The secret genius of the Haunted Mansion: its amazing, invisible queue

The latest installment of the Long Forgotten blog's series on the lost designs for the Haunted Mansion's corridor of changing portraits (previously) hits on one of the most significant elements of the Mansion's design genius, something that's never been fully replicated in any Disney ride: the conversion of a queue into a ride.

As you may know, I was bitten by a radioactive Haunted Mansion as an adolescent and have been unable to stop thinking about it ever since. There are many things to admire about the Mansion, but the more I think about it, the more I'm enamored of its formal qualities, as an experience that is structured to convey emotional/physical beats to an audience as it moves through space (this is what all rides are about, but it's especially true of dark rides).

The Haunted Mansion runs about 8 minutes, and about half of that is, technically, the queue. Everything you do before getting in your Doom Buggy is a fancy way of standing in line. But if Disney offered Fast Passes to board the ride, and took you past the antechamber, stretch-room, and corridor, you would feel ripped off. The actual Fast Pass system (when it runs) takes you to the doors of the Mansion, not to the load-belt.

Disney's intrinsic problems are crowd-management and limbic adaptation: you need to keep a lot of people moving through the park, more than could possibly fit on all the rides at any time. You need to make the rides, when they do board them, exciting — and that means that when things are slack in the park, you have to build in some kind of activity that resets the rider's stimulation levels, because we experience stimulus in relative terms, so a ride is more exciting if you're not already overstimulated when you board it than if you were to dump straight out of one ride and onto another. The former is a day in Disneyland, the latter is a form of mechanical torture.

The holy grail for solving both problems is a queue that stands on its own as an attraction, but one that stimulates parts of your body and mind that are distinct from those stimulated by the ride. Do this and you can move hundreds (thousands!) of people out of the public spaces and into big, climate-controlled warehouses where they will not get in each other's way, and they will enjoy the experience — they'll even demand it (see above). When they get to the front of the queue, they will be in an optimal emotional and physical state for experiencing the mechanical part of the attraction.

It's really, really hard. The Haunted Mansion is as close to perfect as it comes. It is designed to segment riders into groups in such a way that it appears — at times, anyway — like you are alone in the Mansion, which is not only a moment of grace in a busy park, but also an optimal emotional condition for a voyage through a haunted house.

Which brings me to the newest installment to the Long Forgotten series on the corridor — the revelation that it was originally designed to wall off riders from one another even more, in the way the stretch-rooms do. It turned out that this starved the load-belt, and had to be abandoned, but it supports the hypothesis that, a decade and a half after Disneyland's opening day, Imagineering was really getting engaged with this problem.

By the way, I'm told that Universal's Harry Potter ride in Florida (and Singapore?) is even better at queue-as-attraction than the Haunted Mansion. It's on my bucket-list.

The changing portrait hall would have been the third scene, following the same format. Until the full group had exited the elevator and the doors were closed, the portraits would have all been frozen on their first panel. Everyone would stand still as the pictures morphed through their six scenes. gerG thinks they would have all done this simultaneously, and I think he's probably right, but it's also possible that they would have done it one by one, like falling dominoes. At scene six they would have frozen again, and the butler or maid would have shoo-ed the guests around the corner to the load area. As I said earlier, once the corridor was empty, the portraits would have reset to scene one, and the next group would emerge from their elevator.

Conceptually, the show would have been much like the one immediately preceding, where all of you watch all four of the paintings stretching before your eyes, and they stay that way until you leave, at which point they roll back up.

At some point the Imagineers must have realized that this was not the most efficient way to do things between the elevators and the doombuggy loading zone. For one thing, they may have foreseen that people might not understand that they were supposed to stop and wait. The CMs would have had to herd them pretty carefully, that's for sure. There's also the matter of visibility. Unlike the elevators, not every place in the portrait hallway is a good vantage point for seeing the paintings as a group.

Changing Our Portrait of the Changing Portrait Hall (Or, "Rewriting History, Part Three")
[Long Forgotten]