is the object of the train enthusiast's ardor, not just the Disney specimens (however lovely they may be). From time to time there have been attempts to gin up an internet following for Pirates of the Caribbean, but despite the ride's broad popularity, the response to these attempts has always been tepid in comparison with the Mansion. In terms of its cult following, the Mansion is in a class by itself.
(pic from Disney twenty-three [Fall 2009] 28)
(August 16, 1969. This photo has also been identified with the opening of POTC two years earlier)
Some of you Forgottenistas may well wonder why this attraction, so admired today, was regarded as a bit of a letdown after the initial excitement had worn off. I think it's because the Mansion did not meet the public's expectations. It did not fit the trajectory established throughout the course of the sixties by a succession of increasingly spectacular new attractions. This was the golden age of audio-animatronics. When the Tiki Room debuted in 1963, it was a real jaw-dropper, a quantum leap beyond anything that had preceded it. But Walt barely let people catch their breath. He astonished them anew at the 1964 World's Fair with the audio-animatronic wizardry of Mr. Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, and Magic Skyway. Lincoln was brought to Disneyland in 1965. It's a Small World and Primeval World (from Magic Skyway) came in 1966. By that point we were beginning to expect at least one miracle per year from Mr. Disney. And sure enough, this dazzling parade continued into 1967 with the multiferous wonders of the New Tomorrowland (including the Carousel of Progress) and Pirates of the Caribbean. In those days it seemed to us that Disney was committed to topping itself each time it unveiled a new attraction. They intended to leave no jaw undropped, no mind unboggled, world without end, amen.
You know, I think that to some degree this crescendo of marvels was a mirage. From the Tiki Room to Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress was indeed a leap forward, but that was it. 1964 proved to be the AA climax, the point beyond which '60's technology simply could not go. But Walt was nothing if not a marketing genius, and since most Disneyland guests had never seen the World's Fair, the skillful introduction of 1964 attractions in '65, '66, and '67 created the illusion of continual technological progress. The Disneyland version of Small World was much larger than the NYWF version, using sheer scale as part of its "wow" factor. The same was true of POTC. From a purely techno point of view, there's only one AA figure in Pirates (viz, the Auctioneer) that is of comparable complexity with the Abraham Lincoln figure or "Father" in the COP, but no one seemed to notice that. With Pirates, once again sheer scale and the quality of showmanship gave the impression that the ball continued to move downfield in every sense. What will those R & D geniuses at Disney come up with next year? They haven't disappointed us yet!
Then 1968 goes by. Then half of 1969 is gone. All eyes are impatiently set on the next miracle-in-waiting. Great Caesar's ghost, what technological marvels will the Mansion display when it finally opens? What eye-popping explosion in show scale? And a haunted house! Can you imagine? We couldn't wait.
Are we ready??? This is a joke, right?
Oh, there were a few fresh new tricks, notably the "Leota effect," but once you figured that one out (I swear, my brother and I figured her out after one day), it was obvious that it did not represent anything new in audio-animatronics. The entire show was no bigger than Pirates—in fact, it was smaller—and the AA figures were no more sophisticated—in fact, they were less. Not that the show wasn't amusing, it's just that we had come to expect . . . more.
Now, you could make a case that this deviation from the script was a fluke. The team at WED was indeed a little numb, almost in a state of shock, after Walt's passing, and the HM was the first attraction completed without Walt around to make the big gutsy decisions, adjudicating the debates over fundamental issues like show concept and design, which were still in a state of flux in 1966. (Pirates was well past all of that when Walt died, and it could coast to the finish line.) It would be tempting to conclude that with the HM they settled for a pale imitation of POTC, as if they were anxious to just finish the damn thing and clear the pipeline of Walt-era projects so that they could pause, regroup, reassess, and redefine themselves for a totally post-Walt world.
That's a tempting analysis, and there may be some truth to it, but on the whole I don't subscribe to it. For one thing, there was still a relatively easy way to keep the carousel of progress spinning, and that was through scale. Everyone knows that the HM façade was built in 1962 and just sat there for seven years, but did you know that the show building out back was not built until late in 1968? They could have chosen to make the ride noticeably longer and bigger than POTC and satisfy public expectations that way. Marc Davis had gags galore. There were plenty of unused ideas. Hey, how about a haunted kitchen? a haunted bath?
You could also argue that the HM was simply the point where they decided to end the charade. Perhaps you can successfully top yourself with each new outing for awhile, but sooner or later it's going to defeat you. No one can do that forever. Better to commit yourself to variety and to quality, eliminating impossible forms of competition with your own past. I think that this argument too has some merit. Seen this way, the HM was the pivot point, the watershed that made possible '70's attractions like the Mickey Mouse Revue, Country Bears, and America Sings. As I recall, no one felt pressured to compare those attractions with Pirates to see if they represented the next step upward on some kind of endless golden ladder. Rather, people recognized intuitively that they were creative departures, utilizing AA technology to do something different. "Hey look, we've had birds, people, dolls and dinosaurs, but this time they're bringing cartoon characters to life." Thanks to the Mansion, each major new attraction would now stand or fall on its own terms, evaluated not as to whether it was bigger or technologically more sophisticated than the last one but as to whether it won over the audience with old-fashioned, well-crafted showmanship. Did it create a believable world unto itself? And did the things that transpired in that world connect with the human experience—that is, did the show have a heart? (Of course this had always been the only essential question, but impossible expectations about presentation were now mercifully eliminated.)
You can stop a train by deliberately applying the brakes and coming to a graceful halt, or you can have a wreck. That'll do it too, you know. By the above analysis, the HM could have been a disaster, and it would still have served a useful purpose historically, bringing one era to an end and freeing up the options for the next. But time marches on, and most younger guests today don't know or care which old ride came before which old ride. Sorry, my peers, but the perception of 1960's Disneyland as one big shining crescendo of upward progress is a memory that belongs to us old fogeys. As that mental picture has faded, it seems that the estimation of the HM as a top-tier, all-time classic seems to have grown, until we are where we are today. Obviously, it didn't change the game by being a train wreck! Therefore, an essentially negative evaluation of the HM, defining it in terms of what it was not, won't do. What it was, positively, will be the subject of our next outing.