Disneyland's Haunted Mansion has been a source of fan mystique for even longer than its nearly 52 years at the park. When it returns with upgrades and additions April 30 — the day Disneyland is set to fully reopen in Anaheim — it should prove the old adage that a good idea doesn't die so much as haunt the universe until it becomes a reality.
Recently materialized in the attraction are a smattering of new illusions and curiosities; a few will be particularly familiar to many of the Haunted Mansion's borderline-obsessive fan community.
Among the most prominent: the return of a dynamic portrait dreamed up by Disney master animator-designer Marc Davis of a once-beautiful woman aging less than gracefully. There's also a not-so sly nod to a demonic, eye-catching cat crafted by another of Disney's famed animators-turned-theme park architects, Xavier Atencio. This fiendish feline would have followed guests throughout the ride, a creature said to despise living humans and with predatory, possessive instincts.
In Atencio's concept art, the cat featured elongated, vampire-like fangs and a piercing red eye. In a nod to Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Black Cat," it had just one eyeball, which sat in its socket with all the subtlety of a fire alarm. Sometimes we'd see the cat as simply an eye in the darkness; other times, there would be allusions that this phantom was on the prowl for a spirit to possess. Discarded eventually — a raven essentially fills a similar role — the cat, which will now be represented as an elegant statue, stands as a reminder that the Haunted Mansion was once envisioned more as a walk between the hair-raising and the humorous.
Beyond the cat figurine, there are many other additions for guests to spot, from floating chairs to puzzling dollhouses. Both inside and outside the Mansion, Disney creatives aim to gently deepen the mystery of the ride. As part of a pre-pandemic plan to tidy up effects and give the Mansion a much needed cleaning, Walt Disney Imagineering — the secretive arm of the company responsible for theme park experiences — has also found a way to squeeze in an extra scene, in a nook just before guests board the ride’s "doombuggies."
In the last year, Disney has announced multiple changes and upgrades to its rides, many designed to bring the attractions in line with modern cultural sensibilities. Splash Mountain, for instance, will be rethemed to "The Princess and the Frog" in an effort to remove its connection to the racist film "Song of the South." The Jungle Cruise is receiving multiple enhancements to strike its offensive portrayal of Indigenous people. Recently, there have been calls for removal of a hanging scene in the Haunted Mansion, noting its association with suicide and lynchings.
Disney has heard those complaints, but for now, the scene will remain unchanged. "It's been discussed for sure," says Disney's Michele Hobbs, who managed the Haunted Mansion refurbishment. "It's definitely something that we're thinking about."
For the Haunted Mansion, expect lighter touches throughout, rather than a sweeping show scene or a removal of any set pieces.
Here, resurrected, is a portrait from Davis, the Disney legend who designed such characters as Snow White, Tinker Bell and Maleficent, as well as the creative force behind the look of many of the animation-inspired vignettes of the park’s foundational rides. Davis' "April to December" painting, in which a gorgeous woman slowly transforms into jagged bones and aged flesh, was removed from the Haunted Mansion’s portrait hallway at Disneyland in the mid-2000s.
Hobbs says that at the time, the painting's gradual four-scene change didn't work with a technological update to the ride that created crisper, more instantaneous two-slide transformations. Imagineering has now extended the portrait hallway, placing a remade version of Davis' art around a bend — past the illusion of the busts watching guests.
In the past, once guests rounded the corner, they were fixated on boarding the ride. Now, they will see a mysterious door, the re-imagined artwork and the devil cat. The changes were partly inspired by the black-lighted colors and characters that populate the space during the Haunted Mansion's "Nightmare Before Christmas" holiday makeover.
"That's what Kim and I were saying — the only time this area comes alive is during the holidays," says Imagineering's Hobbs, who is stationed in Anaheim and works closely with Kim Irvine, Disneyland's longtime art director and the daughter of Leota Toombs, one of the first women to work for Imagineering and the portrayer of Madame Leota, whose disembodied head floats in a crystal ball in the Haunted Mansion's séance room.
"So let's see what can we do during these other months to try to reinvigorate this area," Hobbs adds. "Bringing back 'April to December' was an awesome way to do it." Although the painting is newly created and uses more current technology, Hobbs stressed that "it is the original image, and it is the one our guests will recognize."
Anything that harks back to Davis is sure to attract fans’ attention, and "April to December" is one of the Mansion's most striking portraits. The work stands apart from the other images — a woman changing into a big cat, a knight shifting to a skeleton — because rather than play into horror mythology, it references our own mortality. The woman in Davis' original final scene is ghostly but still of this world.
"In April, she's a hot-looking item!," Davis says, as quoted in the Disney-published book "Marc Davis in His Own Words: Imagineering the Disney Theme Parks." "June — it's sexy! In September, she's past her prime — kind of a not-attractive lady; but in December, she's had it! Just like it happens to all of us."
And yet that also gets to the heart of the Haunted Mansion's enduring appeal and why Disney could sell out multiple $300 events to celebrate the ride's 50th birthday in 2019. The Haunted Mansion is an equalizer, an attraction that laughs at our limited time on Earth and then gives us a swinging wake that pokes fun at our sinful ways. Key to its allure is Davis' colorfully exaggerated characters, figures whose wide-eyed facial expressions convey a multitude of emotions.
Without a clear, linear story, the Haunted Mansion is a place for guests to fill in the blanks, and its closest character to a princess is its black widow bride. Her name is Constance, and she stalks the attic. Depending on your point of view, she's either an ax murderer who has taken revenge on the patriarchy or a reminder that a happily ever after is but a dream.
And with Atencio's furry spirit at long last finding its way into the Haunted Mansion, visitors will have another character to imagine storylines around. Today, the cat is in statuesque form. But just because it's out of its nine lives doesn't mean it has fully passed on.
Just before guests board the doombuggies is where our kitty demon awaits. "You'll see this beautiful statue of this cat. Maybe you'll see red coming out if its eye. Maybe not," says Hobbs.
"For those fans that know, we'll definitely have a callback to 'X' there, for sure," adds Hobbs, referring to Atencio as he was known to friends and colleagues.
As guests continue along the ride, they can expect to see an assortment of updates and additions, including new draperies and random accouterments in the attic, such as a dollhouse and various trinkets that belonged to Constance's many ill-fated husbands. "What we've done is just gone through each of the scenes and added little tidbits and flavors of additional property to help support each of those 'love stories,' if you will," says Hobbs.
Madame Leota's séance room has also been updated.
Now among the floating musical instruments is a wicker chair. Although that may sound random, longtime fans will likely connect a chair in such a room to Disney designer Rolly Crump, one of the first Imagineers to work on the mansion in the late 1950s, a full decade before it would open. In Crump's version of the séance room, the centerpiece was a chair that would come alive.
While Hobbs says this is a new design that was not pulled from the archives, the Haunted Mansion is filled with so much history and speculation that even a chair is cause for conversation. "There wasn't any history to it," Hobbs says of the chair. "That was something that Kim looked into. What would make sense there? What would work stylistically and creatively and be floating in the air? Why not a chair? Perhaps from the Mansion porch?"
Elsewhere, the spider-web flooring in the Mansion's entryway has been remade, the exterior has been repainted — multiple shades of white meant to evoke shadows on outdoor walls — and the small pet cemetery has been outfitted with flowers and plants that add more elegance to the departed animal companions. Mostly. A tomb for an expired skunk is now accompanied by an ever-so-slight garlic odor courtesy of society garlic.
"We all love our beloved pets. What would you do if it was your pig named Rosie? You would decorate. We treated this as we would our own pets," says Hobbs. Rosie, of course, is surrounded by roses, but be on the lookout for catnip, large toad lilies and other new flora to match the animals and put them on a larger pedestal.
Consider such a landscaping touch a further heightening of the Haunted Mansion's themes — a love for what we've lost and who we are, follies and all. And an embrace of our pets, even when it's a cat that's raising hell.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.