Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Haunted Mansion's new queue Part I: the way things were

The Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World unveiled a drastically reimagined queue this week. I am not happy about it.

I'll start with a little confession: despite my experience as an honorary Jungle Cruise skipper and despite being the webskipper of, my favorite Disney attraction is and has always been The Haunted Mansion (a concession to my confession: if I were to actually work at a Disney park, I'd still rather be a skipper, though).

I don't feel like I'm exaggerating in the slightest when I say the Haunted Mansion is a genuine work of art - a masterpiece of its genre. The world of paintings has the Mona Lisa, the stage has its "Hamlet," cinema has Citizen Kane, and theme parks have The Haunted Mansion. The difference is that no one ever goes back and tries to alter paintings, plays, or (with a few weirdo exceptions - I'm looking at you, George Lucas) movies. Theme park attractions - and especially Disney park attractions - are prone to be revisited, refurbished, and updated. Walt Disney himself was in favor of this, wanting the attractions to be kept fresh and therefore always interesting to repeat visitors.

Despite my admitted traditionalist streak, I know this isn't always a bad thing. Many attractions have been improved or kept vital through updates. My beloved Jungle Cruise started out as a fact-based, educational adventure before being reimagined into the yuk-fest it is today - and thank goodness for that! The Haunted Mansion itself has received updates and alterations in the past that I've applauded (greaat sound and lighting improvements were added in 2007). Even the queue received the addition of a somewhat lively headstone for Madame Leota a few years back - one that occasionally opens its eyes and looks around before falling still again, and I love it. Take a look:

These new additions, though, are a disaster.

Here, in a nutshell, has what it's always been like to experience The Haunted Mansion: You approach an imposing, foreboding-looking mansion. To one side is a sparse family plot dotted with several headstones, most of which have strange, darkly humorous epitaphs inscribed on them. First time visitors have no idea what to expect within - obviously something at least someone sinister. Something howls in the distance - a dog? A wolf? The wind? Finally, the doors open and you're ushered inside. A disembodied voice welcomes you and explains that you have entered a haunted mansion. You will be made to tour the building before you are released. The ghost host tells you that you will not be harmed, but something about the tone of his voice fails to entirely assure you that he's telling the whole truth.

You travel through several rooms of the house and begin to see signs of the home's haunted nature - books that slide around a bookshelf on their own, doors that seem to bulge impossibly as being pushed by something on the other side. Strange moans and wails fill the halls. Something (or things) are trying to get at you, and despite the ghost host's promises, it's hard not to find the whole affair a little creepy.

Then you meet Madame Leota - a talking head inside a crystal ball. She's muttering an incantation that the ghost host tells you will make the heretofore unseen spirits visible. After that, you see the mansion's residents - first from a distance - partying away in a grand ballroom below, and finally pretty close by in the graveyard outside the house. That's when you really see that they're not sinister spirits at all, but happily singing, drinking, and partying ghosts enjoying one another's company in the afterlife.

The WDW graveyard as it appeared during the attraction's first 39 1/2 years.

The even shorter version - creepy house, feelings of dread, threats of danger, and then relief!

While not overtly telling a story, it's a perfect experience that follow the emotional flow and pace of a traditional three-act story.

The new queue manages to ruin all of those things - the tone, the flow, the build-up - all before you even step foot within the mansion's walls! Come back Friday for part II to hear me explain and complain (tomorrow we'll have a special St. Patrick's Day review).

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