Doug Barnes of The Season Pass Podcast introducing our group of panelists

This year’s Midsummer Scream was jam-packed with all sorts of exciting activity, with a great variety of panels, the largest vendor space ever, and more. However, despite all of the things going on at Midsummer Scream, one presence loomed large – Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The 50th anniversary of the spooktacular ride was on attendees’ minds and the team behind Midsummer Scream crafted a program that had plenty for fans to enjoy. One panel that stood out was “A Chilling Legacy: 50 Years of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion”.

The room was completely filled to the brim with fans of all ages, which is no surprise given the special anniversary of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. This ride has a special place in many people’s hearts, with some discovering their love of horror after their maiden voyage on the ride. It made my heart swell to see every seat filled and people lining up in the back to watch the panel play out.

The panel was hosted by Doug Barnes of The Season Pass Podcast. The group of panelists included Disney Legends Tony Baxter, iconic former Disney Imagineer, and Bob Gurr, designer of the Mansion’s Doom Buggy ride system), American film producer and author Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion), Tom Morris, former Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, and Tania Norris, who was hired as an interior designer to work on New Orleans Square.

The panel started off almost immediately by digging into the origin of the infamous Doom Buggies. Bob Gurr explained that the idea of the Buggies had initially been stolen from the ride, Adventure Through Inner Space. The idea for the movement for the Buggies was built upon work that he had done for the New York World’s Fair. The Buggies provided an easier way to get large crowds through the ride in a sufficient manner, especially once the rotation system was figured out. However, Gurr admitted that the design of the Buggies had introduced the Park Operations working on the ride to how frisky some park guests could get on a Buggie.

The conversation shifted to the anticipation many Disneyland fans and locals felt waiting for the mysterious attraction to go up. Tony Baxter took the wheel in discussing this. He discussed that this anticipation would also infect Cast Members, using himself as an example of how hard it was not to be excited about the upcoming attraction. He shared a story about how mesmerized he was of the tests they were doing on the Madame Leota scene. Baxter also brought up the infamous Hat Box Ghost, the ghost figure that was only really involved in the attraction for a week before it mysteriously vanished. The Ghost has since returned back to the attraction. Celebrities like Guillermo del Toro brought the Hat Box Ghost to the public eye and, after a long campaign, Disney finally brought the character back onto the attraction.

Toxy Baxter was not the only one who got his start felt inspired by the Haunted Mansion ride. Producer Don Hawn spoke about how he was a huge fan of the attraction prior to working at Disney Animation. It was really lucky and a full-circle moment that he had become a producer for the live-action film starring Eddie Murphy. One of the set pieces from the Haunted Mansion film, the Gracey Mansion staircase, was so lovely to him that he had it shipped to the Disney/MGM Studio park. To him, it would have been a travesty to destroy the set-piece.

Tom Morris hopped into the discussion, recalling how when he was a former cast member seeing the physical mansion piece be set up in the backstage of Disneyland. He showed pictures from the original building, detailing where exactly they built the mansion and what they had to do specifically to make sure that everything fits into place. He also mentioned how these photos were the “Archaeology of Disneyland”, important pieces of history from the park’s early days.

What was honestly my favorite part of the panel was when Tania Norris started to speak about her experience on how she came to be involved with working on New Orleans Square alongside Walt Disney. Norris is someone not often spoken about but, with recent discoveries and broader interest expanding on all involved in the early years at WED, hearing her stories provided fans new information and helped expand upon how serious Walt was in providing a truly incredible product. Norris provided interior design work for the Haunted Mansion, New Orleans Square, and additional work done on Walt Disney World. Her stories about working alongside Walt and Roy Disney honestly made the panel for me.

All in all, “A Chilling Legacy: 50 Years of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion” was a great, informative panel that was full of information both old and new for fans. As a casual fan of the attraction, there were a great many things that I learned about the attraction that I hadn’t expected. Of particular note, I would love if more research was done on Tania Norris and her time spent working at WED Enterprises because there is such an incredible wealth of knowledge there that needs to be explored.

Sarah Musnicky
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