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

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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 HauntedMansion.com)