A few weeks ago, a genuine legend came to life at the Disneyland theme park when the Hatbox Ghost, the most infamous and talked-about ghoul in the Haunted Mansion’s nearly-50-year history, made his long-awaited debut as part of the park’s sparkly 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration. Now that the Hatbox Ghost is an official part of the attraction, we looked back at the history of the Hatbox Ghost and spoke to Jeff Shaver-Moskowitz, a producer at Walt Disney Imagineering and Ray Spencer, the Executive Creative Director of Walt Disney Imagineering, about the Hatbox Ghost’s otherworldly reappearance.
Like all ghost stories, it’s hard to nail down a definitive history of the Hatbox Ghost. But we’re going to try and piece the legend together as best we can. A crackling fire and some s’mores are encouraged, but not completely necessary.
The Haunted Mansion Rises
The Haunted Mansion has always been one of the more storied attractions in Disneyland. A rough version of the attraction appeared on early concept art for the theme park, back before Disneyland was even Disneyland. (Back then it was known as Mickey Mouse Park and studio art director Harper Goff was responsible for the sketch that included a section that contained a “Church, Graveyard and Haunted House.”) Disneyland opened in 1955 but there was no spooky old mansion, as was seen in that artwork. Still, it was something that was on Walt’s mind, and as we all know, when it comes to Disney, a good idea never truly dies. In 1957 Walt assigned the project to Ken Anderson, an animator-turned-Imagineer. In the hands of Anderson, the project went through a series of iterations: first the mansion centered around a sea captain who had died mysteriously, he then began incorporating concepts about a Southern mansion called Bloodmere Manor, and at one point the story even contained elements from the Sleepy Hollow section of Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. (Elements from each of these iterations made it into the final attraction.)
In 1958 the Haunted Mansion started appearing on the official Disneyland Souvenir Map. Construction on New Orleans Square, the future home of the Mansion, didn’t start until 1961, with in-park handbills promising the attraction would rise from the grave in 1963. By 1963 the shell of the building, the stately Southern mansion with its opulent pillars, was in place but there was nothing inside. It was a ghostly husk, nothing more. The creative principles in charge of New Orleans Square (and the Haunted Mansion) were then appropriated for the 1964-65 World’s Fair and work halted yet again on the attraction (which also went through a phase as a walkthrough attraction Walt dubbed “The Museum of the Weird”) when, in 1965, manpower was focused on turning the World’s Fair attractions into assets for the park. Still, the attraction was previewed on a 1965 episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. It was constantly “coming soon.”
But the real life death of Walt Disney in 1966 slowed down progress on the Haunted Mansion more than any ghoul, ghost or spirit ever could. It was Walt who served as the creative decider when it came to major projects, and a stalemate of sorts put the project in gridlock as the artists couldn’t decide whether or not the Haunted Mansion should be funny or out-and-out scary. Another debate was whether or not the attraction would be a walkthrough or, like Pirates of the Caribbean (which at one point had been envisioned as a wax museum-style walkthrough) a traditional ride. Director of Disneyland Operations Dick Nunis pushed the Imagineers to come up with a “people-eating” attraction that could gobble up guests. The endless delays on the project ended up helping the attraction in that regard, since by 1967 the Omnimover system, used for the Peoplemover (first developed for the World’s Fair) and Adventure Thru Inner Space (originally part of a new land, Scienceland, but then scaled back and resized for Tomorrowland), was ready to be implemented. It was the Omnimover and similar advancements on audio-animatronics that led the team to drop the walkthrough concept. The Haunted Mansion would be a really-for-real ride, with a very high capacity. What’s more, the disparate elements from the various versions developed for the attraction actually informing a loose three-act structure on the ride, with the more walk-through elements giving way to genuine frights and then giving way to the more crazy comedic moments. Everyone won.
After eighteen years of development and six years of Disneyland visitors tantalizingly gazing up at that Mansion façade, the Haunted Mansion finally opened. But for one of the Mansion’s spooky inhabitants, the story was far from over.