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!