According to Marty Sklar, former vice chairman and principal creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, the Haunted Mansion spawned many ideas and went through a number of revisions during its long gestation period. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disney creative team initially designed the attraction as a walk-through experience. The plans included an old sea captain's seaside manor and a more unsettling "Bloodmere Manor" concept with some bloody shenanigans. The Headless Horseman even galloped his way into one of the plotlines.
The treatments piled up, and a slew of Imagineers developed a gaggle of illusions and effects through the years. When the project finally got the green light in the late 1960's (it opened in 1969), Sklar said that the story was in danger of getting lost amid the effects. Since Imagineering rule number one is that the storytelling is paramount, it was up to Imagineer X. Atencio to cobble together a coherent story.
"There was a sign I created in 1963 that keyed the whole thing," Sklar explains. After Walt came back from a trip to London, Sklar asked him what he was doing overseas. "He said that he was searching old mansions and manor houses for ghosts that didn't want to retire." Even though there was no consensus about the attraction, Walt went ahead and had the exterior of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion built in 1962. Inspired by Walt, Sklar created a large help wanted sign inviting ghosts that wanted to continue practicing their trade in active retirement at the mansion to send their resumes to the "Ghost Relations Dept." The sign hung for many years in front of the empty building. "When X. Atencio started working on the project," Sklar says, "the sign became the thread of the Haunted Mansion."
Even with Atencio's focus, Sklar says that there were many different ideas about what the Haunted Mansion should be. The attraction was the first major theme park project developed after Walt died, and without his final say, many of the Imagineers clashed over its direction.
"Marc Davis and Claude Coats polarized attitudes," Sklar explains. Davis, one of Disney's "Nine Old Men" of animation, wanted a lighter tone, while background artist Coats pushed for a scarier attraction. "In the end, Marc's cartoony attitude carried the day," says Sklar. "And he probably pushed it in the right direction."
Still, some of Coats' surreal, spookier backgrounds remain evident in the early scenes of the ride. Some of the other Imagineers who lent their ideas to the Haunted Mansion project through the years and whose touch can be seen in the final version include:
- Rolly Crump-- An artist and magic aficionado. His love of stage magic and illusions inspired effects such as the "Pepper's Ghost" trick used in the Grand Hall and hitchhiking ghosts scenes.
- Yale Gracey-- A mechanical genius and animator, Sklar says that he was a tinkerer who loved to play around with technology. Gracey and Crump developed the "Leota effect" that brings Madame Leota to life in the Seance Room.
- Walt Disney-- While Walt passed away before work began in earnest on the interior of the attraction, he played a major role in guiding the project along. One of his most important contributions was his insistence, despite the protests of most other Imagineers, that the exterior of the building remain pristine so as not to disrupt his beloved Disneyland. According to Sklar, Walt said, "Don't worry about it. We'll take care of the outside; the ghosts will take care of the inside."