Friday, December 18, 2020

The Weird History of Ports O' Call Village

Do you enjoy deep dives into strange history like this? Check out my book, Hidden History of Walt Disney World, for more bizarre tales! Available nationwide through History Press.

Today, I'm bringing you back. Back to a time when, in a relaxed milieu of quaint shingle structures embracing a body of water, sophisticated adult shoppers could mingle through boutiques like a tobacconist, fashionable resort wear, and candle shop, or perhaps take a relaxed cruise across a bay.

There was fresh seafood, a permanently moored fanciful ship, and the logo was a cartoon bird flying in a circle. The Walt Disney World Village.......... was a complete knockoff of Ports O' Call Village in San Pedro, California, one of the earliest and most influential retail developments in history.

What? Hold on here.... let's back this boat up and start from the beginning. What the heck is the Ports O' Call Village?

There are two players in this drama we must get to know: David C Tallichet Jr, and the Los Angeles Harbor Commission. The harbor commission had a strip of government land inside the harbor that they wanted to make some greenbacks on, and Tallichet had a shiny new restaurant in Long Beach called The Reef.

Tallichet in flush times

David Tallichet was a former WWII pilot who had worked as a manager of a Hilton hotel in Long Beach, back in those heady days when Hilton was regarded as the gold standard of hospitality and was just then starting to expand overseas.

Tallichet rounded up some investment partners, including George Millay - eventual creator of Sea World - and embarked on a series of restaurant ventures starting in Long Beach with The Reef in 1958. Tallichet's main idea was to build each restaurant to match and emphasize a scenic location and cross that with Disneyland-style theming - he built Polynesian restaurants overhanging the Pacific, aviation restaurants alongside airport runways, and sophisticated retreats in the hills ringing Los Angeles.

At the same time, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission was seeking new tenants to revitalize a strip of land alongside the harbor in the city of San Pedro, then home to several old fishing piers and little else. The terms were good and the location, alongside the water with real ships passing in and out, had potential unlike any other restaurant in the area. Tallichet's Ports O' Call Restaurant, housed in a Polynesian longhouse and surrounded by a forest of tropical foliage in pure Adventureland tradition, opened in Feburary 1961 and proved an immediate success. A lagoon at the entrance, ringed with jungle-thick, had a Chinese junk partially sunken in it. Rooms inside were themed to Hawaii (Waikiki), Tahiti, the Hong Kong Yacht Club and a Japanese "Tea Room" - a concept lifted wholesale from Steve Crane's Kon-Tiki Ports chain in Hiltons across the country.

It was such a success that Tallichet went back to the Harbor Commission and secured another parcel of land a little south of Ports O' Call where he built another concept - the Yankee Whaler Inn. Housed in a Colonial New England style white clapboard structure, servers were dressed as 18th century nautical sailors and the kitchen issued forth chowders, scampis, and the largest lobsters that could be obtained. Both restaurants, as well as Tallichet's other ventures The Reef in Long Beach, Castaway in Burbank, and the Pieces of Eight in Marina del Ray, were designed by Vernon Leckman.

The combination of San Pedro, then just starting to attempt to revitalize itself from decades of a rough waterfront reputation, and Tallichet's trendy themed restaurants, seemed impossible to beat. We're not sure if their next step was suggested by Tallichet or the commission, but it's when the project got truly creative. The first modern themed mall in America was announced. Tallichet pulled out all of the stops, including hiring Victor Gruen Associates for the master planning of the development.

"1.5 Million "Village" Approved", crows the headline of an item in the San Pedro Pilot of May 1962. The piece goes on...

"One of California's most important recreational developments since Disneyland is scheduled for construction this year in the Port of Los Angeles. David C. Tallichet, president of the Ports O' Call Restaurant Corporation announced today that the Harbor Commission has given its approval for the 1 1/2 million Ports O' Call Village immediately adjacent to the Ports o' Call Restaurant in San Pedro.


According to Tallichet's project manager, Edwin G. Gilfoy, the development will be remiscient of a 19th century fishing village, with cobblestone streets, gas lights and the aura of the sea.

"We have already purchased a 230 foot ferry and brought it down from Northern California for refurbishing", Gilfoy said. The old ferry will be moored in front of the Village and will house an Oriental and European import shop, a fantasy toy land, and a milk luncheon shop in the fashion of an old showboat."

Later in construction in 1963, Leckman provided details to the Los Angeles Times:

"Wood frame construction is being used through the development, with most exterior walls of heavy redwood and batten. Some finished redwood, shingle, plaster, tile, brick, and stone walls are also being utilized. Roofs are shingles and shakes, while streets and roads of the village will be of cobblestone to recapture the typical atmosphere of an 18th Century waterfront village.

"Nothing is being spared to recapture the authentic old world atmosphere," Leckman said, "Finishes are designed to weather quickly so as to enhance the weather-beaten appearance. Even the nails are ungalvanized so as to encourage rusting."

Oh, and about that ferry boat, the SS Sierra Nevada, which was built in 1912 and long serviced as a form of mass transit across San Fransisco Bay. Tallichet actually bought it all the way back in 1961, as we discover in the Oakland Tribune, where we find that he paid $19,750 for it during an eight-day auction, and furthermore that "The 49 year old ferryboat will be moored next to one of Tallichet's waterfront restaurants and rented to Sausalito merchant Luther W. Conover as a variety import store. Conover converted the old ferryboat Berkeley into the Trade Fair store two years ago in Sausalito."

Tallichet, on the Right, buying the Sierra Nevada.

Tallichet, whatever his other faults, began over-promising almost immediately. With his Shopping Village venture not even yet open and less than a year after the initial approval from the Harbor Commission, he announced yet more expansions.

Gangway aboard the "Sierra Nevada" along "Flint Lock Lane"
at Ports O' Call Shopping Village

"2.7 Million 'Port Village' Seen - Approval sought for 14-acre development", the front page of the News Pilot blares. The details spun below are dizzying and need to be recounted to make sense of the rest of our story:

"The commission, under Chairman Dr. George Wall, gave a village development organization representing Dave Tallichet and Norm Hagen a go-ahead to develop a long-pending Southland redevelopment project. The group approved the program in principle which would allow Hagen, who operates the existing sports fishing landing, and the Tallichet Group, to combine forces under a 50-year lease to develop the entire 27 acres, including the parking lot, as a unit under one operating body."

I've already indicated that Tallichet built the Yankee Whaler just south of the Ports O' Call Restaurant. The Ports O' Call Shopping Village opened just north of the Ports O' Call Restaurant. Immediately north of that was Norm's Sportfishing Pier. Demonstrating that Tallichet and Hagen had every intention, as of 1963, of working together to knit all of these businesses together into one huge shopping and recreation center, Tallichet built a third restaurant - Bay of Naples - just north of Norm's Pier. 

Just read these plans:

"The multi-million dollar project will include four international villages, one with a Chinese flavor patterned after the port of Hong Kong, and three others drawing upon world famous ports. [...] Further plans call for the redevelopment of Norm's Sportfishing Landing into a Fisherman's Village area, including the expansion of the present sportfishing facilities; a high caliber amusement zone; an international village; a number of a new restaurants; a motor-hotel with 75 units and 60 boat slips and a three-story office building totalling some 55,000 sq. feet."

The completed Village in 1963. The 1961 Ports O' Call Restaurant, surrounded
by foliage with drive-up roundabout, is on the far right.

It must be pointed out that the early 60s were boom years for this sort of insane development speculation. The optimistic 50s had still not quite subsided, land prices were falling, suburbs were rising, and there seemed no ceiling on what fanciful projects the public would embrace. C.V. Wood, the man erased from Disney history, had gone on to poach design talent from imploding Hollywood studios like MGM and succeeded in building an unlikely chain of Disneyland-style amusement enterprises, most famously Freedomland in New York City. Roy Hofheinz in Houston had rode an unlikely rocket to success through politics and television, eventually building the Astrodome and his own Texas Disneyland, Astroworld, tied together in a recreation empire he called the "Astrodomain". And, of course, there's real estate developer Angus G. Wynne, who did what C.V. Wood and David Tallichet could not by opening Six Flags Over Texas, Georgia, and Mid-America -- places that still exist today.

Still, Tallichet's plans are absurdly ambitious, and eventually would come back to haunt Ports O' Call Village down the line. But for the moment, June 28, 1963, was all upside for Tallichet as the project finally opened. 1963 newspaper advertisements promote Hudson's Bay Company (a home wares store), Ole Legende Cove (imported foods), The Californian Men's Casual Wear, Casa d'Italia, Anthony Kane Jewelers, Wing's Chinese Art, The Mermaid's Dowry (sea shell gifts), Hickory Farms (yes, they once had stores), Murata Pearls from Japan, Thorsen's Scandanavia Shop on the Sierra Nevada, The Wheelhouse cafe, the Petal Pusher Flower Shop, Wynne's Boutique, Village Smoke Shop, a pet shop, and the Candy Cove. Rounding everything off, Tallichet had been operating an excursion boat for harbor cruises and cocktail parties, variously known either as the MV Princess or the SS Princess, of which I could find very little useful information.

The News Pilot may have slipped Dave a Mickey, however, when they casually revealed that the entire project cost $10 Million, not the $1.5 Million announced (unless, of course, that was a typo).

Regardless, the Ports O' Call Village was, for 1963, entirely unique. Malls had not yet flourished across the country - most of the major malls in Los Angeles would not appear until the 1970s - and the Village instantly made the Port of Los Angeles into a destination on any tourist itinerary. A September 1963 advertisement boasts:

"No getting around it, the new Ports of Call Village is really a very astonishing place. We beat our drum and shout it from the mountain tops, yet everyone who visits the Village for the first time says the same thing: "Why, I didn't know it was anything like this..!" We hide behind light posts all day just to listen to them. We know its an astonishing place... it was meant to be that way. But, people don't believe it until they see it."

In August 1963, announcing the arrival at the village of a "folk music hootenanny" (can't make this stuff up...), the Village estimated that around 85,000 people visited during the past weekend.

It took the Port Commission and Tallichet some time to make their next move. Writing almost fifteen years later in 1977, News Pilot author Mike Daugherty speaks of plans to build a maritime museum at the port, born of technological advances in the shipping industry which was wiping out the old fashioned traditions of the old port city. San Pedro's Beacon Street district, once a notorious strip of dives and whore houses catering to sailors on shore leave, was shortly to fall victim to urban renewal. Harbor Commissioners, led by Dr. George Wall, hired Ray Wallace to design an appropriate museum stylized after the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. 

"His plans included replicas of an old San Pedro church, the Exchange Hotel, a railroad museum, and the port's first pilot and marine exchange station. He says the village area would have included some retail shops, but the [historic] sailing ship would have been the main attraction."

To this end Tallichet apparently invested $8000 and agreed to allow the Museum group build in open land south of his Yankee Whaler Inn, pending that an appropriate sailing ship could be procured. Al Atchinson, who was on the Maritime Museum Association, accuses Tallichet of retracting his support for the project and moving ahead with an expansion of the shopping village on his own; Tallichet cites "political problems" at the port at the time. Daugherty notes, "One harbor commissioner was found dead in the harbor waters and four others later were indicted on bribery charges connected with construction of the Pacific Trade Center."

....Excuse me??

It's True! In 1964, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty appointed Pietro Di Carlo, prominent area businessman to the Harbor Commission. Under Yorty and Di Carlo, Los Angeles was aggressively moving forward with a World Trade Center project, intended to be split between Los Angeles Airport and Terminal Island and viewed as key to the continued economic success of the port. The project was announced, ground was broken, but no trade center appeared. Ominously, rumbles of conflicts of interest arose in the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

And then, on November 7, 1967, Di Carlo was found floating face down in a slip at the old San Pedro Ferry building. Mayor Yorty screamed foul. A few weeks later, a Grand Jury was convened to investigate charges of embezzlement, and handed down their indictments on December 29, while Mayor Yorty was on vacation in Acapulco. Essentially, board member George Walton had voted to approve the plans presented by board member Kevin Smith who owned the construction company which had been awarded the contract the build the Trade Center - all actors appointed by Yorty, of course. The trouble is that Smith had recently taken out quite a large number of shares in Cabrillo Savings and Loan, owned by... Pietro Di Carlo, as well as possible monetary kickbacks and trading of office furniture.... the Trade Center never got off the ground. Ironically, the building where the body was found is today the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

But Tallichet had been granted approval for his ambitious plans for the entire strip of land, with its hotel and amusement park, so he went ahead and started building while the Harbor Commission was dragging their feet on plans for museums and trade centers. The Shopping Village was already directly connected to the Ports O' Call Restaurant, and his next venture would connect the Ports O' Call to the Yankee Whaler Inn, allowing free access to the entire strip of Tallichet holdings, and also Norm's Pier.

A bridge was built across the lagoon in front of the Ports O' Call, leading visitors into the most thematically ambitious section of the Shopping Village, the Whaler's Wharf. The Valley Views from Van Nuys was suitably impressed:

"To say the new buildings are authentic reproductions is certainly true and they are as cute and quaint as one could imagine. They've even gone so far as to build some of them off plumb, with caving roof lines, crooked doors, and walls that appear to careen off into the water. Streets are narrow and winding, paved with brick and including the center drain for runoff water..."

Looking at photos and postcards of the Whaler's Wharf, it's hard not to be impressed. It may be a mall, but in intimacy and execution its darn close to the real deal, and far more atmospheric than Liberty Square at Magic Kingdom. Decades later, in his essential Los Angeles: The City Observed, architect Charles Moore waxed poetic about Ports O Call and the Wharf in particular:

"The first phase, in the middle, is a particularly relaxed mixture of California Ranch board-and-batten and shakes, a somewhat Spanish stucco, and a little Beverley Hills ornamented French, just like everything else in Los Angeles - especially in the early 60s.


...An old Nantucket whaling port theme was kept in mind and carried out with considerable verve. The shops are mostly two stories, but they seem small and cute, arranged informally along winding brick streets or wooden wharves or intimate plazas. The buildings come in a number of persuasions, covered in clapboard or shingles or sometimes brick, but they all seem to belong here, united by certain details, like small-paned windows in white frames and by the luxuriant foliage and the care that went into them. Three full-size, square-rigged sailing ships, which go out on harbor and dinner cruises, are berthed at one of the wharves; their intricately rigged masts float above the little buildings at least as realistically as the Matterhorn at Disneyland does above Main Street."

At least one of those ships was named the Buccaneer Queen and was built - at first as a hobby - by Gary Nevarez, a retired police officer from Venice. The News Pilot of September 1971 informs us that its sails were used in the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty, presumably the ill-fated 1962 version with Marlon Brando. It was operating at the Ports O' Call possibly as early as 1965, and today seems to sail from Cabo San Lucas in Baja, Mexico.

1967's Whaler Wharf represented not just a high point for themed shopping, but it's the high point for the entire Ports O Call project. Perhaps Di Carlo turning up dead in a slip just north of Ports O' Call really was a sign of things to come, but very soon the bloom would be off the rose and times, as always, were changing fast.


In May 1970, the Harbor Commission approved plans for a 328-foot sky tower attraction to be built in the parking lot across from the main entrance to the Shopping Village at a cost of $425,000. Modeled on the Sky Towers at Sea World and Marineland, admission was to be set at 60 cents per adult and 30 cents per child and said to be ready for January 1971.

January came and went, as the Sky Tower went up in pieces, until March 1971, when high winds in the area caused the tower, around two-thirds complete, to crack. Two sections at the top of the tower were removed and then work stopped as engineers and management studied the issue. Two years passed, until Janurary 1973, when work resumed. Ports O' Call promised the structure would be ready by April. That didn't happen either.

The Skytower finally opened on Saturday, May 25, 1974, three and a half years behind schedule. On its second day of operation, 25 people were trapped in the passenger capsule and had to be evacuated via fire ladder. Two days later, the same incident repeated itself, although the tower was able to resume operation after an hour and the rescue team was not called.

In September 1977, the Sierra Nevada ferry sprang a leak. The four shops and two restaurants aboard were closed, and the manager of the shopping complex told the News Pilot that the repairs would cost more than the boat was worth and it would be scrapped. Yet in September 1978, the Sierra Nevada still floated... in Long Beach Harbor, apparently derelict after being blown onto Terminal Island during a storm. This happened because the owner of the vessel, a salvage operator named Al Kidman, was currently in federal prison on Terminal Island (!) after damaging the Cabrillo Beach Fishing Pier with a half-sunken boat. And so, from San Fransisco to Los Angeles and finally Long Beach, the Sierra Nevada passes out of history.

Incidentally, the Sierra Nevada's sister establishment docked in Sausalito also sprung a leak in 1970, although the fate of the 1898 Berkeley was a happier one - she was purchased by the Maritime Museum of San Diego where she exists today. There were brief rumblings of the SS Catalina coming to Ports O' Call Village to replace the ferry, but this never happened. At some point following the removal of the ferry, the walkway to the former location of the ferry and the buildings bordering the gangplank were pulled down. Since the Shopping Village was literally built around the ferry, this meant that the carefully planned effect of meandering through cobblestone streets was permanently compromised, much as if the buildings housing Cafe Orleans and French Market at Disneyland were pulled down but the rest of the area left intact. Ports O' Call was now more of a C-shaped grid of buildings facing open harbor space.

It appears as if the Skytower ceased regular operations in 1979, meaning it got five paltry years of operation. By 1980, Ports O' Call was offering free rides in the Sky Tower with a $5 purchase in any shop, presumably only running the attraction on days when the offer was valid. The Sky Tower attraction closed quietly in either 1983 or 1984 - as a representative told the Los Angeles Times, it simply never paid.

Things were generally not rosy at Ports O' Call by the 1980s. In 1984, merchants in the village banded together to plead against a rent increase. The News Pilot reported that "promised work on walkways, landscaping, lighting, roofs, signs and building exteriors and an inoperable skytower are all months overdue. In the case of the walkways, the situation is so bad that that some village visitors have suffered injuries and filed lawsuits. Yet rather than replace those walkways, the old ones have been patched and re-patched, work that as repair can be billed to tenants. [..] Tallichet would have to pay if new walks were installed."

The Harbor Commission agreed, opining that Tallichet had never fully fulfilled the terms of their 50 year agreement - no Mexican or Danish Villages, no motor hotel - and was negligent in maintaining his properties. This bad publicity did cause a minor spending spree at Ports O Call. Repairs began, and The Ports O' Call restaurant closed in September for what was reported to be a $1 million renovation, although employees complained they were not informed of the closure until a week before. The new look added a second level with banquet facilities, although the Polynesian theme was done away with almost entirely. Described as "Nautical Victorian", photos of the place which survive online resemble more an 80s retirement home recreation room with bits of tropical decor here and there - a sad end for a restaurant which once had a sunken ship out front.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that discontent amongst the Merchants had not abated. Tallichet's firm had vacillated over what to do with the unprofitable Sky Tower for years, and as of 1986 was considering selling it to Bob-Lo Island in Michigan. "The Sky Tower is a landmark and we would prefer that it stay", one was quoted as saying, "The majority of the merchants want the the Sky Tower left up and operational." The Los Angeles Time article enumerates massive complaints, including delayed lease negotiations, rotting wooden walkways, termites, and painting of surfaces that was only done at eye level.

The Sky Tower was indeed pulled down and relocated to Michigan, where it operated until the park closed in 1993. This did nothing to help Ports O Call. By 1986, there were newer, better malls in places like Santa Monica, Glendale, Thousand Oaks, and Culver City. Moreover, the Ports O Call concept had been copied in a more modern, whimsical style at Shoreline Village in Long Beach. Why drive all the way out to the port? The decline had begun.


American Woman RV on YouTube
By the time I saw Ports O' Call in 2012, the decades of neglect had not been kind. The few operating shops seemed to specialize in cheap tat like $5 t shirts and wind chimes. The Yankee Whaler Inn and most of the Whaler's Wharf had been pulled down years ago, leaving a few inexplicable and closed up New England style shops sitting out all alone by the water. As hilariously and accurately described by author Eric Brightwell, its specialty seemed to be "family fare with palpable menace".

But the story of the Ports O' Call is also the story of all failed shopping malls, even those without historic verisimilitude, pirate ships built by retired policemen, leaky ferries and broken sky rides. What once was viewed as a source of civic pride and a community center slowly gave way to decay and endless cycles of deferred re-investment until it was too late.

Ironically, the one part of the complex spared this fate was Norm's Landing. As Tallichet and the Harbor Commission dragged their feet on the endless Sky Tower debacle, Norm's was saved from imminent removal long enough to weather the storm. In the 70s, Norm's had begun operating a seafood restaurant, and in 1978 the Harbor Commission approved the construction of a second seafood restaurant nearby. This was the legendary San Pedro Fish Market, and by 1982 it had expanded and swallowed whole the adjoining restaurants, as well as Norm's Landing itself.

Today, the San Pedro Fish Market still operates, having outlasted every single business around it. It's a cheap, boisterous, loud place. You join the endless hordes filing past the gigantic seafood case, standing on tile that looks exactly like it was installed in 1982. Your pick out your seafood, it is weighed, and you carry it over to the kitchen, where they cook it on huge, flat top griddles, from which emerges ludicrous, heaping piles of seafood on plastic trays. You buy a cheap Mexican beer and carry your seven or eight pounds of seafood outside to an endless seating area alongside the harbor. It's kind of skeevy, and it's awesome.

In other words, even if Norm's Landing itself is a distant memory, the whole Norm's Landing ethos of cheap food and entertainment has far and long outlasted the rest of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission's over-reaching ambitions to bring high class culture circa 1962 to a place which once was home to screamingly drunk sailors staggering their way towards Beacon Street. No money may have been spared to bring tourists and swells down to the waterfront, but in the end it was the cheap thrills of working class pier that outlasted them all, as it has in all places and all times. You could eat your weight in fish then stagger south to a weirdly derelict collection of shops and wonder what any of this was doing here, as I did. That's why this essay exists.

David C. Tallichet died in 2007. Very little of his restaurant empire remains, and it's uncertain how much more of it will end up surviving Covid-19. Tallichet opened more shopping villages, including a failed one in Tampa and a little-loved "Londontowne" venture alongside the Queen Mary in Long Beach. If it ever reopens, Proud Bird at LAX is a place where you can get a pretty decent burger and watch the planes land. The former WWII airman ended up amassing a massive collection of vintage fighter planes and will be remembered perhaps by that specialist community better than for his development career. It was his personal B-17 bomber that appeared in the 1990 film Memphis Belle, and he flew it across the country to the shoot himself.

The last standing part of Whaler's Wharf in 2018 / Michael Nyiri on Flickr

In 2016, Harbor Officials announced that the entire strip of property that once was Tallichet's empire would be re-developed. They evicted all of the of the shop owners, largely operated by minority business owners, causing a furore amongst locals. In 2017, the remaining operating restaurants closed - Acapulco, the Crusty Crab, and a few others. The last one standing was the historic Ports O' Call, no longer part of the Specialty Restaurants Group and gone slightly to seed - the owners simply ignored the eviction notice, kept booking parties, and claimed they were able to stay open. An injunction was filed, a Judge upheld the rights of the Harbor Commission, and the 1961 landmark was torn down. The upcoming $150 Million dollar replacement, The San Pedro Public Market, looks exactly like the generic bullshit you'd expect to be built in 2020.

Ports O' Call Village comes down / Daily Breeze



When it came time for Walt Disney Productions to plan their downtown of shops and restaurants for their proposed Lake Buena Vista timeshare community, they quite naturally looked to the most prominent local example to pattern their own shopping village on.

Remember that in 1973, the main early Southern California malls such as the Glendale Galleria were still several years away. It’s not that indoor malls were unheard of - the downtown of Walt’s Epcot city was patterned after those - but they mostly had begun being built in the 1950s before the industry briefly shifted to the model typified by the Ports O' Call.

It was a short lived trend, and the gigantic climate controlled box would return to favor as a hangout for youths, destroying the memory of the quaint shopping villages of the 1960s. But in the early 70s, a landscaped network of shops was considered the more modern and adult option, and one of the best examples in the country was just down on the harbor.

Disney took it all - the weathered wood, the waterside location, the flowers and statues, the boat rentals, the quaint carved signs, the seafood restaurant on the water, even the candle shop. When it came time to expand they added a big white boat, although theirs was a paddlewheel, not a ferry, and they built it as an actual structure sitting on a foundation in the water which is why it's still there today. Many early promotional descriptions refer to the Walt Disney World Village as "New England Style", which may be crossed wires - parts of Ports O' Call definitely were New England, but the Buena Vista Village was not.

And it's not like Disney was alone, as the Ports O' Call begat imitators local and national - just in Southern California there was San Diego's Seaport Village, Long Beach's Shoreline Village, and Huntington Beach's Old World Village. And then again of course the Walt Disney World Village would soon expand and be copied all around the world. And although the exact model of Disney shopping complex that would proliferate was based more on the Paris Disney Village from 1992, without Disney's pioneering effort to expand their merchandising power in 1975 I doubt that any of those facilities would exist.

In 2020, Disney was able to resume operations at their amusement facilities in Shanghai, Orlando, Anaheim, and Paris only after rolling out operations of their shopping areas, demonstrating they key monetary and operational role these little areas have come to have for the company.

So in a way, Ports O' Call does live on, through Disney, the entity that inspired the whole project to begin with. Ports O' Call, from whence was launched a thousand shopping malls, still carries on in our culture, unloved and forgotten -- in its own way one of the most influential retail developments in history. A quite astonishing place, now a pile of rubble alongside the port which inspired it.


Passport to Dreams Old & New has yet more rigorously researched articles on stuff you've never heard of - begin at our portal for the Disney version of Port O' Calls, Lake Buena Vista, then move on to our Walt Disney World History Hub!

Or check out the author's brand new book Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney's Haunted Mansion.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Now Available! Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Great News! My first book is now available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other sellers! Click here to grab it, or keep reading to find out what went into this massive project!

In September 2014, I lost my job.

While sitting outside wondering what I was going to do next, a stray thought occurred to me: maybe I should finally write that book. If only I had known...!

For some time before that, the idea had been percolating in my mind that I probably could write a book about the Haunted Mansion that would be unlike the other two books already written. Write what you know, as the saying goes, and I definitely knew the Haunted Mansion. Some time before I had read Roy Blount Jr.'s Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, a sort of text-based audio commentary for the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, which moves along through the film point by point while allowing time to stop discuss matters requiring more elaboration. That struck me as an interesting way to structure a book about a theme park attraction. So I started writing one day.

The trouble is that I had no idea how to write a book except that I needed to write a lot, so I just kind of started writing. And writing. And writing. This is a terrible way to write a book, I probably don't need to say, but it was the only way I could think of to force myself through it. And one reason the book took as long as it did is because I very much invented what the thing was about as I deleted sections, added others, re-thought the format, and slowly discovered what the tone and shape of my first book was going to be. 

Along the way the book stopped being wholly a 'virtual tour' of the attraction and began to widen out beyond the typical scope of a Disney book. On this blog I’ve often struggled to give full expression to the scope of my interests, but in this book they roam free, wide, and loose, causing frequent detours into history, or film culture, less exhalted  corners of theme park design, or dreams and folklore. Each chapter in the book is, like the essays on this site, roughly self contained, but unlike here they can also build and twist back into each other since they are laid ut in a fixed linear way. So, if you just jump in and want read my thoughts on one section of the ride, that works as a contained unit, but as the book goes on the resonances between sections build into a more holistic portrait of a great piece of art. If you’ve ever wondered what a 300 page Passport to Dreams post would be like, here is your answer.

Yet I’ve also tried to keep the book fast moving and fun, and the result is, I believe, the first Disney book of its type published anywhere. This is the first critical monograph on an attraction ever published, attacking the question of what makes the Haunted Mansion so great from any angle I can find. Like it says on the cover: deep explorations.

And that's my best answer to why we need a third book on the Mansion. It really digs into why and how the thing works so well, and why this weird ride from 50 years ago still garners fans. 

Look and Design

Those who enjoy the level of fiddly detail I poured into my previous giant project, Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World, will find much that is familiar here. I wanted to make this book as intensely involved with the Mansion as I am, and I’ve made sure that every inch of this book is full of little touches that speak to its pedigree - like me - of a result of this intense involvement.

For instance, the illustrations. There were from the start certain things that I could not publish - either because I could never secure the proper clearances to do so, or because good photographs simply not existing. So I ended up rendering around 30 illustrations, which are almost as moody and detailed as the ride itself is.

I wanted the book itself to feel almost as if it’s inhabiting the same universe as the ride, not just lifting design cues. It would have been easy to throw the Haunted Mansion font everywhere and call it a day, but my goal here was to have an end result that felt as if you had gotten out of your doombuggy and pulled a book off the shelf in the ride’s library scene and it just happened to be this book. 

I also wanted this book to be the sort of thing you would feel comfortable reading in the bath tub (where I do a lot of my reading) or popping in your luggage to take to Disney. I want you to enjoy and use this book, which is why it’s a reasonable size and only available in soft cover. As a twelve year old I dragged that huge Imagineering hardcover book with me everywhere, and it sure looks like it today. As a Disney book collector, I've also been encumbered with such volumes as the Taschen Walt Disney Film Archives, a thing of beauty that cannot reasonably be stored on existing book shelves. My book is intentionally the opposite of the monster eight pound books we have all been accumulating with increasing regularity.

There will be a digital version available, although only for Amazon's Kindle format. There are unfortunate technical reasons for this, as it became quickly apparent that targeting the more broadly supported EPUB format would involve essentially redoing all of the months of work we had just put into the print version. The Kindle version has all of the same content in a roughly comparable format, but the layout and text choices are compromised and in my opinion the book looks significantly worse. This is par for the course for eBook formats, so if you have the option, I hope you'll spring for the print version.

The title was a constant problem. My preferred original title was Sympathetic Vibrations, but there's already plenty of things out there already called that. For a long time I called the book This Old Dark House, which is what the central "tour section" of the book is called. I liked this because it made reference to the "old dark house" thriller genre which I feel the Mansion is directly descended from, but it's a sort of dopey thing to call a book. I knew I needed something better, something that ideally implied that the book had a certain historical perspective and was unusual. I landed on American Phantasmagoria, which I liked a lot. In the end, the name Boundless Realm occurred to me earlier this year, which is just about perfect. It's a line from the ride - although not an obvious one - and it implies the there's going to be a lot of ground to cover here. In concert with a cover image which intentionally leans more into "40s horror movie" territory, it really implies that this is going to be a Disney book with a difference.

Delays and Delays

Some of the delays occurred as a result of simply needing to wait for Disney to finish things. I had written a chapter on Phantom Manor, actually one of my favorite sections in the book, when Disney announced they were going to close that ride for a huge refurbishment which they then kept extending. I wanted to wait to see what they did, which ended up being the right choice because the changes they made really ended up affecting the content of my chapter, which had to be revised.

And then so much time had passed that it didn't make any sense to not just wait for Chris Merritt's monster Marc Davis book, just to double check that his research didn't flatly contradict any of mine, which thankfully it did not. I had a manuscript, illustrations, a cover.... ready to rock and roll, right?

Except! It turns out actually getting anything published is another nightmare!

After slamming into this brick wall for a few months, my preferred publisher returned the opinion that a combination of the worldwide pandemic and the Disney connection meant they would not be pursuing this. I began talking to other authors about their experiences, and found that besides official publications and of course Theme Park Press, nearly every Disney book is self-published. Maning every author out there had been also turned down by multiple publishers.

If nobody else had yet succeeded, I figured my chances of breaking through were limited. That was a rough month for me, but I began to explore my other options.

I ended up partnering with David Younger, whose massive, ludicrous tome Theme Park Design is in my opinion one of the best books on the subject ever produced. Together, we've decided to launch Boundless Realm as the first in a hopefully ongoing series of high quality, scholarly books on aspects of theme park design less as a publishing house and more as a kind of collective effort of authors. This book would literally not have been possible without David's help and I could not be prouder of it.

David is also selling a bundle copy of his textbook and my book through his website, if you'd like to grab them together. 

Boundless Realm is the culmination of a pattern which has been building in my life since I was five and went to Disney for the first time. That pattern continued through getting on the internet for the first time, building early websites, moving to Florida, starting this blog, and writing, and writing, and writing. The resulting book is handsome, very readable, erudite, and very, very me - exactly as I hoped. You could say it's the end product of three decades of living with a passion.

The Haunted Mansion has been a golden thread that has wound through the pattern off my life through up and downs but has never stopped bringing me joy and pleasure. For you, that thread may be Splash Mountain, or Indiana Jones Adventure, or The Beast at King's Island, but I think everyone will recognize the passion in this passion project. It's just surreal to finally see it out there in the world. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Reviews for Boundless Realm:

Cory Doctorow

Guy Selga at Touring Plans (Review Copy)

Josh Young at Theme Park University (Review Copy)

George Taylor at (Review Copy)

Len Testa on Disney Dish

Jeremy Harris on Matterhorn Matt

Boundless Realm is available at:

Amazon: Print and Kindle Editions

Amazon Canada: Print and Kindle

Amazon UK: Print Edition

Barnes and Noble: Print Edition

Bookshop.Org: Print Edition

Thank you for all of my readers over the years for your support! 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Harold's Lost World of Snow

"It will be going the same speed it always has, but it will seem faster."
- John Hench, Disneyland Line, December 1977

In 2003, I took my first trip to Disneyland, and Disneyland is one of those places that rewires the way you think. Besides absolutely taking my head off and stuffing it back on in a new way thanks to their incredible Pirates of the Caribbean - still my favorite ride ever - I discovered one of the great loves of my life: the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

I've spent a long time thinking about the Matterhorn, and a long time riding it, and it's one of those rides where I find my ardor for the experience cannot be contained by a logically structured essay. I suspect many folks are the same way about certain things: they can't say why they like it so much, but they do. I probably have never loved a roller coaster more than I love the Matterhorn, which says a lot about my priorities.

For one, comfort isn't one of them. The Matterhorn was rough in 2003, and after installing new bobsleds apparently made out of pottery and saran wrap in 2012, it got rougher. Those 70s Arrow Development sleds didn't seem to sit as low to the track and had better shock absorption, but the 2012 bobsleds are like a gigantic speaker pushing vibrations right up into your posterior. I haven't really cared; I've kept riding the thing, my feet pushed into the nose of the car, my hands gripping the handle bars, body tense and ready to absorb the pain.

I do it not because the Matterhorn is a great rollercoaster, or even because it's a landmark roller coaster. The Matterhorn, along with the 1975 Space Mountain, shakes you like a rag doll, which modern coaster enthusiasts absolutely do not like. They prefer their terror to come from drops and g forces, not being rocked around like a dead cat in a barrel being sent over Niagara Falls. As I said, I don't much care for roller coasters. I love the Matterhorn not at all because it's a coaster, but because it's an amazing experience, and there's only one of them in the world.

It's hard to say how much I would have liked the 1959 Matterhorn, with its hollow interior. What can be said is that the decision to enclose a roller coaster inside of an artificial mountain is one of those Walt Disney ideas which has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it is almost impossible to imagine a world where it does not exist. I'm fairly certain Walt got the idea from the Rutschebanen at Tivoli, a sort of scenic railway that dashes in and out of a scenic alpine mountain (with a fake cow in a field on top!). But as usual at Disneyland, the scale of the effort and the decision to combine it with a world famous peak made all the difference. The Matterhorn turned the idea of a fiberglass mountain into a genre, and Space Mountain would make it into an institution.

There is also just something about the other-worldlyness of the Matterhorn that works in some impossible to articulate way. The way it rises up and hooks with the little shadow just under its peak added by Fred Joerger - the way it hangs there against the hazy California sky, seemingly always further away than it really is. You can walk all the way around it, something you cannot do with any other stateside Disney mountain. That fact, and its central location, transforms the Matterhorn into something that exists for the pleasure of everyone, even those who do not ride. This is landmark design for pleasure, and it's been repeated endlessly since - I'm certain that the size and dreamy unreality of the Matterhorn is the basis for the height and effect of Cinderella Castle in Florida, for instance.

And yet all of that is literally just on the surface, what was put there in 1959. What I really love is the 1978 version, which in my opinion is an absolute stone classic in how to perfectly structure a themed experience, and do it so simply it's almost subliminal.

Storytelling in three dimensions is hard, and even harder because it rarely needs to conform to dramatic beats. Instead it could be said that most successful rides need to introduce a dramatic situation directly involving riders, then build and riff on that situation in a variety of interesting ways. Riding bobsleds down a fake mountain is pretty interesting already, but the wrinkle of introducing a rampaging monster really pushes the Matterhorn over the top. The idea supposedly goes back to Walt Disney, but how easily it could have turned out wrong.

Lets begin on the approach to the Matterhorn from the Hub. As we draw near, there is a surprise: the trees part, and a huge waterfall comes into view. The waterfall instantly suggests that there is going to be more going on in the Matterhorn than we expect, yet the Matterhorn looks picturesque, inviting with its alpine trees and flowers. A mountain stream winds around the base of the mountain, which somehow looks like cold mountain water thanks to the contrasting landscape around it.

Yet thats not quite the whole story. The whole top of the mountain is open, effectively turning its upper echelons into a gigantic loudspeaker which bellows out the unearthly roars of its resident monster. Even less comforting is the whistling wind which can be heard everywhere around it. This is the introduction of the dramatic conflict of the ride; the Matterhorn looks peaceful, welcoming, and charming, but.....

For my money no other theme park deployment of this concept comes even close to the raw elemental energy of this juxtaposition - the Matterhorn looks welcoming and inviting while also warning you to stay away. In the 70s, WED did a lot of this sort of stuff, and perhaps the wolf howl that emenates from the Florida Haunted Mansion and the booming cannons which once heralded the facade of Pirates of the Caribbean are predecessors. But those were really just atmosphere, whereas the approach to the Matterhorn initiates the dramatic conflict which will inform your entire experience: what's gotten into the Matterhorn?

The 1978 Matterhorn operated on the principle of suspense, and so the dramatic thrust of the story (will I escape?) mapped perfectly onto the build and release inherent in all coasters. This was an experience where the physical sensations of being on a coaster really meant something. The slow approach, the cheerful yodeling music, the wait at the bottom of the mountain ready to be released into the pitch black interior all built up anticipation. Of course all rides create anticipation, but the cheerful gemutlicheit of the Alpine landscape had an edge to it thanks to those unearthly roars.

The fact that the ride was going to be scary was announced instantly by the lift hill's perpetual gloom. The long monster roars were interspersed with screaming sounds, supplied by a speaker. The suspense of the lift hill is briefly released once the bobsleds peak and slowly begin to head downhill, then replaced with another kind of suspense. One of the best Disney jump scares of all time - the glowing eyes in the dark - illuminate with a ferocious roar, and now the rest of the ride is a long downhill slide where you are never entirely sure where the Snowman will be next. I've been on the Matterhorn probably a hundred times and I still sometimes forget exactly where the second Harold is.

Harold is one of the best designed theme park monsters of all time. The original design is a perfect distillation of a monster; long white hair offsets his blue face and hands, defining a fierce looking body shape as a silhouette, instantly comprehensible as a threat. Long hair above the eyes de-emphasizes the forehead, making the creature seem less human. Two thirds of the face is an open mouth full of teeth, the white teeth highlighted against the dark scream of a face. The nose is tiny, almost invisible, and the eyes are asymmetrical, making the yeti seem fantastical, an appropriate resident of Fantasyland. Harold was literally reaching hands, a mouth full of teeth, glowing red eyes, and almost nothing else.

But the thing is, nothing else was needed. Under the best circumstances you could get maybe 5 seconds to look at him, and those key elements: mouth, red eyes, reaching hand read perfectly from a speeding bobsled. As Ken Andersen told the E Ticket in 1993:
"You didn't need a lot of animation because you were moving. You were moving so darn fast that what you did was supply the movement for the characters."
That was the brilliance of Harold: he hardly moved, but he looked and felt alive. The long downhill escape, as well as his sudden reappearance, caused riders to fill in with their imaginations far more than was really going on.  More than any mountain-dwelling monster who has suceeded him, Harold really felt like he was chasing you, popping through secret caves and dashing down rock wall faces in an effort to cut you off. The physical structure of the ride itself worked perfectly to put you off the wrong foot; was that roar coming from ahead of or behind me?

The Matterhorn was a long build of suspense, followed by a chase down to the bottom, the splash of the glacial pond the release of the tension. Compared to the Matterhorn, Big Thunder was one damn thing after another and Space Mountain was just weirdness, but the Matterhorn felt like real peril, and it was peril created with some light-up eyes and three figures that moved only just enough to create a sense of motion. It was, in its own way, brilliant.

I didn't really start to understand just how good the Matterhorn was until Expedition Everest opened at Animal Kingdom a few years later. I admit that the Matterhorn created in me false expectations of a suspenseful, "boo" kind of experience, which Everest really isn't. Beautifully mounted, the attraction doesn't introduce its dramatic conflict until over a minute into a three minute ride. It's nearly another minute until we see the shadow of the Yeti, who honestly seems more interested in tearing up railroad tracks than chasing riders, and there's a final confrontation mere seconds before the ride ends. But the real thing that I couldn't believe when I rode Everest in previews, the thing I walked off the ride saying, is that the multi-million dollar yeti was gone by so fast you could barely register that he moved at all. Fusty old Harold inside the Matterhorn gave just about as good of a show at a fraction of the cost, and his mountain had actual caverns inside it!

For my money, Disneyland's new Snowman figure has the same issue. He looks terrifically fierce, and he snarls and lunges at the cars, but the pure, streamlined, communicative power of that goofy 1978 figure has been lost. The new figure has a visible forehead, which makes him look a bit more human, and his mouth opens and closes, a detail often lost because you're by him way too fast. He seems almost realistic, and to me this makes the new Snowman less visually appealing, less like an appropriate resident of Fantasyland.

But really the biggest issue is that those reaching hands are gone. The new Snowman is grabbing the ice wall around him like he's climbing out of a cave, but that image of him reaching for the cars was really important. Look at the silhouettes; there's no comparison.

The new guy seems like less of a threat; when you pass him a second time, he's twisted around to the side as if he isn't even expecting you to come upon him. He's louder, and he looks meaner, but its harder to feel like he's really and truly out to get you.

The trouble is that the window of comprehension for understanding something you coast by in a bobsled can be measured in micro-seconds, and the new Snowman just doesn't cut it. Blaine Gibson had fully absorbed this fact of theme park life and was a master at sculpting figures just the correct side of impossible to read in a flash. Think of all the figures in Pirates of the Caribbean, sculpted in mid-smile or mid-scowl. Think of the Hitch-hiking Ghosts, with their hugely exaggerated extended thumbs.

Think of how much artistic skill it takes to correctly draw attention to something as small as a thumb.

Blaine sculpted Harold's scowling face in a permanent scream for a reason, and he gave him huge reaching hands for a reason, and grossly exaggerated their size so you couldn't miss them. That version of the Matterhorn's monster was fit for the job.

On a similar track, the same team in 2015 removed the ice crystal scene and replaced it with a new hoard of destroyed Matterhorn ride vehicles, like bobsleds and skyway buckets. The previous ice cavern scene was nothing amazing, but you could look over and see the crystals and hear the music and instantly understand that you were looking at some crystals. The new scene just looks like some random stuff, and you're past it before you can figure it out. Worse, nobody going into the Matterhorn fresh in 2020 (2021?) is going to understand what they're looking at, making it a weird in-joke that doesn't really look like anything. That's a shame, because most of the Matterhorn is spent looking at snowy rocks, and anything to make it feel a bit more like a real place was a help. Like the Snowman figure upgrade, it was a great idea on paper, but in practice is a misfire.

From This 2014 Video
But the change that really stings me is moving your initial encounter with the Snowman to the lift hill. This makes some sense, but those glowing eyes were truly a perfect jump scare, and set the tone for the rest of the downhill chase. The slow ascent up the mountain in the pitch darkness listening to the wind howling built up terrific suspense, increased by the fact that Disney pumped in occasional scream sound effects to this scene. Was it another rider on the coaster, or was it....?

Then, the lift hill crested, and the first few moments of the ride were gentle. You relaxed. Then Harold's eyes lit up in the darkness and scared the tar out of you. I screamed on my first ride. And then you spent the rest of the ride on edge, expecting Harold to come bounding out at you again at every turn. That was the moment the ride had been building towards since you first laid eyes on it with its beautiful flowers, glistening waterfall, and baleful whistling wind.

I'm sure new riders enjoy the Matterhorn plenty, and I'm not here to make some absurd claim like Imagineering "ruined the ride". It's still lots of fun. But the previous version changed the way I look at theme park rides because of how much it was able to do with so little. That 1978 refurbishment, when you get right down to it, was a lot of rock work, three figures that only barely moved, some sound effects, and light-up eyes on a stick. But they totally transformed the tone and feeling of the Matterhorn, and gave it unique shape and rhythm. And they did it without changing the track.

And that's what the Matterhorn became for me, a kind of yardstick I use to measure all other rides: did the designers get the absolute maximum out of what they chose to build? I find this useful because it de-emphasizes the tech and the design density that Disney and Universal tend to get caught up in and looks simply at effect. Does what they spent money on really work?

The Matterhorn brought Harold to life with the simplest means, and did so in a way that was straightforward, understandable without words or preshow videos, and easy to maintain. The new version is flashier, but in sacrifing that elemental sinplicity of what was done in 1978, it is in my opinion significantly less powerful.

Because that's something that maybe gets lost in discussing the Matterhorn; it is one of the great scary Disney rides. Harold was designed to startle jaded 70s teenagers - who may otherwise have brought their business to a place like Magic Mountain - and did so in a way that was not so intense you couldn't still bring a six year old on the ride. Harold has moved out now, and try as I may, I've never quite warmed up to the new guy. The Matterhorn I fell in love with at 18 is now another resident of Yesterland, and I miss it dearly. That hollow wind still blows in my heart.


While I have your attention!

I thought I'd take some time to answer a few questions I've been getting recently about this site and to explain what the future holds for it.

I should probably begin with some context: this site, and text-based blogs generally, are enjoying a fraction of their old readership.

Time was, I could spend 2 weeks writing and editing a post that would reach an audience of over 20,000 people. Today, my posts are averaging about 2,500 people and capping out at around 7,000 on the high end. And the fact is, I haven't met a single person under the age of 25 who is a self-professed retro theme park fan who learned about them reading sites like this. They've learned everything they know on YouTube. It's fair to say that the time of the informational blog seems to have passed. 

Which is why I wrote a book. That book is one reason I began posting shorter form pieces (like music loops) in 2015. The past few years have been weird for this blog, and this year has been a desert. This is because I've been seriously perusing getting the thing published since last November and the complexities of doing that have taken up all of the spare time I used to devote to writing blogs.

The good news is that the book is coming out this year; my next post will be its announcement! The bad news is that given the time commitment of writing blog posts vs the work that goes into writing a book, it makes more sense to write more books. I've already begun work on my second book, and now that I have a publisher, I hope to get it done in 2-3 years instead of 5 years this time.

This site has seen a spike in readership since the pandemic began, and its been wonderful seeing old readers and new coming back to enjoy my writing. I never wrote a word on this site for money or fame, and I have no intention of stopping writing. I actually have about four unfinished pieces right now that have been either delayed by work on my book or other issues. 

So basically: more content is coming! I thank everyone who has stuck it out with me or has just recently discovered my stuff. It is amazing to me what this little writing exercise has turned into, and I want to keep it going as long as possible.

So till next time: stay cool, my friends.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Haunted Mansion Video Treasures

To this author, perhaps the greatest boon to my life afforded by the modern internet is video streaming - the ability to watch nearly anything at any time for reasonable cost in decent quality. And although I remain an enthusiastic supporter of physical media, the internet has become a digital Aladdin's cave of delights for fans of the weird and obscure. Writing this during the Coronoavirus shutdown, I've recently gone for strolls around Disneyland and Disneyland Paris from the comfort of my home thanks to the modern wonder of streaming high-definition video. And this, in a lifetime where I remember leaving my computer on for an entire week attempting to download Sam Raimi's first horror film through a telephone line.

I picked up the habit of mass video accumulation early. Around 1995 I became obsessed with taping things off television, and I still have a box of around 50 VHS tapes from Disney Channel and other sources that I've never been able to part with. A few years later, I was involved with the Haunted Mansion fan community as it existed through mailing lists and Yahoo groups at the time, and one of our hobbies was trading tapes through the mail of various home video ride-throughs. Please remember that this was a time when RealVideo was just about the best online video streaming option, and you still had to pay for the wonders of QuickTime video. Creating and mailing video cassette tapes was the more convenient option!

Well, I held onto those videos for a long time. A few years back, my good friend Michael Crawford helped me get a few of my stranger video treasures transferred, but I still knew there were goodies yet to be discovered. Late last year, I bought a new old stock VCR. It took several weeks of experimenting, but I'm finally getting results I'm happy with from my capture setup. And so here now are a few of the better tidbits that obsolete technology has granted me an archive of!

First up is a video of extreme importance to me and of nearly no importance to anyone else - just how we like them on Passport to Dreams! Along with Discovery Channel's Fun House documentary, this is probably what kicked my Haunted Mansion fanaticism into overdrive and turned me into the theme park person that I am today. It's a short excerpt from a show called Walt Disney World Inside Out, which Disney Channel ran weekly through 1996 and 1997.

Hosted by J.D. Roth (from GamePro TV!) and Brianne Leary (from CHiPS!), it was essentially part of the promotional mission surrounding the resort's 25th anniversary. Certain highlight sections ran between Disney Channel programming as "Inside Out Spotlite" segments, and this was the most memorable.

For context, you must realize that as a child my ability to see anything from the interior of the Haunted Mansion was limited to a few photos in a souvenir hardcover book and the Day at the Magic Kingdom VHS tape. So seeing a program that not only gave me a good look inside a personal obsession, but went further and explained how certain effects were done, absolutely floored 11-year-old me. I don't think I had even considered at that point that the ride was made up of illusions with secrets behind them, so seeing J.D. Roth put his hand through that bust rewired my brain.

From a historical perspective, this is the only good look I've ever found at the remarkable film bin looping devices invented by Ub Iwerks for WED in 1954. He actually engineered these things as part of his assignment to create Cir-car-rama for Disneyland, allowing the film to circulate endlessly through a giant series of spools without ever getting out of synch with each other. These same looping projectors were also used in the Main Street Cinema, using prints purchased from the Blackhawk Films library. The Haunted Mansion's 16mm 1-minute bins are cool enough, but the 70mm 15 minute bin loops for the Hall of Presidents were things of beauty, 25 feet tall. I wish I had thought to take a few pictures of them before the show switched over to digital in 2008.

This segment is also just quality Disney programming, perfectly judged to increase your appreciation of just how complex these attractions are without revealing too many secrets. Walt Disney World Inside Out was a show wildly variable in quality - there's episodes where they do nothing but poke around The Disney Institute - but when it's good like this clip, it can be very memorable.

Moving swiftly on, let's take in some vintage ridethroughs! These sorts of videos used to be easier to find online before YouTube became the dominant source for streaming video it is, but the migration to that platforms meant that a lot of older material simply never made the leap. Who remembers going to Visions Fantastic and downloading Disneyland videos?

These three vintage ridethroughs are amongst the best that I know of, but they actually aren't mine! These were on one of the tapes I traded for in the early 00s, and recorded by Brian Follansbee. For their vintage they really are excellent, shot with a higher end camera than most consumers ever had access to by a rider who really knew where each little detail was.

First up, the Magic Kingdom Haunted Mansion in glorious, low-fi murky regular vision! This is the category of video that is the toughest sell today, when we all have video camera on our phones that handle dark environments much better than this. But there's still value in this, and this is by far the clearest pre-2007 Mansion video I know of. Certain areas, like the first third of the ride, are near total losses but other areas like the Corridor of Doors are nearly exactly how they looked in real life.

It's also the best view I have of what the controversial "windblown" bride looked like in real life. Flash photos always made her look dopey, and as the years went on and more and more of her lighting and wind machines broke and were never replaced, she looked worse and worse. But when she was brand new she at least was impressive, and that is captured well here.

Some stray observations before we move on. First, the line. For the past fifteen years, Walt Disney World has been so busy and so plagued with the scourge known as Fastpass that it seems almost incomprehensible to look back at a time when except on the very busiest days you could walk on Haunted Mansion with a very modest wait. There were no interactive queues and other such nonsense things to get in your way; once you got through the turnstiles at the porte cohere, that little corner of the park with the family cemetery butting up against the front door was as serene as an actual graveyard.

Second, take note of the entrance area. This particular arrangement - with the front gate that had been put in the early 90s, plus the hearse and fountain which had replaced a large planter and tree in 1997 - ended up lasting a mere 2.5 years. In 2001, Disney put up the Fastpass building which clutters up the area today, added a covered-over fountain smack in the middle of the walkway, and took down the central gates with the dead wreaths on them which much better communicated the idea of "old, closed-off estate". The intersection of strollers, Fastpass building, former Keelboat dock, and gate in this area has been a logistical disaster for at least the quarter-century, and I really wish the park would tear the whole area out and rework it.

Let's take a moment to enjoy the "Aging Man" effect in its full original form here, and actually facing the proper direction! The 2007 digital morph, although certainly smoother, has never struck me as being as eerie or oeneric as the original effect here is, with simple fades between each stage in the deterioration. This is almost certainly a device built in 1969 for use in the Disneyland show, back when they were planning on a full 6 stage transformation for each of the portraits. It was crated up and shipped to Florida instead, and I wish I had thought to take a picture of it before it went digital in 2007.

As for the direction of the portrait, it's been wrong since then. The projector is aimed at the ceiling; it bounces off a mirror and onto the scrim, meaning it's reversed twice once you view it from the other side in the Foyer. Whoever composited the video flipped it to account for the scrim but didn't know about the mirror. That's another small touch I hope they fix when they upgrade the projection to HD. (Edit, Feb 2024: they did!)

Before real low-light video cameras became a thing, the most coveted form of ride video was night vision, in which your camcorder spit out a beam of infrared light. In retrospect, it's bizarre that home camcorders even had this option, given that it makes people look like weird glowing demons. However it was amazing for theme park nerds who wanted to take in every detail of their favorite rides, so let's take another spin through, this time, in phosphorescent green!

We begin with a decent look at the Load Area in its mostly original state; I believe the lights along the loading belt went blue in the early 90s and that the red and white wallpaper replaced an earlier pattern sometime around that time. In the 1997 refurb a couple of theatrical lights were dropped in through the ceiling around the corner, pointed down to illuminate the pinch point where the line becomes single file; just a few years later, wall sconces would be added to properly illuminate the floor space. At the same time, weird elevated urns on shelves would be installed to disguise speakers for the safety boarding announcements. Finally, in 2007, the "Sinister Eleven" portraits would migrate to the load area, the wallpaper would be replaced again, a "ledge" would be added to lower the apparent ceiling height, and a solid black wall separating the queue from the doom buggy track would be built.

Practically every old-school Florida Mansion fan was unusually fond of that table, chair and lamp on the other side of the buggies; it was a weird little tableau that suggested that perhaps an unseen ghost was doing a little late-night reading! All of those props are in the Attic now and although I'm not hardline enough to insist that their removal ruins the scene or anything, I do wish that WDI would add some stuff over in that corner because it did help the Mansion feel more like an actual house.

I'd also like to bring up the Corridor of Doors. Nearly the whole soundscape of the Mansion was re-mixed and re-jiggered in 2007, and largely I think they did a terrific job - although many of the changes are subtle, it's one reason I think the Florida Mansion feels very fresh and dynamic. And while many Mansion fans have bemoaned the loss of the original Graveyard vocal tracks, I think the removal of the original Corridor of Doors voices is just as big of a loss. Generally, the 07 sound mix veers heavily towards ominous rumbles and creepy whispers - the sort of thing that we recognize from horror films of this millennium. The 1969 Corridor of Doors tracks are definitely way closer to old fashioned haunted house album tracks if you sit down and listen to them individually, but they never played that way in person because you simply didn't have time to sit there and listen to each one. The new version of the scene is still creepy, but the original was way creepier.

So let's talk about the Attic scene. The pop-up guys up there always were a controversial feature of the ride, and I think at its heart the reason is because you had just come from the Ballroom, the spectacular visual highpoint of the ride, and around the corner was a skeleton dude bobbing up and down on a stick.

But, you know, they didn't have to suck. Were the figures properly hidden, and dropped down out of sight immediately, you wouldn't have to be stuck looking at a static head on a stick slowly being ratcheted out of sight. Making the situation even worse, in 1997 WDI decided to put glowing purple top hats on every one of them, meaning that even the ones properly hidden could be spotted thanks to their dumb glowing top hats.

Then there's the separate case of that first fellow on the right as you entered. I have no idea if he was simply malfunctioning for 8 years, but more often than not he looked the way you see in this video - way too far up, bouncing around in midair, looking stupid. When I was a little kid, this guy came out of an open trunk on the floor and scared the heck out of everyone. It still works that way in Tokyo Disneyland, the last place on earth to enjoy this simple effect. I have a suspicion that someone in Imagineering wanted the popups to be this way, to give "riders a hint" before they appeared.

But the thing is, the only positive thing you can say about a head on a stick that pops out to scare you is that it scared you; with the exception of rubber spiders bouncing around in webs earlier in the ride, it's the crudest thing in the Haunted Mansion. I miss these guys, but I don't miss the way you see them in this video, looking stupid and not properly hidden. If you're going to have a jump scare, you need to commit to having a jump scare, and I think without at least one or two in the attraction, the Haunted Mansion is missing something. The Attic is supposed to be the dark heart of the ride, the room you were never supposed to see, and on that count Connie doesn't cut it.

And, oh, hey, the graveyard of my teenage years! The Singing Busts were out of synch. Somehow, after the switch to "laserdisc technology" as our ghostly friend George put it to J.D. Roth, they were never quite able to synch them up properly. Also, the Old Man was REALLY loud, and the mummy didn't have a vocal track. Was that way until 2007, as best I can tell. Also, if you listen REALLY carefully, you can barely hear the "La-da" singer track by the Hearse, still lurking around in the late 90s. This was a graveyard vocal removed from Disneyland for some reason and some folks are obsessed with it.

Alright, let's hop a plane over to California for one last bit of Mansion-y goodness.

Again, this was a short-lived incarnation of the Mansion. A 1995 refurbishment introduced changes to the Seance Room and Attic, as well as the red wallpaper in the stretch room (which I've always preferred) and an upgraded sound system. Many of these changes were subsequently removed by further changes in 2005, meaning it's increasingly difficult to find good versions of this incarnation of the ride.

The "I Do" version of the Attic has always struck me as a pretty good middle ground between keeping the popups and decreasing the intensity of the scene. Interestingly, in this version of the scene the popups rose one at a time, from the back of the scene to the front. I'm fairly certain that the first guy in the hatbox right by the entrance was supposed to come up every time another one did, but he appears to be broken on this day. Sadly, this pattern did make it possible to go thru the whole scene and not see a single popup. I know because I accomplished this feat more than once in 2003. Videos from the early 90s do show the pops all rising at once, as they did at Magic Kingdom, so perhaps starting in the 90s Imagineering began exploring ways of lowering the intensity of the Attic.

The two other notable changes occur nearer the start of the ride. Imagineering has imported the "Leota tilty table" effect designed for Phantom Manor, which I've never liked all that much. It's fine in Phantom Manor because there isn't much else going on it that room, which I'm fairly sure has a smaller diameter circle around Leota anyhow. I think the "flying Leota" used at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom is a much better upgrade to the scene.

The other change is the reintroduction of some Ghost Host dialogue in the Corridor of Doors. Supposedly the attraction opened with this in 1969 and it was removed a few months later, perhaps as part of the same refurbishment which saw them move the bride and deal with cellar flooding. I've never liked these lines, and was sort of afraid they would introduce them to Magic Kingdom in 2007 as part of that refurbishment. However, I can see how they help keep the Ghost Host more of a participant in the attraction during Disneyland's shorter ride, because without them he gets you on the ride, commands you to listen, then leaves a minute later!

Also, I like and miss that "Dead End!" sign outside the Unload area.

When we talk about Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, especially on sites like these, it can be so fun to dig into the history and details of the places that we forget that they're constantly changing, in ways big and small. Time races by regardless, and now that the mere look of analog video is nostalgic, I hope these small documents of a time long since past are helpful or at least fun. Everyone stay healthy and let's hope for a return trip through the Mansion soon!


Looking for more spooky fun? Head on over to our Haunted Mansion Hub Page, or check out this index of articles on Walt Disney World History!