Post by Chris Heinrichs
Let me preface this by letting everyone know that I’ve had a love affair with the dead for many years now (not as creepy as it sounds). I didn’t visit Walt Disney World for the first time until I was an adult for the 25th Anniversary celebration. Back in those days I was an uber planner and did as much research as I could and that included researching Walt Disney himself. In doing that research I developed an affinity for the classic Disney animatronics and simple “gags” in some of those original attractions. One of those attractions that I looked forward to the most was the Haunted Mansion. From the moment I set foot into that queue I knew I was going to experience something I wasn’t going to soon forget. That is when my affection for the Haunted Mansion developed and I have loved every rehab and incarnation of it since. That being said, when Disney announced a special Haunted Mansion event I was on it like a dirty shirt. Now, anyone who knows me would know that a price tag of $285 per person had me more than a little taken aback. I was on the fence about the event because of this expense, especially when you partner that with hotel and airfare. My lovely wife being the ever so thoughtful person that she is, surprised me with this for our anniversary, perhaps in part to help prevent me from having heart palpitations having to pay for this on my own. We figured we’d get to go to a great event and take part in the Magic Kingdom 40th anniversary festivities.
As the event drew closer and more details were released we realized that this was more of a merchandise event than anything else. That being said, I was still excited to purchase exclusive Haunted Mansion merchandise not available to the general public. Throw in a dinner and some entertainment and I was sure we would get our monies worth. All registrants were provided a list of items to be available and were asked to fill out an RSP. To make things simple the RSP is basically a merchandise lottery. As some of the items were limited editions you were to rank which pieces you wanted and they would hold a lottery to determine who was awarded what. We weren’t looking for any of the extremely limited pieces and were ultimately awarded all that we requested. Being annual passholders helped with this as they did accept all passholder discounts on merchandise.
The event itself was to take place September 30 at the Contemporary Convention Center in the various ballrooms. Registration and product pick up was scheduled for Thursday September 29 and Friday September 30. We arrived on the 30th shortly after 9:00 as that is when registration was to open. The line initially didn’t appear to be too long but we soon realized that we were in for the long haul. Due to the product pick up it took a significant amount of time to get through registration. All available merchandise was on display in the registration ballroom. This was great to be able to see what your items were going to look like but what it also did was make you want to purchase more items you didn’t originally have on your list. Of course, Disney being Disney they were counting on this and part of our registration package was an order form for additional merchandise. Sounds easy enough until you come to realize that now means you have to stand in another line to order these additional items. This is when things started to get a little frustrating. The line to order additional merchandise was well over an hour wait. We also had ordered a couple t-shirts that we decided wouldn’t fit and needed to return. We were told that we could easily return these items when we reached the register to order our additional items. This was another one of those ever so prevalent situations where Disney communication was less than stellar. It turned out that after our hour plus wait in line 1 for merchandise we were then told we needed to go to line 2 for returns. It was now just before noon and we decided to go check out the silent auction items and listen to the artist panel that was to start at 12:00. There were some great pieces in the silent auction but most items were so absurdly priced that we could do nothing but window shop.
The artist panel did start on time which was nice short of a few issues. First, this event had between 400-500 people attending and to put out 20 chairs for this panel discussion was ridiculous. They did however soon realize this blunder and added about an additional 20 chairs. This turned out to be the less annoying issue to deal with. The panel proceeded to have their discussion, while Haunted Mansion music was played over the room speakers, without any sort of microphone or voice amplifying device. I would have been happy with a coconut phone at this point in order to hear anything. They did eventually turn off the music but unless you were in the first couple of rows it was hard to hear anything. What I was able to hear though was interesting and informative. They talked a lot about the process of creating artwork for merchandise and this event in particular.
Next on our agenda was to take advantage of our photo. As part of our registration we were given a free digital photo in front of a green screen that would super impose us in front of the Haunted Mansion. Pretty cool photo with cool effect. There was the opportunity to purchase a package of additional photos for $39.95 – we passed! These photos could apparently be uploaded directly to the jump drive attached to the credentials provided. I thought this was a fantastic idea. We then had the opportunity to meet some of the artists and have them sign the respective pieces. This included Jim Shore, Noah, Robert Olszweski as well as others.
After killing 3 hours at the monorail resorts we returned for our 7:00 pm dinner. We were greeted at the entrance by the caretaker himself who provided great comic relief for the entire evening. Everyone had an assigned seat for dinner, ours wasn’t a great view of the stage, but wasn’t terrible. The theming and décor was fantastic right down to the ballroom organist playing at the front. We sat down to our salad which was already prepared and on the table. This is always a bit of an issue of contention at these events in that the meals are not to order and no choice is given. In our instance it was a garden salad with beets, beef short ribs for entrée and butterfinger cheesecake for dessert. I do have to say though that the food was delicious, arrived hot and the presentation was pretty good. Included in our registration was also a coupon for 1 free adult beverage. Beverages ranged from soda/pop @ $4, juice @ $5 and beer, wine and liquor to upwards of $7.50. Included with the meal was water, coffee and tea. Dinner included an artist performance from Noah who created a one of a kind custom piece that was to be part of a blind auction. This guy is incredibly talented. We have no idea what the final bid ended up being but just to put it into perspective the minimum bid was $9800 if I recall. There was also a roaming graveyard band to serenade the guests during dinner. There was then a “Séance Panel” with some Imagineers and story writers (Eric Goodman, Peter Carsillo, Jason Grant and Jason Surrell) for the Haunted Mansion that included some video and a slide show. This gave some great insight into the creation of not only Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion but the attractions in the other Disney parks as well. This concluded dinner and it was time to receive the departure gift. The departure gift included a bag of candy, a hitchhiking ghosts print, one of the $15 watches you can purchase if you spend $50 at any of the retail stores and tickets to that night’s Mickey’s Not so Scary Halloween Party. Keep in mind that it was now approaching 9:30 so we only had a couple hours at best. We did decide to go check it out briefly and arrived just as the fireworks were ending. As part of our admission to the party we did have access to a “lounge” at Columbia Harbor House where they supplied seating and cold water to drink.
Neither of us had ever been to one of these merchandise events so we were not exactly sure what to expect. The thing that really put a sour taste in our mouth is that the next day while in the Magic Kingdom for the 40th celebration we saw all the same merchandise for sale that we just spent $285 per person for the opportunity to purchase. Now, when you put that in perspective the only thing we really got out of this event was a dinner, a really cool Mr. Toad collectible and sore feet from standing in line all day. We ran into some folks on Saturday as well that were told at the Room for 1 More event that the piece they wanted was sold out but then were able to purchase it at the Magic Kingdom the next day. This is just bad form as far as I’m concerned. I fully understand that open edition items will be available outside of this event but when you are supposed to be having event specific and limited edition merchandise specifically for this event you should not find it the next day in the parks. This annoyed us to no end and because of this I would have to say that this event was not worth the cost. We ran into a few different folks that were able to attend the FREE Haunted Mansion event on the Thursday night at Magic Kingdom and if I’m being honest that event sounded much cooler to a Haunted Mansion fan than the event that we paid so dearly for. Especially considering that our event didn’t even include a visit to the Haunted Mansion.