WDW Haunted Mansion Effects


Walt Disney world theme parks each have their signature attractions with which people from most anywhere can easily identify.  One of those attractions is Disney’s Haunted Mansion.  Each mansion at the Disney theme parks, are relatively the same with only minor changes.  They each utilize similar effects such as the stretching rooms, Paintings that change, sinister busts that stare at you when you pass, swinging ghost parties, and that famous Madame Leota.  I’ll cover some of the more popular effects as well as information on the Doombuggies and other ride information.  If you’ve never experienced the Haunted Mansion, you might want to STOP READING since this contains some spoilers.

The Library

Of the major effects in the Haunted Mansion, the simplest are the two applications of simple optical illusions found in the sinister busts which turn to follow you and the portraits with cut-out eyes that seem to follow you down the hall.

Although many probably write these effects off as being motors driven, you have to remember that the nature of the Haunted Mansion is that it’s a continuous show which must play to an audience which never ends, and which may view the show from any angle at any time. Although a motor may be efficient for a single person or Doombuggy, the effect has to play to numerous people and Doombuggies.

This effect is probably most striking at Disneyland, where the busts appear at the end of the changing portrait gallery. Because guests are not yet on the Doombuggies, we are allowed to move back and forth in front of the busts in order to appreciate that the busts really will follow you, no matter where you stand. Of course, it is thus easier to figure out how the effect is achieved.

The illusion is, quite literally, only a trick of the light. The busts you see are actually not three-dimensional objects, but rather, negative space. To clarify: imagine the inside of a mask. You are actually looking at the inside of two "negative" busts that face away from you. These busts are made of a filmy, transparent material and are lit from behind the wall. Since the light plays over the outside of the face as if it were a "positive" image rather than a "negative" one, and you view the light through the bust from the other side, your mind assumes that the bust is a normal object. Then, by passing the busts, the changing perspective of the faces cannot be accounted by your brain by normal means, so it assumes that they are turning to follow you.

However, since the busts are actually recessed inside a niche in the wall, and jut “backwards” from a flat surface further recessed within the niches there is a certain angle when the “edge” of the effect becomes apparent, and it’s obvious that the bust is actually an impression in the wall. Walt Disney World improved on this effect by creatively configuring the room, making such an angle impossible. Also, upper rows of busts near the ceiling actually appear to be leaning forwards in their niches to view the guests!

Imagineers are allowed to easily hide their machinery and effects by simple misdirection. Particularly in this attraction, lights and machinery can be hidden behind a gothic curtain or arch. For those of us who turn around in their seats, it’s sometimes shocking how unfinished the areas guests aren’t supposed to see really are – often painted simple flat black to fade into a dark void. Some areas are even open to the rafters above.

The Piano Room

The room, as originally planned, featured bright flashes of lightning outside the picture window which would briefly illuminate the shadow of the piano player on the floor, which may explain the rigid, jerky movements of the shadow projection. The shadow is produced by a “gobo” placed just out of scene, near the ceiling, behind the large curtain which provides the transition between the library and music room.

A gobo, from “go-between”, is a traditional theatrical device of a thin metal cutout placed in front of a spot light in order to create sharp, defined shadows. Gobos are used throughout the Haunted Mansion, most notably at the very end of the Corridor of Doors sequence, in front of the haunted grandfather clock, where four cutout hands rotate in front of a spotlight directly above and behind the Doombuggies. They also create the hundreds of rising ghosts in the graveyard scene, cut out of a rotating disk in front of a light.

Madame Leota

One of the remarkable things about the design of the Haunted Mansion is how well the two “halves” of the attraction – the darker, optical-effect driven first half and the more gag-filled, animatronic second half – compliment one another. Madame Leota, the first true “A-List” effect in the attraction, presents a turning point in the attraction. But look at the way she’s built up: we don’t even get a good look at her until we’re more than halfway through the chamber! This simple effect is so carefully presented that she can still draw a crowd of guests hopeful to discover the way the illusion works.

Inside the crystal ball is a blank face, very similar to the type used to support wigs in department stores. This prop wears a long white wig and is taken from a life cast of Leota Thomas, who worked in the Disneyland costume department at the time of the attraction’s design. Leota was used for a rough test of the effect, and was so good that they used her in the final attraction. Her voice, however, was high and girlish, and was dubbed by the formidable Eleanor Audley, whom Disney fans will recognize as the voice of Lady Tremaine in Cinderella and of the memorable Maleficent (MA-Lef-i-Scent) in Sleeping Beauty.

On this blank bust, a video projection of Ms. Thomas is projected from the front. These projections are stored on laserdisc and loop indefinitely. The projection itself comes from directly in front and below the Doombuggies. Disney lore has it that Ms. Thomas had so much trouble keeping still during recording of the footage the Imagineers had to tie her hair to the chair! Later recording sessions used vice-like contraptions to keep actors’ heads still.
A small point of light created by the projector can be seen reflected in the crystal ball. This is why, at Disneyland, there are four candles on her table casting misdirecting points of light into the glass around her. Walt Disney World has several hidden spotlights around the room which create similar pinpoints of light as well.

In the 1995 Disneyland overhaul, Disney Imagineers changed the effect of Madame Leota to be more similar to the version installed at Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor, where the head is hollow and projected into the interior of the head via fiber optics. Although this allowed them to animate the table to float and tilt as if hovering above the floor as well, the image tended to distort at the edges and was replaced in 2001, when the image was changed again to a front projection.

The Ballroom

The world's largest implementation of the Pepper’s Ghost Effect can be found at the Haunted Mansion and Phantom Manor attractions at several Walt Disney theme parks. Here, a 90-foot long scene forms a single Pepper's Ghost effect. Guests in the Mansion travel along an elevated mezzanine overlooking an empty ballroom. Animatronic "ghosts" are located out of sight in darkened areas above and below the mezzanine. Large panes of glass stand between the columns in the dining area.  As light illuminates the ghosts above and below the Doombuggy track, the reflection in the glass creates the appearance of three-dimensional, translucent ghosts swarming through the ballroom.

The Graveyard

Down in the graveyard, the Singing Busts effect is achieved in the same way. Although some claim that one of the busts is the face of Walt Disney (somewhat aided by the fact that the bust is broken, thus making possible connections to the company’s “fallen leader”), this is untrue. The faces and voices are that of the Mellow-Men, a kind of barbershop quintet who worked for Disney on multiple occasions. They appeared in Alice in Wonderland, among other voice work. The deep-voiced lead, Thurl Ravenscroft, can be heard all around Disneyland and Walt Disney World, most notably as the announcer at the Disneyland Railroad, the captain of the Mark Twain, uncountable pirates on Pirates of the Caribbean, and more. Americans are most likely to recognize his voice as that of Tony the Tiger, for Frosted Flakes cereal.

The Doombuggies

The Omnimover system was created by WED and manufactured by Arrow Dynamics. According to Bob Gurr from WED, the Doombuggies were extremely difficult to make. They were designed at WED, now WDI, with Arrow being primarily the manufacturer, though they were involved in some of the Omnimover refining. The Omnimover track is constructed of a steel pipe rail located below the artificial floor seen by guests. The artificial floor is three-and-a-half to four feet above the concrete floor level. A continuous string of vehicles are linked together. They’re driven, in this case, by a pinch wheel system. There are fins on all the cars and the pinch wheels drive them. Every 250 feet or so a series of pinch wheels pulls and pushes the fins making the Doombuggies move.  More recently every third car is powered with an on board electric motor. Bob Gurr from WED prefers this method, but he says both systems work. There are two cam paths which allow the vehicles to rotate, one to turn the buggy left or right, and one for the tipping action. What is unusual about the Omnimover system is that through a cam multiplication system, each buggy can be turned almost 360 degrees.  The tipping mechanism is utilized when the buggies travel uphill or downhill so that the guest stay relatively level, except for when guests “Fall” from the attic window and into the graveyard.

There are pressure pads located along both sides of the Omnimover track which will immediately shut the ride down should someone decide to leave their Doombuggy.  These pressure pads sometimes referred to as intrusion alarms, are utilized at many of the attractions throughout all Disney theme parks.  The pressure pads also help cast members pinpoint where the intrusion has occurred.  You can spot these pads at various points throughout the ride when lighting is bright enough.

Ride Specs

At Walt Disney World, there are 160 Doom Buggies looping the track at once, moving at approximately 1.4 miles per hour. Disneyland's track is a bit shorter, so the California attraction can only hold 131 vehicles.
Each car is also equipped with 3 speakers. The sound (which is not stereo, as commonly reported) is transmitted to odd-numbered cars via a narrow band transmitter. The signal (once received) is then passed on to the even-numbered car behind it.

While Disneyland has since changed to digital repeaters, Walt Disney World, up until the recent "overhaul", was still on the old analog broadband repeaters, which accounts for the somewhat tinny quality of the narration.  Disneyland also has an extended narration through the Corridor of Doors and séance scenes.  Although this actually gives a name to the Madame Leota character, the narration over the corridor of doors disrupts the brilliant sound design throughout this sequence.

The Eyes - A new part to the mansion.
The area between the staircase and the endless hall now has some new inhabitants.  Many people are stumped at how the Imagineers are able to create the creepy blinking "Bat like" eyes.  Well, during one of my visits, my camera "Accidentally" went off with the flash and I was able to grab the photo to the left.

In the photo you can see that each set of eyes is a separate box.  They are mounted in a random pattern on conduit painted black and are mechanically moved slowly to give them the effect of actually moving.  The eyes slowly blink with some sort of mechanical "eyelid".  When some idiot isn't taking a flash photo all you see are the creepy eyes.  Pretty neat huh?