There’s so much interest in learning background stories about classic Disney attractions. I’m surprised that Disney has barely taken advantage of this untapped market. Thankfully, historians and fans have filled in the gaps through books, documentaries, and podcasts. This is especially true with The Haunted Mansion, which remains one of the parks’ most beloved attractions. There’s so much intrigue about each part of the show and its evolution into the current version. In his book The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham does a great job delving into the Mansion’s past and the specifics within the experience.
Originally published in 2014 and revised for a second edition this past December, this book gives an engaging history without overwhelming you. It’s easy to dive too far into the minutiae and forget to craft a compelling story. Baham never strays away from providing a smooth narrative. The many pages of notes in the back of the book show the serious research that went into creating it. What makes this book click is the way that Baham doesn’t just cite lots of trivia. It’s clear right from the opening pages that he loves the Mansion and wants to do it justice.
Baham splits the story into two main parts: The History and The Experience. Both have plenty to offer, though I would give a slight edge to the first half. Despite riding the Mansion numerous times and hearing the main stories, there is still plenty that I don’t know about it. I grew up in Missouri and mostly have visited Walt Disney World, so my understanding of the California version is less extensive. I’m also too young to remember the stunning amount of time that the façade stood at Disneyland without an attraction inside it. Could you imagine if the Star Wars Experience appeared and then didn’t open for six years? Heads would roll.
The History goes right back to the beginning and the origins of the idea in Walt’s mind. It’s interesting to consider how different the Mansion would be if Walt had lived to see it finished. Baham looks at experiences from Walt’s past that may have shaped his desire to open a haunted house. We never will be sure, but there is compelling evidence on display here. We also learn about the many talented artists that helped develop the Mansion, including Ken Anderson, Rolly Crump, and Yale Gracey. Crump wrote the foreword for this book, though it’s very brief.
Baham is the founder of DoomBuggies.com, an exhaustive site for Mansion fans. Along with the information on the main event, he also describes the promotional efforts and merchandise surrounding it. Its popularity continues to grow, and fans have a serious desire for anything connected to it. The Appendix “Dear Old Sandy Claws” also discusses The Nightmare Before Christmas holiday overlay at Disneyland. I’ve yet to see that version, and reading about it makes me even more excited to ride it.
A highlight is the collection of illustrations, photographs, and other visual aids throughout the book. It’s mostly a text-based project, but the images make the material even stronger. For example, a photo of the real Leota Tombs adds to the detailed section on the Madame Leota scene. The shots of the Hatbox Ghost are also a real treat. The Experience portion covers each scene but does a lot more than give a book report. Instead, Baham offers small details about the segments and the effects used to put them together. It still amazes me to remember how simple and brilliant some of the most impressive visual effects are in the Mansion.
It’s surprising to note how every Imagineer remains disappointed with certain parts of the attraction. Each person had a different idea for what the experience should be. The Mansion works because it is not streamlined. The mix of humor, scares, and effects deliver a ride that never feels tired. Baham captures why so many love the Mansion nearly 50 years after its opening. This book is a must read for both seasoned fans and new ones that are just diving further into the history. Learning the real story and a few secrets just makes for an even better experience in the end.