Way back when, Joe and I were huge Disney fans and were at a time in our lives when we went to just about any Disney-sponsored event that came down the pike (unless it was pirates or princesses. We were never into pirates or princesses). During that time frame, when Disney restaurants hadn’t been “dumbed down” to (A) save them money by offering more limited menus and (B) satisfy the
mediocre and predictable palates of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, we also ate “around the world” (Walt Disney World, that is) on a fairly regular basis. Disney offered a dining program for Florida residents called “Disney’s Dining Experience” where, for a reasonable annual fee, you got 20% off your bill at most WDW table-service restaurants (hey, it paid for the tip – and with the cost at some of Disney’s restaurants that could wind up being a pretty penny) and had the opportunity to dine at some special-made Members Only hard ticket events.
However, times have changed. The joy of Disney has tarnished significantly for us. Disney’s Dining Experience turned into “Tables in Wonderland,” which is now open to Florida residents, AND Disney Vacation Club Members AND Annual Passholders – which means less exclusivity. The price for Tables in Wonderland has also gone up quite a bit. The quality and quantity of the Tables in Wonderland events have also decreased (I know this because whereas I had to constantly request and re-request to be on TIW’s email list when I was a member, the MOMENT I didn’t renew, I started getting emails from them every freakin’ month, with the descriptions of their upcoming events). So nowadays we go to Universal if we want to go to “a park” (hello, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter ROCKS!) and we’ve discovered the joys of local Orlando-area restaurants that totally blow 99% of Disney’s restaurants out of the water.
But “way back when” (when Disney still offered quality experiences because maximal profit – not just profit; profit I could see – I mean when it didn’t always have to be MAXIMAL profit), was a wonderful, magical time – this is the sort of stuff they used to do:
Disney’s Dining Experience Presents Dinner at The Haunted Mansion
Wednesday, September 25, 2002, 7:15pm – 11:00pm
The weather was warm and humid (welcome to Central Florida in September), with a threat of more rain (which never came while we were outside). We all met at Guest Relations to check in and to get our seating assignments. The seating assignments were written on 5”x8” parchment-like paper, with hand-made burn marks (they smelled like burnt toasted marshmallow and yes, I did smell a burn mark [to see if it was real] to come to that decision). Our paper said:
You have been doomed to join us
for a swinging wake as a
special guest of honor at the
You will be dining at
Table Number 1
‘Sharon & Joe’ Party of 4
When all seventy of us attendees had arrived, we followed the half-dozen Suits and the two or three people who carried “crowd control” blinky red flashlights and walked as one big group towards the Haunted Mansion…from under the right side of the train station, up Main Street (it’s so cool when it’s empty), around the left side of the Hub, over the wooden bridge to Liberty Square, and onto the Liberty Belle Riverboat.
Upon stepping onto the dock, we were offered small plastic cups of Guenoc Chardonnay. We were then encouraged to go to the top deck of the boat. From the boat you could see the Mansion in the distance, but it was slightly difficult to make out because it was already dark outside. However because of the bright lighting behind it, the scaffolding that’s still around the atrium was simple to see ;-). Once the boat took off around the Rivers of America (without the usual prerecorded spiel), we were treated to more bottle-poured wine, several Coca Cola products, as well as a variety of hors d’oeuvres (salmon sushi, baby peeled potatoes filled with sour cream and topped with chives, prosciutto and cream cheese (?) on crackers, salami rolls and stuffed cherry tomatoes).
Following the end of the riverboat ride, we were led to the restrooms in Fantasyland that are next to Peter Pan’s Flight (a good choice of facilities since those particular restrooms have LOTS of stalls) (MODERN-DAY NOTE: those restrooms no longer exist. They were closed when the restrooms to the left of It’s A Small World opened). Once everyone was done and a male and a female Suit confirmed that the restrooms were empty, we were led to the Mansion.
We were gathered into the queue area of the HM, where an old, creepy woman was waiting to greet us. She told us to gather ‘round her and once we had, she introduced herself as Madame Carlotta, the mistress of the Mansion. Carlotta was dressed in black, white and maroon with lace trim and she looked like she hadn’t seen sunlight in several decades. She asked if any of us had been in the Mansion before…it looked like all of us raised our hands. She then asked if any of us were Trivia buffs…several of us raised our hands. She went on to explain that we couldn’t see it now because it was too dark but the next time we visit the Mansion, to look at the roof of the building. Across the top of the HM there are all the pieces of a chess set except for one. Which one is it? A guest said she knew the answer…it’s a knight. Carlotta said she was correct…the knight IS missing, because it’s always night at the Haunted Mansion :-). She went on to explain that there would be samplings of 5 different types of wines with our 5-course meal and that each one was just a sampling…so don’t expect more and don’t ask for more, because it was just too bad (she said this so it sounded very lighthearted…as it turned out, you could have as much wine as you wanted…and several attendees DID get pretty hammered).
Carlotta led us to the main entrance of the Mansion and said she had a special surprise for us, because the doors had a new, mystical, special way of opening. She told us to say “Oooooh! Ahhhh!” and that would open the doors. We did it once and nothing happened, so we said it again and the doors slowly opened…by way of the person behind them ;-). This person introduced himself as Broome, the head butler. Broome was a very tall man in a gray and black butler’s uniform, with dust and cobwebs all over him (Modern Day Note: for those “in the know,” I could easily see him telling puns at the Adventurers Club, once upon a time. May he R.I.P.). He explained that his job was to tell everyone about the meal they would be eating, but that first he would tell everyone where to go. After laughter, he explained that he would inform people where their assigned tables were, if they needed such assistance.
We all filed into the Mansion, where our tables were ready. Each table held up to 8 people…there were 2 tables in the pre-show room (where Master Gracey’s changing portrait hangs over the fireplace. This is the room we sat in). The doors of the stretching rooms were all open and there were 2 tables in each of those spaces. The pre-boarding area had another 3 tables, with a movable privacy wall between it and the actual loading area. Each tablecloth was black and red in a snake skin pattern, with a matching covering on each chair. The centerpieces were made of intertwined “live” plants and “dead” twigs, with 3 candles each, to help light up the relatively dark room. Each place setting included a black serving plate, 1 glass for water and 5 glasses for wine. On each place setting was a copy of our menu on the same burnt parchment paper as our seating assignment. It said:
Welcome Foolish Mortals to a Spooky
Evening at the Haunted Mansion
For your dining pleasure
Roasted Squab on a Confit of Leeks and Asparagus
Creamy Seafood Soup with Squid Ink and
Chicory, Radicchio, Frisée Salad, and Micro Greens on a
Foie Gras Tombstone with Truffle Vinaigrette
Raspberry Sorbet on Ice Skull
Grilled Beef Tenderloin topped with a Freshwater Prawn, and
served with Root Vegetables and Fingerling Potatoes
Blood Orange Mousse and a Spooky Crème Brûlée
A selection of ghoulish wines will be served during the wake
Rest In Peace
On the back of the menu were printed descriptions of the “haunted” wineries that supplied our spirits for the evening (spirits, get it? spirits!). It said:
The original owner of the land where the Guenoc Winery stands today was a famous Stage Actress named Lilly Langtry. The original house that Lilly built is still in full use today by the current owners of the estate, the Magoon Family. Countless guests of the home have seen Lilly’s ghost over the years and strange occurrences happen there on almost a weekly basis.
Valley of the Moon
The Valley of the Moon is the name given to the Valley by the Native Americans that once roamed the valley. The chants of their past songs still haunt the Valley to this day.
Kenwood Jack London Vineyards
The famous author Jack London, started building a very large home in Sonoma overlooking the Valley of the Moon in 1935. A catastrophic fire burned down the house before it could be finished. There was no apparent explanation for the fire and attempts to re-build were thwarted by constant accidents and thus the home was never finished. The frame and basic structure of the house still stand today and reports of weird and unexplained occurrences are common in and around the original Jack London home site.
Back to our evening…
The HM theme song (slow organ version) quietly played in the background throughout the evening. The stretch rooms “stretched” and “unstretched” during the event, complete with lights going off and quiet thunder/lightning at regular intervals.
Our servers for the evening were originally scattered around the rooms in various zombie-like poses. Once we were all seated, Carlotta explained that the servers were under a spell that made them unable to speak. True to her word, they could not speak but could grunt, gesture and point well. The servers were dressed in drab green and looked ghoulishly pale and unkempt.
Someone suddenly LOUDLY banged at the front door of the Mansion, so Broome went to answer it. Outside was Abner, a scary but funny magician. Abner was tall, in a gray, black and white outfit that included a maroon turban.
Carlotta, Broome and Abner made several rounds of all the tables…Carlotta had a funny/scary persona and Broome had several puns readily available. Abner intermixed jokes with slight-of-hand card tricks. For Joe and I, he also mentioned that he was friends with someone we knew named Annelle. (Modern-Day Note: Another Adventurers Club reference. Again, for those “in the know”: at the time, we had NO IDEA of who Abner was in real life was until he said that. As opposed to later years where we could almost play a version of “Name That Tune” when it came to select Disney performers – “I can name that CM after he speaks 4 words in a funny voice!”…”Oh yeah? Well, *I* can name that CM with 3 layers of makeup AND a fake nose!”)
Broome announced each of our courses, with some editorial comments thrown in for good measure. In order (with my own editorial comments), they were:
–Roasted Squab on a Confit of Leeks and Asparagus (the squab leg still had its claw attached)
–Creamy Seafood Soup with Squid Ink and Seared Halibut (it was described as “eyeball soup” by Broome and it DID look like eyeballs with red irises, floating in a black liquid)
–Chicory, Radicchio, Frisée Salad, and Micro Greens on a Foie Gras Tombstone with Truffle Vinaigrette (the foie gras DID look like a tombstone, which was a nice touch, but it’s hard to otherwise make salad look scary)
–Raspberry Sorbet on an Ice Skull (Now THIS was cool. As the description said, the “bowl” for the sorbet was made of ice, in the shape of a skull, with the sorbet sitting in a small indentation on the top. On the bottom of the skull was a red disc, about 3” in diameter, that glowed red. When I took my disk out to examine it further, one of the servers threw a handful of disks at our table so we all had one)
–Grilled Beef Tenderloin topped with a Freshwater Prawn, and served with Root Vegetables and Fingerling Potatoes (again, not a particularly scary course, but it tasted DELICIOUS)
–Blood Orange Mousse and a Spooky Crème Brûlée (this had a dark chocolate bat and spiderweb decoration, with a white chocolate background)
Each course had a beautiful presentation and everything tasted delicious. I’m not a huge wine person (MODERN DAY NOTE: I am now. But in 2002, not so much) and purposely didn’t drink much because I wanted to really enjoy and remember this event, but the pairings (2 whites, 2 reds and a dessert port) seemed appropriate.
After the end of the last course, we were bid farewell by Carlotta, Broome and Abner and were gestured by the servers to leave our seats, go into the pre-load area and board our Doombuggies. There were no pre-planned surprises on the attraction, but as the attraction has just been down for rehab for 3 weeks (the motors than moved the stretch rooms were changed, and several lighting and sound aspects had been fixed – back then, I knew someone who knew such things) I was able to notice many effects much more so than in the past.
Although there were no PLANNED activities, it WAS the first time that I ever saw the Mansion filled with an inordinate amount of drunk people, LOL! There were many more adult human shrieks and screams than usual, as well as a significant amount of flash photography. I also noticed that a lot of folks had significant problems with the moving sidewalks when getting on and off the ride, LOL! Some people were noted to try to hit Madame Leota’s crystal ball with their “souvenir” red glow things in the Séance Room, using them as frisbees (Modern-Day Note: I didn’t throw mine and although it’s now going on 15 years later, I still have my red glow thing).
After we had all finished our ride, we were led to the area just in front of the Columbia Harbor House, where we were offered another restroom break in the restaurant’s facilities. This time it was noted that the Men’s Room had a line just as long as the Women’s Room, and the men just had no clue of how to handle that, LOL!
Once everyone was out of the restrooms, they brought us to the southern part of Liberty Square. They lined us up into in the 2 nearby walkways, facing the Hall of Presidents. Once they were sure we were far enough back “for our own safety,” the headless horseman on his steed came whizzing by. He made 2 passes in front of us and then vanished into the night (my pictures of him were the only disappointing ones I took the whole evening…he was just too fast).
From Liberty Square we were ushered to Main Street where they offered us the “Goodnight Spiel” that they usually play when the MK is closing. Finally, we were loaded onto a waiting monorail (I saw one lady who needed the assistance of not 1, but 2 CM’s to go up the ramp because she was so plastered) and whisked back to the TTC.
It was a perfect evening. I really, REALLY hope they do it again someday.
(Modern-day note: Alas, they didn’t.)