So many of the great effects in Disneyland are based on the idea of a reveal. Turning a corner in almost absolute darkness, hearing screams and a disembodied voice up ahead before you round the turn to see the source of the voice: a ghostly Jolly Roger above a dark archway. Emerging from the inside of Monstro the whale into a land of miniature recreations of the settings of classic Disney movies. Even the way you enter the park is based on a series of reveals. Main Street is obscured from view until you pass under the train station, and once you’re on Main Street you have to walk a little ways before Sleeping Beauty Castle reveals itself in the distance.
It’s kind of strange being so familiar with the parks that I understand these reveals better in theory than I do in experience. I don’t remember the first time I visited Disneyland or the first time I rode Pirates of the Caribbean, so I don’t remember what it felt like to witness these reveals for the first time. Because of this, I sometimes have a tendency to take these things for granted and not realize how much thought went into the construction of these moments.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Since Haunted Mansion Holiday premiered in 2001, it’s given Imagineering an excuse to go in and tinker with parts of the mansion. Some of these changes I enjoy, others… well, not so much. One such change was taking Madame Leota’s crystal ball off the table and having it float around the room. This is one of the changes that I’ve always been okay with. She’s a ghost, other things are floating around the room, and we’ve already established by that point in the attraction that the standard laws of physics don’t hold much weight in the Mansion. Not only that, but it adds an extra element of kinetics, and kinetics are always good, right?
Yesterday I was visiting Disneyland and this particular effect was turned off. This in and of itself wasn’t new to me, after all this particular effect is known to go down from time to time and I’ve seen it both ways on many occasions. However, when I saw it this time, something clicked. This scene is a crucial moment for the ride, and it’s built on – you guessed it – a reveal!
Why is this particular scene in the ride so important? Well, you see, Madame Leota is the first ghost we actually see in the attraction. Sure, there is plenty of ghostly activity before this point, and we have everyone’s favorite disembodied voice following us along, but we don’t see a proper ghost until the seance scene. To give this scene more weight, it’s structured as a reveal. Let’s walk through it. As you enter the room the back of the chair obscures the rest of what is at the table, but you can hear Leota’s voice, leading you to assume she is sitting in the chair. As your doom buggy pans around the scene, it continues to reinforce this. The crystal ball comes into view, filled with what looks like the traditional swirling smoke; but as you continue the pan, you realize that no one is sitting in the chair, and just a moment later, you finally see Leota’s face inside the crystal ball. It’s a perfectly constructed reveal that helps sell a crucial scene in the attraction.
The problem is that the new effect completely undermines this. From the moment you enter the room your eye is instantly drawn to this brightly lit orb floating around in the air. You don’t really even notice the seat directly in front of you, let alone have a moment to ponder whether anyone’s seated in it. Sure you still can’t see the face from behind, but without that subversion of expectations, the reveal loses a lot of its weight.
This new effect privileges those who are already familiar with the ride by giving them an extra bit of spectacle, but in doing so it negatively affects the structuring of the attraction as a whole. It’s certainly not as egregious as some of the other changes (*cough* Constance), but it’s still problematic in its own right. For some reason, it took seeing the new effect “broken” again for this all to finally click in my head.
Header image from davelandweb.com