Why is Disney's Haunted Mansion so popular?
Published: May 7, 2012 at 10:40 AM
Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
But why? I'm not satisfied with a simplistic explanation - so saying "because it's good" doesn't cut it for me. I want to delve into specific design decisions made by Disney's Imagineers that have helped make Mansion such a popular attraction.
Haunted Mansion in Disneyland
First, let me fess up that I'm not as big a fan of the ride as many on the site. To me, Haunted Mansion has an incomprehensible narrative (that Disney's filled in, erased, and changed over the years) and a theme song that's not nearly as catchy and memorable as "A Pirate's Life for Me" and "It's a Small World." The Pepper's Ghost effect in the Ballroom isn't as visually convincing as the one at Knott's Mystery Lodge (the gold standard for Pepper's Ghost effect shows in the world), and while I love the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay in Anaheim and Tokyo, the reflected light off the snow-covered graveyard totally illuminates the scrim and ceiling, spoiling many of the effects in the ride's climactic scene.
Haunted Mansion in Tokyo Disneyland, with the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay
So what makes this a great ride, strong enough to overcome even those weaknesses? Of course, it's a long, sit-down ride in the air-conditioned darkness, a underrated attraction in its own right on a hot summer day. And there's the whole Goth appeal, too. But Goth hardly delivers blockbuster followings on its own. If it did, the upcoming Dark Shadows movie wouldn't be a spoof, and we'd be hailing Depeche Mode instead of U2 as the best band to break out in the 1980s.
Here's my answer to the question of the Haunted Mansion's popularity: It's the Ghost Host.
Paul Frees' narration makes the Haunted Mansion an intimate, personal experience. You're not riding anonymously through huge show scenes, as on Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World. You're taking an individual tour through the Mansion, guided by your own, personal host. That design decision helps the guest feel more involved in the experience on Haunted Mansion than on many other classic theme park attractions. For 10 minutes, this is your ride, not just a ride that you're on.
The ghosts even invade your ride vehicle on the attraction's final scene, visually bringing you into the haunted action. (That effect's best in Orlando, where it was recently upgraded with new tech, but it's still pretty neat in Anaheim and Tokyo.)
The entire experience is designed to create an impression of a personal experience with the 999 happy haunts of the Mansion. Even the decision to assign that number to the ghosts in the ride helps personalize the experience. You can't help but think of yourself as that ghost number 1,000, forever putting yourself into the scene. Disney doesn't tell you the number of pirates sacking the Caribbean. You never feel like maybe you could be one of them. (Which undercuts Disney's attempt to sell all those Pirate makeovers to little boys.)
Haunted Mansion's hardly the only attraction to use in-car narration in a small ride vehicle, to create an intimate, personal effect. I think that style of narration is one of the reasons why so many fans continue to mourn the loss of Epcot's Horizons, which used the same concept. And it's one reason why I continue to enjoy Epcot's Spaceship Earth, which also now puts you into the scene by laying your photograph into on-monitor show scenes.
But those rides lack the fun of Haunted Mansion, with its giddy whismy of singing and dancing ghosts. The only ride I believe to have used personal narration as effectively as Haunted Mansion is the attraction that beat it in this year's tournament - Universal's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
In my conversation with them, Universal Creative ride designers Thierry Coup and Mark Woodbury have explicitly cited their wish to create a personal connection between riders and the Harry Potter characters. They intentionally designed the ride vehicles and show scene placement in a way that you'd feel like Harry and Ron were speaking directly to the four of you on that flying bench, with no other ride vehicles to be seen. (FJ does this better than Mansion, IMHO.) And Forbidden Journey brings you into the action, as well, with the Dementor's Kiss effect. (Which Theme Park Insider readers have reported fails too work far too often for Universal to be satisfied with its performance. It's always worked for me, but it should always work for everyone. FJ without the Dementor's Kiss is like, well, Haunted Mansion without its hitchhiking ghosts.)
What do you think about my theory? How important is personal narration to you on a theme park ride? And what's the appeal of Haunted Mansion for you? Let's break down this ride in more detail, with your comments.