Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Favorite Memory - A Night in the Haunted Mansion Ballroom

Haunted Mansion
I wrote this as part of a meme on my regular blog which asked "what is you favorite memory?".

I have many "favorite" memories and I find them hard to rank. Many events are cherished memories but they aren't singular snapshot moments. They took place over several hours or days. To avoid writing a novel, I though I'd go with a single postcard-like memory. Of course, this moment has some backstory leading up to it so I'm probably going to end up with a long story anyway.

The history (which I know I've told in parts elsewhere)... When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be an inventor. Then , while rummaging through old boxes in the attic, I found a postacard depicting the Hitchhiking Ghosts from Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. It was a souvenir from a trip my parents had taken years before. Something in me snapped at that moment. From then on, I've been a huge fan of Disney parks and their magical technologies. I didn't want to be an inventor anymore. I wanted to be an Imagineer.

18 years later, I got the chance to work for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in Orlando. I was temporarily transferred from my Tech job at Fantasmic to the WDI Show Lighting department. My main jobs there were to update documentation and maintain the artistic intent of the lighting in the attractions at Magic Kingdom. For a Disney Nerd like me, this was an all access pass. Getting to (in fact, getting paid to) wander around in classic attractions in the middle of the night by myself was a dream come true.

But the coolest moment happened in my first week there as my boss was showing me around. One of my biggest tasks was to update the lighting docs for the Haunted Mansion. We're talking about 1970's blueprints here. OMG, people. He took me into the Mansion and we walked around on the sets and behind and underneath them. I was so overwhelmed with joy that I could hardly function as a professional. I don't think I remembered anything practical from the tour. I was very struck by how temporary it all looked. Early Disney attractions were very much built like movie sets. There was a lot of rickety wood and very temporary repairs everywhere. The whole attraction was actually freestanding away from the walls of the show building. It looked exactly like a soundstage with movie sets in it. Amazing. It was also a maze. I continued to get lost in there for months after that.

We worked our way through that maze of back passages and turned into a strangely familiar space. I didn't realize where I was at first. There was black cloth, apparently pointless wooden frames, oddly mounted lighting fixtures, tracks on the floor, a strong smell of grease, and a whole bunch of animatronics that looked like someone forgot to paint them. It was like this cheap and awful recreation of the ballroom scene that someone had built in their garage. And then we stepped out from behind all that black cloth and that's when it happened.

I was standing on the floor of the Ballroom in the Haunted Mansion!!!

And we had just entered through the lower reflection room. This was my Mecca. My hallowed ground. My Holy Land. I was tingling with goose bumps and adrenaline. I know this might seem like nothing to the average person, but I had spent 18 years obsessed with the Mansion since I first saw those Hitchhiking Ghosts. This set was the most iconic scene from the ride and it was what I most wanted to see.

I wanted to raise my arms and shout, "I'm the 1000th ghost, mofos!", but I decided that might not go over too well.

In stark contrast to the haphazard assembly of the reflection room elements, the Ballroom was perfect in every detail, even up close. It was like a museum. Everything was so carefully placed (including miles of fake spiderwebs) that I was afraid to touch anything. My boss casually picked up one of the plates on the dining table to reveal a Polaroid underneath that showed exactly how the place settings should be set.

The weirdest thing is that out of every scene in every ride I walked on in the months I was working there, the Ballroom was the only one that had no characters or animatronics in it at all. They were all in the upper and lower reflection rooms. The emptiness made it seem so much creepier. It made it more real and powerful to me. This probably sounds silly, I know. I can't explain entirely to my satisfaction.

All I know is that the moment I realized where I was standing was as intense to me as the moment I found that postcard in the attic. It only reinforced who I was, what I love, and what I want to be. I hope to make the same pilgrimage at Disneyland someday. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll get a chance to be their 1000th ghost too.