The History of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday Overlay

by | Aug 31, 2023 | Disneyland, Disneyland Parks

The annual Haunted Mansion Holiday collaboration between ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and one of Disneyland’s beloved attractions is hugely popular – we’re digging into the history of this tradition below.

Attraction overlays are common within Disney theme parks, and they’ve popped up in almost every corner of Disneyland. From Tomorrowland’s Ghost Galaxy overlay on Space Mountain to the classic “it’s a small world” Holiday, they always add a twist… but often, they only stick around for a season or two. However, the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay that arrives in New Orleans Square each year is different. It’s not only loved by fans, but it’s now a must-do holiday tradition that never fails to return.

Back in 2021, the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay celebrated its 20th year in Disneyland Park. But how did a seasonal attraction overlay go from being a limited-time experience to an annual staple that still, decades into its run, see lengthy wait times and huge demand? Well, it all started with The Nightmare Before Christmas, a cult classic film brought to life in a spooky and seasonal way.

Haunted Mansion Holiday Was Inspired By Other Successful Overlays

Haunted Mansion Holiday exterior

Photo by Danny Shuster

While Haunted Mansion Holiday might seem like the first seasonal overlay added to Disneyland Park, it’s actually not! In fact, it’s not even the longest-running overlay. It just happens to be one of the most popular.

This special Jack Skellington takeover came to be thanks to two previous holiday overlays: Country Bear Christmas Special (which started in 1984) and it’s a small world Holiday (which first began in 1997). Both of these seasonal overlays were quite successful with Guests, so Disney decided to expand its holiday overlays with one at the Haunted Mansion.

When Disney first began considering a holiday makeover for the Haunted Mansion, a retelling of the classic Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol was the first idea. But bringing jolly Santa Claus into the spooky Haunted Mansion didn’t feel like the right fit – and the theming of New Orleans Square was quite different from the London setting of Dickens’ tale. 

So, after much consideration, Disney settled on The Nightmare Before Christmas for two key reasons: the film’s naturally spooky characters and setting, and the fact that Jack Skellington (or Sandy Claws) seemed like the perfect character to celebrate Christmas inside the Haunted Mansion.

The Nightmare Before Christmas Was Still Growing Into a Fan-Favorite Film

Haunted Mansion Holiday vampire

Photo by Danny Shuster

Ironically, while Disney was deciding which of its characters and stories might best suit the Haunted Mansion for the holiday season, The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t exactly an obvious choice. Sure, it’s spooky; but this now-beloved film actually wasn’t quite as popular back in the 1990s as it is today.

When it was first released in 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas was only a modest success. Thanks to its smaller budget, it didn’t have to earn as much as classic Disney blockbusters, but even then it saw relatively small audiences. 

Additionally, the film wasn’t actually released by Walt Disney Pictures. While it had originally been planned as a Walt Disney Feature Animation release, the darker and more frightening nature of Tim Burton’s stop motion story led it to be moved under the more adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures brand. As part of the effort to draw a more adult audience, the movie was also promoted as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, leading to some distance between the Disney brand and this spooky story.

However, after its release, The Nightmare Before Christmas developed something of a cult following. It might not have been widely recognized as an “official” Disney movie – but when the film came to life in the form of the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay, the connection between the two created even more excitement!

Blending Jack Skellington with the Mansion’s Happy Haunts

While Sandy Claws taking up residence inside the Haunted Mansion might seem like a natural fit today, it wasn’t such a seamless process. When Disney first began working on the seasonal overlay, the transformation of the Haunted Mansion posed some challenges.

First, and perhaps most critically, the majority of the individuals who’d lent their voices and faces to the attraction had passed away. From “Ghost Host” Paul Frees to Leota Toombs, Madame Leota’s model, to Eleanor Audley, the voice of Madame Leota, many of the voices that made the attraction come to life couldn’t reprise their roles. So, Disney had to get creative and find others to step in. 

Once new voice actors were in place, Disney also needed to blend together the beloved characters and scenes within the Haunted Mansion with Jack, Sally, Oogie Boogie, and the rest of the cast of frightful faces from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The result? The classic scenes throughout the attraction were “taken over” by The Nightmare Before Christmas crew, with Sandy Claws sprinkling both Halloween and Christmas decor throughout each room – and into the snow-covered graveyard. 

This means that the 999 happy haunts hanging around the mansion are still present during the annual overlay. But during Haunted Mansion Holiday, things get festive! And you’re able to see Jack Skellington, Zero, Sally, and more deck the halls with freshly spooky additions, like the annual gingerbread house that’s added into the ballroom.

Haunted Mansion Holiday is Still Hugely Popular

When the very first Haunted Mansion Holiday arrived on October 3, 2001, it was pretty much an immediate hit. Guests flooded the queue, leading to the old FastPass machines to be activated while the overlay was present – a feat for a ride that, typically, only saw its FastPass machines in use during the busiest seasons of the year.

Wondering how a cult classic film managed to draw such big crowds? Well, as increasingly more people discovered The Nightmare Before Christmas on VHS and DVD after its release, Disney wound up reissuing the film in the form of special editions. In October 2000, one year before the very first Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay, Disney released a special edition on DVD, which drove even more excitement and interest to the film.

So, by the time Haunted Mansion Holiday welcomed its first Guests in 2001, love for The Nightmare Before Christmas had grown significantly. That set the overlay up for success – and ultimately, it also led the way for the film’s characters to have an increasingly larger presence within Disneyland and Disney theme parks at large.  

Now, over two decades into Haunted Mansion Holiday’s run at Disneyland, it’s become a staple. Yet it draws Guests every year not only because it’s become a returning classic; Disney loves to give the attraction overlay updates to celebrate anniversaries or important dates, providing something new to enjoy regularly. For example, in 2013, the overlay premiered on Friday the 13th with special effects and fresh set pieces to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even if you’ve experienced Haunted Mansion Holiday before, you may notice different twists and turns on the next year’s ride through!

Posts by Heather Adams

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Heather is a lifelong Disney fan who grew up at Disneyland and loves spending as much time as possible in the parks. As WDW Magazine’s Content Operations Manager, Heather is a content creator and strategist with experience at a wide variety of different outlets. She’s written for publications including Clean Eating Magazine, Fatherly, The Drive, Task and Purpose, Healthversed, Nation.com, and Car Bibles. Heather also authored the book Fidget!: 101 Ways to Boost Your Creativity and Decrease Stress.
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Authored by
Heather Adams

Heather is a lifelong Disney fan who grew up at Disneyland and loves spending as much time as possible in the parks. As WDW Magazine’s Content Operations Manager, Heather is a content creator and strategist with experience at a wide variety of different outlets. She’s written for publications including Clean Eating Magazine, Fatherly, The Drive, Task and Purpose, Healthversed, Nation.com, and Car Bibles. Heather also authored the book Fidget!: 101 Ways to Boost Your Creativity and Decrease Stress.
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