Why is Disney's Haunted Mansion so popular?

May 7, 2012, 10:40 AM · Why is Disney's Haunted Mansion such a popular attraction? It reached the finals of our Best Themed Attraction tournament earlier this year, and won that title two years ago. Haunted Mansion consistently ranks among the top rides in Theme Park Insider reader ratings, and it's attracted a large and devoted following on Mansion fan sites around the Internet.

Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom
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
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
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.

Replies (25)

May 7, 2012 at 10:50 AM · I agree that the narration is a key part of the attraction. For me, I like it because it was the first "haunted" ride that I remember so it really takes me back to my childhood more than other rides. It's also the attention to detail from the headstones out front to the ghostly statue at the end of the ride.
May 7, 2012 at 10:58 AM · I never really considered it, but in retrospect, I kinda gotta agree with you there, boss. I feel like it's the personal narrative and host that really helps to pull you into the attraction. The AC is a bonus, too. Your comparison to Forbidden Journey is pretty spot-on: because Harry, Ron and Hermione address you directly, it really pulls you into the ride and makes it feel like a unique experience just for you.

Personally, I don't jump out of my seat at the thought of Haunted Mansion, but there's no denying that the ride still has charm to this day. One of my favorite things to do when I go on Haunted Mansion these days is to find the props and things that used to scare the crap out of me as a kid.

May 7, 2012 at 11:15 AM · You bring up great points Robert. An attraction/ ride that is somewhat personalized and involves you will almost always trump a ride where you're merely a spectator. And as a Nightmare Before Christmas fan, I love the Holiday overlay for the Haunted Mansion. I have to agree that the scrim being illuminated takes away from the illusion a bit.

It's why I like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride over Peter Pan. Or A Bug's Life over Terminator. Or Waterworld over Indiana Jones.

The shows/ attractions talk to you, interact with you and don't forget that you're there. I haven't been on FJ yet, but as a HP fan, I hope I'll enjoy it as much as everyone else!

May 7, 2012 at 11:19 AM · Makes sense to me. I am deaf and find the ride underwhelming. I've participated with ASL interpreters and without. It's "fine", but not at all a top-tier attraction to me.
May 7, 2012 at 11:31 AM · I have to agree that the personal experience adds a lot to it, but it's not the only thing. Part of it is it really is packed with continuous surprises for first timers. Part of it is that it is elegantly creepy that satisfies goths, horror fans and young ones. Part of it is perhaps the exterior, where it looks like a real house, and going through the corridors, it feels like a house, unlike Pirates which is a bay, a city, a jail and a ship inside a fort. Maybe, Pirates aside, there are no other dark rides with such realistic details and spaces, or of that scale. Perhaps it's because it is relaxing, with literally no thrills, even less than Pirates, so that no one has reservations to ride it. Perhaps, now it is one of the few rides than has no context outside of the ride, meaning that you don't need to see a movie or read seven books to appreciate the ride. Maybe it epitomizes a genre, horror and ghost stories, in a tasteful, complete and thorough way. Maybe because it's a people eater of a ride. Maybe because it's unassuming presence compared to, lets say, the Mountains but still packs a lot in, which makes it a surprise to so many people. Maybe it's the only ride in Disney where it is private enough to turn it into a "Tunnel of Love." And let's not forget how many people probably tune out the Ghost Host most of the ride.

I have to disagree on the feeling that FJ gives the same personalized feeling. Riding on a bench with strangers; getting the pre-show in a crowded room, filled with a filled queue, getting the same story over and over from the characters; never seeing the Dementors work; maybe it's because the experience is so far from feeling like a tour of Hogwarts rather than the monster mash-up it really is.

May 7, 2012 at 12:08 PM · He couldn't help himself..... The bench becomes "private" when you have a family of four and I had never experienced the ride where something didn't work as planned. It is still the number 1 voted ride on TPI, so not everyone agrees.

I went on Haunted Mansion at least once every trip to MK. It's a classic, but shows it's age. Sort of like Jaws, but a couple of decades older.

May 7, 2012 at 11:47 AM · It's bizarre. I've ridden Haunted Mansion in Orlando twice - in 2004 and early in 2009 - but I don't remember there being any narration at all on the ride. We just sat in the doom buggies and trundled through the scenes.

Did I miss something or is the narration a new innovation?

May 7, 2012 at 12:24 PM · I was a fan of Haunted Mansion even before I could understand English well enough to understand the full narration. The same is true about Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris (which is played in French).

Personally I never felt that the attraction was personalized for me, but it is still my favorite attraction.

Is the Tokio version played in English or in Japanese?

May 7, 2012 at 12:29 PM · Robert, I have a different theory, but that in some ways assumes some of your theory. One of the things that Disney is known for is their ability to build an atmospheric arc. Meaning, they do a wonderful job developing atmosphere as you tread deeper into the experience you are having without it being a spoken or direct narrative.

The Haunted Mansion, particularly the Magic Kingdom's version, is the absolute best at creating this arc. Think of it: even without directly seeing the mansion you can hear the wolf howl as you approach. Then, there's the hearse and the change in the type of cobblestone and the wrought iron. There's the willows and the roses, the head stones, and the experience of being lower to the ground (via the retaining wall) that makes the house lord over you. Without spelling out any part of the story, guests are slowly being submerged in the atmosphere.

Next you stand at the door and it swings open. A blast of cool air hits you, the lighting is warm but incredibly dim, much like a funeral home. The walls have heavy wood paneling that you can touch and feel the grain in. The cobwebs sway with the breeze created by the crowds movement. And finally the narration begins. By the point you are in the ride vehicle, you are well primed for the ride itself.

The detail on the ride and the timelessness of the themes more than make up for the age of the trickery. And once the ride is ended you are edged back out of the atmosphere gradually with a walk down a cool dark corridor, past a crypt and a pet cemetery and out the gate before the mood is broken and you are sold a single souvenir.

While Pirates comes close in many ways, I don't think it holds up against that sort of immersion. The Haunted Mansion is overall a deeper sensory experience. And, a more evenly paced one to boot.

That individualized narration is a component of that highly orchestrated experience that has few if any compromises. i would say the only other ride that gives The Haunted Mansion a run for its money in this way is Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios.

May 7, 2012 at 12:39 PM · NB, of course not everyone agrees. But I wasn't hating on the ride, just not agreeing with Robert's opinion...which is allowed.

I'm glad that on your visits, it has worked. However, since I visit the park almost weekly, riding it almost weekly (see I don't hate the ride) it's just I truly never have seen the Dementors work properly. Also lucky for families of four I guess, but meanwhile the rest of the groups of riders are either split up or sharing the experience with strangers which in contrast, Haunted Mansion is a more intimate experience that is never experience with strangers.

May 7, 2012 at 12:47 PM · Tom Rigg, I agree with everything that you said. That is why so many of Disney's attractions are as good as they are. They get you into the attraction before you are actually in the attraction and nobody does detail like Disney. To the one that said he didn't notice any narration. The narration starts as soon as you enter and they close the doors. I don't know how you could miss it.
May 7, 2012 at 1:05 PM · I also agree with Tom Rigg's comments, but think the appeal comes down to something simpler.

The ride is cool, scary, and funny -- to pretty much all ages, and sometimes all at the same time.

That is a very unusual combination, as most rides are lucky to capture one of those elements.

Further, having only one person in the vehicle with you in a closed vehicle makes it a very personal experience. This is a big positive in Spaceship Earth as well.

May 7, 2012 at 1:26 PM · I hate to say it, but you're off the mark. Haunted Mansion works with a fully realized character with the unseen Ghost Host and a description of what to see and expect from a fully fleshed out Disney attraction. The music was good. It is better than you gave credit. So wonderful was the music that it was spoofed in many cases... growing up in the 80s, I heard the familiar Haunted Mansion chorus with the chanting of "Ronald Reagan" in a ominous tone. It was a marvelously fun ride that grew on you as you grew older.

The premise about the personalized ride is only realized in the end with the ghost in the mirror, but it was just an effect that everyone got. Thus, this idea of a personalized ride is merely in your head if you allow such ideas. However, in conjunction with the pleas of joining the happy haunts as the 1,000th guest might be enticing to some and some do take things personally with the dumping of the ash remains of some dead fans is taking it too far. I would chalk this up to Disney's appeal to everyone in a personal level if not personalized.

May 7, 2012 at 2:23 PM · Since the Haunted Mansion is my all time favorite theme park attraction, I have a couple of theories on the subject. First, a writer here in my hometown of Louisville once wrote that some people just have what she called "The Halloween Gene" and other people don't. If you like the spooky, the creepy and the eerie; if you're either a "Munsters" or an "Addam's Family" guy; if the smell of fallen leaves and burning pumpkins sets your imagination afire, you have it.

Secondly, while the Haunted Mansion doesn't have a "clear storyline" with reoccuring characters, it does adhere to the most important storytelling structure in any book, film or even ride: The three act structure. Not just beginning, middle and climax, but a steady building of scope. Even the best roller coasters use the three act structure. The first act is the journey up the lift hill, the second act starts the second the train decends and the the third act (if the ride is really great) ups the thrill with one, last big trick. Think of "The Beast," which held the world's greatest coaster title for many years.

The Haunted Mansion starts as you journey through the graveyard and into the house and the stretching portrait room. The first part of the ride is quiet. You view paintings and the library. The second act starts after you go upstairs. Things start to get wilder when you reach the Seance room and the ghosts start to appear. The end of the second act is the huge Ballroom. Everyone knows attics in Haunted Houses are creepy, so the tension ratchets up as you drift through the attic, and for a finale you are taken into a massive graveyard with ghosts flying into the night sky, surrounding you on every side and music fills the air. The hitchhiking ghosts are the stinger after the credits. Everything starts small and builds throughout the attraction.

It's not just "a story" where you passively view scenes as they pass, like some of the other classic attractions such as "Peter Pan's Flight" or even modern ones like "The Little Mermaid" ride. It's a journey. It's an adventure. It's an exploration. Those elements, compounded for those with the "Halloween Gene," make the Haunted Mansion the best attraction ever created.

May 7, 2012 at 2:56 PM · I remember in the graveyard scene my ride broke down. But they got us back up and running in like 5 minuets.
May 7, 2012 at 3:16 PM · Tom Rigg, that was beautiful.
May 7, 2012 at 4:24 PM · The ride reminds me of the times, as children, when you discover that old abandoned house down the road, off by itself. You and your friends imagine all sorts of scary things inside, and maybe, just maybe, there are stories about terrible things that happened there long ago. The Haunted Mansion is your chance to experience all the scary things that your imagination created. And the Haunted Mansion delivers.
May 7, 2012 at 4:32 PM · Let me start by saying that for me, The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are the 2 major classics of Disney. About HM: everything is pure magic. My favorite part is when the doom buggies travel in reverse.

Like a great movie or a great novel, you can't put into words what makes a ride so beloved. A masterpiece is a masterpiece, and the why will never do justice to the actual experience.

May 7, 2012 at 6:00 PM · For me, nostalgia and that "halloween gene". When I worked for the studios in Florida and cross u'd at the Magic Kingdom I begged the GM (who I knew) to let me do a shift at the mansion. All I wanted was to spend some time telling people to please step to the dead center of the room. Bucket list item number 3, check.
May 8, 2012 at 1:42 AM · Y'know, a lot of what was said also was present (or past - heheheh) in Adventures through Inner Space. I'm surprised no one mentioned it yet. Well, till now.
May 8, 2012 at 4:28 AM · For me it's when the doors open and the castmember lets you into the house. they often do a great job. I feel like Brad en Janet getting invited at th Rocky Horror Picture show. It's fun and a bit unsetteling. Then you get horded into the stretching room (with the new sound effects even more fun) and then the ride starts. It's the intro that makes that ride awesome.
(and yes, Depeche Mode is the best band of the 80's)
May 8, 2012 at 9:56 AM · I think its because its one of the few decent people movers in the Magic Kingdom, the ques dont keep you standing in the sun to long and are entertaining unlike most of the just stand their and wait (forever) ques in MK, so people's perception of the ride being great !!! are slanted because of its ability to get the entire family on and off and the ability to go again without having to wait forever this makes it a so much of a nicer experience then say Thunder Mountain
May 8, 2012 at 11:09 AM · Me thinks Robert were not born with "The Halloween Gene," but caught the Errol Flynn virus early in life. Aaarrrggg!!!
May 8, 2012 at 5:07 PM · For me, it's very simple. It's the ride I remember most vividly as a kid. The ghosts floating in the dining room, and especially the ghost that was in the car with me at the end. I'd never seen anything like that before and it just stuck with me because of that.

That being said, I like the new interactive queue in orlando. It's not a big thing, but when waiting in line, it's always nice to have something to do.

On the flip side, I don't like the ghosts in the car at the end. I don't care if it's more animated, I liked the simpler ghosts that looked more like the ones in the rest of the house.

May 9, 2012 at 11:59 AM · To me an interactive ride with a small spine chilling experience. The animations are great, the smell is very unique.
Other haunted house rides are all fake, with dolls popping out of the woodwork with loud obnoxious sounds.
In my opinion this is the best haunted house ride there is. It would be nice to have a few drops..

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