ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. – No one around here decorates a house for Halloween quite like the creative minds behind the Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland. It has been 14 years since the seasonal “Nightmare Before Christmas”-themed overlay was launched at the classic Haunted Mansion, and the ghoulish meets quirky meets elegant design continues to evolve as the designers tweak or add new features for a three-month run.
Black wreaths and garlands festooned with custom black-and-white ribbon, flowers and skulls deck the antebellum estate, while vases filled with seemingly dead arrangements accent the wall enclosing the “property.” Inside the mansion, there’s a 7-foot-tall gingerbread house that features a zombie gingerbread man flanked by candy cane spikes that’s new this year. These are just a handful of the decorating ideas that can be adapted for real homes.
Brian Sandahl, senior art director for Haunted Mansion Holiday, recently met with the Register at the New Orleans Square attraction to discuss decorating ideas inspired by the 1993 Tim Burton cult film. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q. What are the signature decorative elements outside the mansion?
A. Black garland. We didn’t even see black Christmas garland when we started doing this attraction. So we bought black pine garland and heated it and twisted it and got it all weird. ... Now there’s black garland everywhere – the craft stores have it. We’d like to think we started that trend. (Laughs). Because when two holidays collide, when we’re Christmas and Halloween coming together, we don’t have holly berry, we have pumpkin berry. The red is gone. Our skulls, our ornaments, anything creepy, we throw in there.
Q. What’s the palette?
A. We are inspired by the film; we are not copying the film. The things in it – the snake, the man-eating wreath – are actually in the film, and we use them in a different approach here. The palette is Halloween – black, orange, purple, green but vibrant, bright colors. The classic mansion is rather subdued, then we come in with Jack (Skellington) and our overlay and it is quite colorful. It’s what Jack’s idea of what Halloween and Christmas would be in Disneyland.
Q. What are the aesthetic guidelines you use?
A. Asymmetricality is critical. Nothing is balanced. There are very few straight lines. Everything is crooked. For example, the striping on the ribbon is erratic – it’s jiggedy-jaggedy. It’s handmade-ish, because Jack supposedly made all this stuff. … Main Street is normal; Haunted Mansion Holiday is abnormal.
Q. The flowers in the vases look dead, and it looks like you do a mix of faux and real arrangements outside. Why?
A. Everything has a dark, macabre twist to it. We’re up for three months – October, November and December, so we have to use a tremendous amount of artificial foliage. But we buy stuff that looks dead already – the black garland, twisted branches and spider webs. That orange stuff that hangs from the garlands, that’s amaranthus. It has that drippy, ghoulish look to it.
Q. What can you tell us about that Christmas list inside the house?
A. It’s taken right out of the film, but we’ve augmented it. There is a naughty and nice list in the attic. On the list is the production staff. Steven Davison is double naughty – he’s the creative director. I’m naughty. I’ll tell you a secret. My parents, my dog, my neighbors, friends, family, co-workers are on the list. It’s one of the fun things we get to do as designers.
Q. What are your personal favorites among the decorations?
A. I come from theater. I’ve done a few productions of “Little Shop of Horrors,” so what we call the snappy plants in the conservatory are kind of an homage to Audrey II, which is the big man-eating plant. But ours have different colors and they have poinsettia leaves coming from behind them so it’s like Christmas Audrey II.
Q. Where is the hidden Mickey in the attraction?
A. There are several. One is in the ballroom. Jack’s sleigh has backed into the ballroom and there are ghostly gifts coming out of it. And there’s snow. The snow forms a hidden Mickey. On the table, there are black plates with spider webs that I did in my garage with spray paint and correction pen. We make a Mickey with a plate and two dessert plates … we like to pay homage to the classic show (of the attraction), as well.
Q. What’s coming next year to the attraction?
A. We already know what’s going to happen next year. I can’t tell you. But we’ve been waiting for this to happen for several years.