15 Things You Didn’t Know About Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion

The first version of the celebrated spooky dark ride, in Disneyland, first opened in 1969—50 years ago! Here are 15 things even Disney fanatics may not know about the Haunted Mansion, its history, and its grim grinning ghosts.

It took a long time for it to open

The Haunted Mansion took a long time to get from its initial conception to a full-fledged running ride. According to Disney-expert YouTubers the Super Carlin Brothers, the Mansion was part of Walt’s original plan for Disneyland. But Disneyland opened in 1955, and the Mansion wouldn’t open until 1969. It went through several different design concepts, and Walt needed to put the project on hold because he was devoting so much time to the 1964 World’s Fair. But the biggest issue was that Imagineers couldn’t decide whether they wanted the experience to skew funny or scary. The two Imagineers that Walt Disney assigned to the project, Marc Davis and Claude Coats, wanted to take it in very different directions. It wasn’t until after Walt Disney died in 1966 that a new Imagineer, Xavier Atencio, was put in charge of the ride and decided to combine the humor and the frights, creating the ride that would wow guests for the next 50 years (and counting!).

It was a major success for the park

All of the struggles to create the perfect ride paid off because when the Mansion finally opened, it brought in record numbers of guests. Speaking of numbers of guests, find out whether Disneyland or Disney World gets more visitors, and why.

There are ghosts from all around the world

“It’s a Small World,” this is not, but there are still lots of international groups of ghosts partying in the Mansion’s graveyard. Looking closely, you can spot tea-drinking British ghosts, mummified Egyptian ghosts, and helmet-sporting Norwegian ghosts. Speaking of all around the world, get a look at some impressive Disney attractions that are only in the international parks.

The design is inspired by a real house

Ken Anderson, one of the Imagineers behind the design and concept of the Mansion, drew inspiration from a real-life antebellum-style home. Called the Shipley-Lydecker House, this Baltimore home was demolished in 1967, but not before Anderson saw an image of it in a book called Decorative Art of Victoria’s Era and loved the design. The house’s influences are easy to see in the final facade of the Mansion, particularly the four columns in the front.

A character was missing from the ride for 45 years…but now he’s back

One of the most memorable characters from the original incarnation of the Haunted Mansion was known as the Hatbox Ghost. And he was memorable despite his very short-lived time in the Mansion. This ghost’s gimmick? His head disappeared and then reappeared in the hatbox he was holding.  According to TripSavvy, the ghost was positioned too close to the riders and the effect wasn’t seamless, so the Imagineers scrapped it very shortly after the opening of the ride. But in 2015, the present-day Imagineers decided the time was ripe to bring an updated version of him back—and it’s been a spook-tacular success.

The organ is a film star

The original organ in the Disneyland ride, where a ghostly organist plays the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” tune, made its Disney debut in the 1954 film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A few of the parts, including the headboard, were swapped out, but the body of the organ is the same. The Haunted Mansion is a classic, but it’s not the one ride at Disney that will never be shut down.

There was almost a water ride version

Today, we can’t imagine the Haunted Mansion as anything but an amazing dark ride-through with the delightfully spooky Doombuggies. But in its early days of development, Claude Coats—one of the Imagineers who was integral to the design of the ride—considered having it be a boat ride. This was partly because the Omnimover ride vehicle technology hadn’t been developed yet. Had this version of the ride come to fruition, the Mansion would’ve been a New Orleans plantation home, partly submerged in a bayou.

It was originally going to have a walk-through

In addition to the water ride, there was also another potential iteration of the Mansion that had a walk-through component. The graveyard, which today serves as the queue for the ride, was originally planned as a separate walk-through attraction, according to Yesterworld. The would-be walk-through was even part of the construction for the ride until the Imagineers realized that that space would be put to better use as the introduction to the Mansion.

The ride gets a holiday makeover

If you’ve never been to one of the Disney parks during the holiday season, anyone who has will tell you that it’s a different experience altogether. And the Haunted Mansion is no exception—starting in 2001, it has become the “Haunted Mansion Holiday” at the end of the year, starting in September. In addition to bedecking the mansion itself with both jack o’ lanterns and traditional Christmas decorations, the “makeover” incorporates lots of elements from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The transforming portraits in the hallway before you board the buggies now depict Christmas scenes that turn into Halloween scenes, like Santa morphing into Jack Skellington. In addition, the caretaker and dog out in the graveyard become Jack Skellington and his ghostly dog Zero.

Madame Leota is a couple of different women

One of the most famous of the “Happy Haunts” in the Mansion is Madame Leota, the woman’s floating head in the crystal ball. It’s actually the head of a woman named…you’ll never guess…Leota. She was an Imagineer in the early days of Disneyland. The voice of Madame Leota, though, isn’t hers. True Disney fanatics might actually recognize it—it belongs to Eleanor Audley, who is most famous for voicing both Cinderella’s stepmother and Maleficent. By the time Disney needed new Madame Leota footage for the Haunted Mansion’s holiday makeover, which debuted in 2001, the original Leota had passed away. So they had none other than her daughter, Kim Irvine, take on the role. (They also got actress Susanne Blakeslee for the voice work.)

One of the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” singers might sound familiar

To learn another connection that the Mansion has with Christmastime, you need only listen to the vocals on the famous “Grim Grinning Ghosts” tune when you pass by the singing busts. One of the singers, Thurl Ravenscroft, is also the singer of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” in the original “Grinch” animated special. (He’s also the “grrrrreat” voice actor behind Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger!) Check out more Disneyland secrets only insiders know.

The Stretching Room is lowering you underground…

…in Disneyland, that is. One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Mansion is how the famous Stretching Room, in which the room appears to “grow” to reveal the full haunting contents of the portraits, works. And there are two pretty simple options: Is the ceiling rising, or is the floor descending with you on it? In the original Disneyland version, it is, in fact, the latter. But that’s not the case everywhere; in Disney World, the ceiling is rising. And that’s not the end of this bit of Haunted Mansion trivia. The reason for the difference is that Disneyland was a little short on space, so they couldn’t justify making the Mansion any bigger than it had to be and had to build below ground. In Disney World, on the other hand, there was plenty of extra room, so the Stretching Room grows. And that’s just one of many differences between Disneyland and Disney World.

It caused quite the janitorial staff walkout

In the early days of the Mansion, its cleaning crew learned the hard way that the Imagineers had rigged the house with motion sensors. These sensors would shut off the lights and activate all of the animatronics and special effects—and they gave the janitors an understandable scare. The next morning, the Imagineers came to work to find all of the effects still running and a lone broom sitting on the floor. They had a voicemail from the cleaning crew saying that they would not be back to work.

The weather vane pays tribute to the “original” owner of the Mansion

One of the first versions of the “story” of the Haunted Mansion had the Mansion belonging to a former swashbuckling pirate named Captain Gore, who killed his wife after she became privy to his history of piracy. She got her ghostly revenge by giving him a good haunting for the rest of his life. Even though this version of the story didn’t stick, the weather vane on top of the Mansion, styled like a large schooner, pays tribute to the original tale.

The “Master” of the house has caused some confusion

Riders with eyes for Easter eggs have noticed that one of the gravestones outside the Mansion pays tribute to a “Master Gracey.” This has led them to assume that the late Master Gracey is the owner of the Mansion. However, it’s not actually supposed to be “Master” as in Master of the House, but “Master” as in a man not quite old enough to be called “Mister.” It’s a tribute to Yale Gracey, an Imagineer who worked on the special effects for the ride. But the idea that this mysterious Master Gracey is, in fact, the Master has become so widespread and popular that many Cast Members have accepted it as canon to the ride. And in the 2003 movie version of Haunted Mansion, the owner of the house is, in fact, named Gracey. Read on for more fun facts about the first-ever Disney park, Disneyland.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.