How a Haunted Mansion addict fell in love with the greatest ride on Earth

This post is sponsored by Disney's Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two the video game:

I fell in love with the Haunted Mansion in 1977. I was six years old, and we'd gone to Fort Lauderdale to visit my grandparents. They lived in a seniors' condo complex called Century Village -- my dad called it Cemetery Village -- and it wasn't a great place to be a six-year-old. My parents loaded me into a rental car and we drove down to Orlando, pulling in at truck stops to buy Vac-U-Formed souvenir plastic oranges and to collect mountains of colorful brochures for Busch Gardens, Alligatorland, and Parrot Jungle.

Back then, Walt Disney World used the A-B-C-D-E ticketbook schemes, where A tickets got you on the least exciting rides ("horse-drawn carriage down Main Street!") and E tickets were the most coveted, providing admission to the likes of Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion.

Two (amazing) days later, we had seen and done (nearly) everything. I had my mouse-ears, had enjoyed a pineapple Dole-Whip, and was generally as overstimulated and amazed as a six-year-old can be without exploding. The park was about to close, and we had a final E-ticket left in our ticket books. My dad squinted at the guide-book (a proper booklet in those days, not a mere brochure), and enumerated the E-ticket options remaining to us. When he came to the Haunted Mansion, my Mom broke in:

"I think Cory might be a little young for that."

Which was all the excuse I needed to demand, furiously, that I be allowed to ride the Haunted Mansion.

To my parents' everlasting credit (and, possibly, their regret), they acquiesced. The sun had gone down, and the Mansion was magnificently spooky in the moonlight. The only other people in the line was a small group of teenagers whom I immediately associated with the Scooby Doo gang -- I watched the show religiously -- an impression that was heightened when they joined in with the recorded wolf-calls, giving me a delicious, scary thrill.

And then the doors opened. The woman cast-member we had that night was the greatest Mansion Butler of all time. Small, with black eyeliner and a perfect, gothy demeanor. She stared at us coldly, then intoned, "Master Gracey requests more bodies," and turned on her heel and stalked into the Mansion's depths, leaving us to follow or not.

(Image: Put the camera down and the teddy bear lives, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from ste3ve's photostream)

If you know the Mansion, you know what happened next -- the stretch gallery, the Doom Buggies, the hall of portraits, the watching busts, the phantom pianist, Madame Leota, the stupendous ballroom scene, the attic, the graveyard (oh, the graveyard!), the hitchhiking ghosts, Little Leota, departure. By the time we debarked, I was half-scared, half-delighted, and entirely hooked. I'd always been a monster kid -- loved my monster coloring books, adored Hallowe'en, built monster models. But this was, well, it was a revelation.

1977 was a vintage year for Haunted Mansion merchandise. At the little gift-shop, I mortgaged my allowance for the next five years on rubber fright masks, glow-in-the-dark headstone plaques that came with rub-on letraset letters for adding your own name, a "magic" flying ghost, a gaggle of glow-in-the-dark plaster skulls in a variety of sizes, glow-in-the-dark plastic fangs, and best of all, a set of cards with humorous portraits of uptight-looking adults that transformed into hideous monsters when you looked at them in the dark, revealing the transparent glow-in-the-dark paint overlaid on the pictures.

I fell asleep sometime after the ferry ride to the parking lot. I remember that ride vividly, crouching by the railing with my glow-in-the-dark fangs in my mouth, watching the lights of Disney World recede. I probably dropped off the instant they put me in the car. I was a champion sleeper-in-cars. Once I was out, nothing could wake me.

Indeed, nothing did wake me, not even when our car broke down halfway to Fort Lauderdale and we had to wait by the road for hours for someone from the auto club to come out and pronounce the rental to be terminal. Not when the rental agency delivered a new car for us to drive the rest of the way. Not when my dad picked me up and transferred me to the new car -- forgetting the trove of Haunted Mansion souvenirs, leaving them behind in the dead rental.

I didn't wake when we returned to Cemetery Village, nor when I was carried inside and put to bed on the sofa in my grandparents' living room. But at six a.m., I was up and out of bed like a canonshot, waking up my folks and demanding to know where my stuff was. "Mrph. In the car. Wait until we get up."

The rest of the morning was one of those tragedies of the depth and drama that only six-year-olds can experience. The impatient waiting for the lazy grownups to rise. The shocked realization that my stuff wasn't in the car. The phone call to the auto-club and rental agency. The dawning certainty that my stuff would never, ever be coming back.

I've spent the past 35 years trying to regather those souvenirs. I have most of them -- even the glow-in-the-dark fangs. But I never did find the cards that transformed into monsters. I have all kinds of Mansion oddments in my office, even pieces of 8mm film used in the original singing busts and Madame Leota/Little Leota heads. I've got replicas of the Mansion signage, limited edition watches and lanterns, plates and mugs. I even own a Haunted Mansion Butler's coat, and my wedding suit was a replica of the Haunted Mansion butler's uniform, cloned for me by a tailor in Mumbai while I was there researching my novel For the Win.

But I've never found those cards.

(Aunt Suzanne card and Vulture Crest images from


  1. OMG.  How fantastic is that picture of Disney in the 1970s?  It just sums up everything that’s great about Disney, right down to the saturation and nostalgia.

  2. My parents lived in Ft. Pierce from 76 to 78.  In some weird otherworldly coincidence, we may have crossed paths waiting for the Haunted Mansion.

    I didn’t remember the cards until you talked about them, just now.  I have a sense memory of them — they had a unique plastic smell about them.  I associate it with that time…I also recall the smell of Stretch Armstrong from the same period.

    Every time we go to the Magic Kingdom, I transport back to the late 70s.  Here’s me in 77:  My brother is in the stroller, I’m the one working the camera angles in my blue tank top.

    My family started going in 2000, when my kids were old enough to enjoy it, and my wife got so hooked on it that we keep going back whenever we can scrape money together for it.  Our next trip starts on the 21st of next month.

    1. “Every time we go to the Magic Kingdom, I transport back to the late 70s”
      If only the Magic Kingdom itself was transported back to the late 70s, too!

      (Seriously though, everything Disney-Theme-Park-related was massively better back then.)

  3. I am a Mansion fan (as well as Pirates) as well. This is a great story, Cory. I hope you find those cards!

    I think a lot of love of the Haunted Mansion, at least for those of a certain age, goes back to childhood memories. I’ve ridden, in the past several years, with adults who had never been on, and they always seem less than impressed, and I can never understand why. Perhaps because they DON’T have those childhood memories to reinforce all that makes this ride great.

    I embrace most of the changes they are making. I am hoping, in this world where kids need much more to impress them (or perhaps I just think they do because I am becoming an “old man”), that children will once again have a sense of wonder by these changes (e.g. the hitchhiking ghosts) and fall in love. I dread the day when the Haunted Mansion becomes a neglected ride and perhaps goes away all together. I hope that day never comes.

    1. On the topic of the ride improving, cannot wait for color e-ink displays make the changing paintings really look amazing.
      (Currently they’re backlit displays, of course)

      Also, I want them to get rid of those weird screens they project on and update a couple of their animatronics in the graveyard.

      The bride is also… bad now… I liked the old version more… I hope they either change it at some point or make it do less and not be a projection anymore.

  4. Cory,

    Please never stop writing about Disney.  I’m a little younger than you, but I started going to Walt Disney World in the late 1970’s as well.  My grandmother lived on the gulf coast, and we’d make yearly trips down from Michigan to visit.  Those visits always, always included a trip to Disney World.  

    When you write about your youthful experiences at the park, I’m transported back to that wonderful era of my childhood.  I remember the way the park used to be: more wild, less corporate, less choked by crowds, more magical.

    I remember when Epcot opened, and the delirious excitement of having an entire new park to explore.  I remember when Journey Into Imagination, and its fabulous interactive post-ride area, was the best attraction in the park, and not the hollow shell of itself that exists today.

    I remember 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the magic of those stools and porthole viewers.

    I remember my honeymoon, just after the opening of Animal Kingdom, and sharing everything with my wife on her first ever visit (she caught the bug immediately).  By then, much that was, was lost, already.  But it was still pretty great.

    I’m taking my kids for the second time at the end of this year.  I’m feeling a weird mixture of anticipation and dread for the Haunted Mansion.  I haven’t been since the queue was updated, and I’m worried that it might be under its Nightmare Before Christmas re-skin.  Regardless, your piece has reminded me that it’s OK to indulge the kids on a few souvenirs to anchor them more powerfully to the experience, and to remember to bring them all home.

  5. I was at Disney World during the summer of ’77. I was 7 years old and I rode Space Mountain and it was the most terrifying yet awesome thing I had ever done. I did indeed ride the Haunted Mansion.

  6. As a longtime fan of the Haunted Mansion who’d gladly move in with the 999 Happy Haunts, I dreaded the new updates — Disneyheads were saying on forums that it was a desecration, etc etc etc. You know the drill.

    My trip last week was a huge relief. The new graveyard keeps the flavor of the Mansion; I love the playable organ with “Ravenscroft” inscribed on it. The new Hitchhiking Ghosts are a little manic (they’ve got a lot of animation to accomplish in the three or four seconds you spend before the mirrors) but the effects are astonishing. On one trip, a ghost swapped my head with my ride companion; on the next, when I rode alone, it sat down in the empty spot, pulled my head off, inflated it like a balloon, and exploded it.

    But the single creepiest thing in the ride will hopefully never change: that tiny woman at the end reminding you to bring your death certificate.

  7. “C.J. Watson Solves the Dragon’s Blood Mystery” (I think it was) really awakened our interest in those Florida theme parks! It might have been CA theme parks though, or a mélange. Greg Rucka’s new book seems like a fun adult continuation of the genre.

  8. hope you got your allowance mortgage back, it’d be kind of like the mortgage bank loosing your house or something, not that could really ever happen in real life…

  9. Where I come from (Ireland), “falling in love with the greatest ride on earth” has very comical connotations!  According to Irish (and particularly Dublin) slang, it would be almost a redundant or tautological observation, the greatest ride on earth being either the hottest person around, or the most accomplished in the sack, or both.  Sorry for this barely relevant and tone-lowering observation.

    1. Indeed.  I loved the smile on that guy in the background.  Either Cory’s Mom (or Dad!) was really good looking, or that guy hadn’t lost his youthful joy either…

    1. Actually Cory was 2 1/2 in this photo. This was his first trip to DisneyWorld. We took the Amtrak from Fort Lauderdale.
      The 6-year old Cory, however, did lose all his Haunted Mansion loot, much to our dismay, since we never heard the end of it (and, still haven’t!)
      Cory’s Mom

      1. I’d just like to point out that this post on Cory’s article complete with jabs at your son makes you among the coolest moms, like ever. 

  10. Awesome post, Cory.  I have similar memories of Disneyland from visits to my grandparents in LA in the late 70s.

  11. Having read Cory’s Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom this spring, this post dovetails very nicely. Definitely recommended for any Haunted Mansion fan.

  12. Thanks for this. I went to the HM as a kid in the early 70’s…and the HM was the star of the park to me. I got a HM LP on that trip (gone now).
    I fondly remember all the wonder and joy on that vacation. Even the little things like the magic shop (my favorite shop), and penny arcade on Main Street…and those plastic orbs of orange juice you’d get at the Florida turnpike welcome centers. (Do those still exist?).
    In the mid 90’s the SO and I took our niece and nephew and my sister to WDW. Best. Vacation. Ever.
    I sorely miss that Tom Sawyer’s Island no longer has lunch at Aunt Poly’s…Cold fried chicken leg, half a ham sandwich, slaw and cookie.
    Coke served cold, in glass bottles out of galvanized tub with ice; perfect theme of lunch and place.
    You could hear the wolves howling from the Haunted Mansion while eating on the riverfront porch.

  13. oh those coupon books! i remember staring at the leftovers we brought home, remembering the rides and imagining when we’d get to go again.  funnily enough everything scared me, from the dinosaurs on the train between tomorrow and main street, to the hitchhiking ghosts, to the even the sea monster on the submarine. thanks for ride down memory lane.

  14. All right, Cory Doctorow: Who the hell are you, and how did you manage to thieve my childhood?
    I’m a newcomer to this blog, just directed here by a colleague. Imagine my horror as I read the above entry and realized that YOU HAVE STOLEN MY MEMORIES.

    Well, almost. I was thirteen, not six, when I visited Disneyland, not WDW. But the experience was the same: almost closing time… the last E ticket in the book… a transmogrifying experience.

    I was just old enough to know that I HAD NO IDEA how they were doing those illusions. As soon as I got off the ride, I ran back around to the front gate, but too late: Disneyland was already closed, and it would be three agonizing years before I could return, armed with theories, flashlights, high-speed film and a stereo cassette recorder, to study the Mansion with deranged intensity.

    The Mansion also gave me a career. Today I work in the theme park industry, designing rides and attractions for Disney, Universal, and other clients around the world. I say a little thanks every time I board a Doom Buggy.

    And I still have my souvenirs. 

  15. Long live Thurl Ravenscroft … best name ever! I adore the mansion. I am not a fan of the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay they stick on it here in California 3 months out of the year. Thanks for the post, it clarifies nicely why so many of us have a obsession with that ride.

  16. It sounds like your Happy Mutanthood was most firmly stamped on you that day.  Parents these days have it easier. When my daughter’s treasured Wiggles beanie babies went missing, I found their clones on Ebay.  She was happy to greet them back from their “vacation”. 

  17. As a voice-over artist myself, I can tell you that it is very rare that a voice actor makes as much of a mark on world culture as Paul Frees did with his work on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride.

    Without all those spooky voices, the special effects would have been pretty much meaningless.

    >>>  The ORIGINAL tapes of those recording sessions are archived here:   <<<

    For him, of course, it was just another day's work — like his work on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, his work on the Bullwinkle cartoon show, old-time radio dramas, and literally thousands of modern radio and TV commercials.

    The (small) paychecks were cashed and spent.

    But his work lives on inside the heads of just about everyone who grew up during the fifties and sixties.

    That's immortality.  And it's rare.   :-)

  18. I’m so sorry you lost all your cool stuff.  I was a monster girl (Famous Monster magazine provided by my Grandma, and a fascination with everything horror from age 7) in ’77 and grew up close enough to go to the original Disneyland.  I always used my E tickets for Mister Toad’s ride and some of the other dark rides.  The Haunted Mansion has always been one of my great memories, along with the Enchanted Tiki Hut.  I really hope that you will be able to track all of your memorabilia from that era.  

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