When I moved to Seattle I was forced by necessity to begin scheduling my Disneyland excursions in the autumn and winter months, when the kids are in school. I don’t want to fly 900 miles only to stand in hour-long lines. So far it’s worked out well: My friends and I manage to see all the things we want to see, and the Uva Bar has outdoor heaters, thank God. The only drawbacks to this cold-weather approach are that some attractions are closed for refurbishment, and the Haunted Mansion — one of my top five favorite attractions in the Park — is infested with characters from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Yeah, I’m gonna cap on the Haunted Mansion Holiday. And just when we were getting to like each other, right? The thing is, a lot of people ask me about “that Tim Burton thing at Disneyland,” and here’s what I tell them: It’s nice, but don’t go expecting a lot.
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, I’ll explain it in brief:
About a month before Halloween, the characters from Burton’s stop-motion classic film are placed throughout the Mansion in human-sized representations that range from painted wood cutouts to full Audio-Animatronic figures. (Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie figures make appearances, and are voiced by the original actors.) The Mansion’s theme song, the catchy “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” is replaced by a cacophonous mash-up soundtrack of public-domain Christmas carols and Danny Elfman’s “Nightmare” songs. The attraction, normally dark and muted, is re-lit in vivid colors and the sets are augmented by cartoonish props and background scrims.
I should hasten to say that I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I’ll freely admit that that the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay is worth seeing. An annual six-to-ten-week run would be a nice thing to look forward to. However, the overlay overstays its welcome, running from late September through mid-January. That’s too long a time for a bunch of temporary sets and overlays to occupy an attraction that wasn’t intended to support a second storyline. Just as Nightmare’s Jack Skellington took over Christmas and ruined it through good intentions, so Disneyland does with one of its best attractions for just over a third of each year.
The Haunted Mansion isn’t exactly terrifying, but it is all of a piece — as complete a mood-making and storytelling experience as you’ll get on Pirates of the Caribbean next door. From the minute you enter the stretching room to your fleeting last look at Little Leota (“We’ve been dying to meet you…”), you are caught up in a story that’s intended to inspire a feeling of … I suppose I’d call it an amused unease. By supplanting that moody atmosphere with Burton’s characters and visualizations, Disney under-delivers on both experiences: You get something that’s not as good as a dedicated Nightmare Before Christmas dark ride, and the Mansion is diminished. The ride even seems shorter.
It could be worse. For a hot minute after Walt Disney Pictures released the terrible Eddie Murphy comedy based on the attraction, there was talk of replacing Madame Leota — voiced by the great Eleanor Audley, whose magisterial voice would scare the crap out of me even if it were reciting pre-flight instructions — with Jennifer Tilly. As much as I love the buxom poker champion (I hear her whispering Oh, Corky! in my dreams, which I shall not document here), using her face and voice as Madame Leota would have pushed the Mansion further from the imagination and closer to Hollywood. Disneyland is an hour away from Burbank as the crow flies — so why does Disney management feel the need to bring the two closer together?
So, I’m going to Disneyland in a few weeks. And I’m getting Tim Burton’s Haunted Mansion once again, a prospect I relish as much as a second viewing of his “re-imagined” Planet of the Apes. At this point, I don’t imagine that even Burton cares if this tradition continues year after year. But luckily for him, he works in Hollywood — and he can go to Disneyland any goddamned time he wants.