Foxx Nolte grew up in the rural Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut, and became a Disney fan during family vacations at an early age. Nolte so loved the idea of theme parks, they built their own out of cardboard — and eventually more elaborate walkthrough attractions. In 2003 Nolte moved to Orlando to be near Disney and for college. Nolte ended up working at Disney for about eight years. Since then, Nolte has not only remained in the Orlando area, they have also written a book about the Haunted Mansion titled Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Wanting to learn more about Nolte’s background as well as Boundless Realm, I was able to interview them for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what was your earliest experience with Disney? Was there a moment in which you realized that you’d be a Disney fan for life?
Foxx Nolte: It’s hard to say. My parents brought me to Disney World on and off as a child, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I suppose what really reeled me in was when I began to go on the internet in the late 90s and find out more about the history and inner working of the place. It’s a good thing that happened, too, because the late 90s is when Disney really began to close a lot of the stuff I loved and open a lot of stuff I didn’t. Probably the event that solidified my devotion was going to Disneyland in 2003, which is simply on another level. So I guess I’m more of a fan of Disney history than Disney itself, a distinction which is frankly only growing starker by the year.
Yanes: You have worked at Disney World. What are some aspects of Disney that are only fully understood if one works there?
Nolte: I feel like the thing about Walt Disney World that makes it unique and good isn’t so much the theme parks, which are generally speaking lighter on attractions than Disney parks you can find elsewhere. Disney World began as a city planning exercise in Walt Disney’s head, and most of the stuff that’s really cool about it is all infrastructure things. Consider the hundreds of miles of buried power and sewer lines, the water pumped to tens of thousands of hotel rooms a day, the power substations, the miles of lawns mowed weekly. It’s a massive operation, it goes on 24 hours a day, and it’s all invisible by design.
I like to stand back and watch things like crowd flow patterns, how often monorails pick up and drop off tourists, how often Jungle Cruise boats leave the dock. I think most tourists are vaguely aware of the sheer scale of complexity of what’s going on, but when you really consider the whole picture it’s pretty mind boggling.
Yanes: As a Floridian I know that the Orlando area can be weird. It is a patchwork landscape of fiction made real neighboring everyday boredom. What has your experience in Orlando been like?
Nolte: I like Orlando a lot; it’s the only area in Florida where I’d want to live. That isn’t so much about the theme parks, which I hardly go to anymore, as it is the vibrant local culture and just-right size. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Orlando has nearly as much cool food, neat neighborhoods, and fun places to go. I’ve been here on and off since 2003 and I think it has a lot to offer!
Yanes: On a bright note, what are your favorite restaurants in Orlando that only locals know about?
Nolte: There’s a lot of those, but if you’re in the theme park area and want to drive to someplace neat and local, try Domu Ramen in the Dr Phillips neighborhood.
Yanes: Your latest book is Boundless Realm, and it is about Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. What is it about this ride that grabbed your imagination?
Nolte: Well, like a lot of Mansion kids It’s just kind of always been a thing for me. I think there’s definitely a type: somebody also into Halloween and horror, who was exposed to the ride at a young age, who was drawn into its mysteries. There’s a lot to unpack, from the obvious level of how the effects are done to things like the gravestones out front being too weirdly specific to not be real people, but persons unknown to you.
When I got older and got on the internet, I discovered the effects were much simpler than I expected, which only increased my admiration. New avenues of research opened. But the Haunted Mansion is a well that just keeps going; I keep finding out new stuff about the ride the deeper I dig. This is still ongoing. I never thought I’d happily devour a book on landscape design from 1830, but the Mansion brought me there.
That’s one reason my book is called what it is and structured like it; like it says on the tin – deep explorations. The Mansion is one of those freak works of art that’s a surprisingly useful reference point for a hugely diverse range of interests.
Yanes: When people think about Disney, they rarely think of terms like terror or horror; yet, the Haunted Mansion is deeply loved by fans. What is it about the Haunted Mansion that allows it to work as a Disney property?
Nolte: Well as my book hopefully demonstrates there’s always been a lot of overlap between Disney stuff and scary stuff; Disney is a key source for a lot of morbid and fantastical images in the 20th century.
But if you think about it, if the Haunted Mansion didn’t begin as a walking tour before switching to a ride, and if the art directors didn’t go as absolutely bananas as they did on overboard details, then we wouldn’t have the modern walk-through haunted attraction. My book kind of positions the Mansion as the last gasp of gothic horror, but it’s also the attraction that invented the modern Halloween attraction, which arrived in just the right place and time to explode in popularity.
I think these are just some of the possible reasons.
Yanes: While doing research, what was some information about the Haunted Mansion you learned that surprised you?
Nolte: One reason I embarked on this for my first book was that it was one of the few things I was certain I could fill a book on without needing to go do extra research! A lot of what’s in there is just off the top of my head. However, I did try to hunt down a few leads that had eluded me just to be sure.
One of these was an engraving in a book called “Decorative Art of Victoria’s Era”. This book was referenced by the Mansion design team and there’s an image in it which is clearly the source for the Haunted Mansion’s facade in Florida. The book has no source citations, but the text does give some hints, including the names of prominent architects of the era. I was able to locate a few books published by these architects thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, and from there was able to find the engraving in question.
This was a big deal to me because these books were essentially retail catalogs – examples of houses built by certain architects in the hope that the reader will purchase one as well. So, this gave me not only the location and the architect, but who owned the house in question. This enabled me to work backwards through old town records to determine where this 1830 “collegiate” style country house that ended up inspiring the look of the Haunted Mansion actually stood. As it turns out it was on an estate called Kenwood in Albany, NY. I was able to visit Albany and stand where the house probably was, which is now a Cumberland Farms gas station. I’ve been there!!
So yes, the Haunted Mansion in Florida is based on a house that was built in Albany, New York, and was probably torn down within 20 or 30 years. The California Mansion was based on a photo in that same “Decorative Art of Victoria’s Era” book of a house in Baltimore – that was torn down just a year before the ride opened. Both Haunted Mansions are designed after real hours that no longer exist – true “ghost” houses in every sense of the term.
Yanes: For common visitors to the Haunted Mansion, what are some details you think they should look out for they might be overlooked?
Nolte: I mean there’s lots of obvious stuff, the hidden Mickey on the ballroom table (totally unofficial), the faces built into all of the woodwork, the incredibly dense set dressing…
But I think maybe one thing that most people wouldn’t already know about is to try to look where Disney doesn’t want you to look. Peek behind the Doombuggies at the emergency exits. Turn around and look above the cars to see the little metal hands that cast the shadow on the clock. As you enter the Attic there’s a totally undisguised bulkhead door to your left that goes unnoticed. I think seeing these things will give you an appreciation for how simple a lot of what’s in that ride actually is, but moreover how powerfully effective the design of the experience is. There’s a lot of stuff in this ride sitting out in plain sight, totally unthemed.. that nobody sees. That’s how good this ride is.
Yanes: When people finish reading this book, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
I hope that even if readers put down my book convinced that I’m a long-winded obsessive – not necessarily an unfair conclusion – I hope that they will at least consider why they like theme park attractions and how they are affected by them. In other words, even if my book can’t offer you your explanation as to why the Haunted Mansion is so darn cool, I hope it can point you towards one.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working that people can look forward to?
Nolte: Yes! I’ve begun work on my second book, about Pirates of the Caribbean. This one is more of a straight cultural history and analysis, tracing the history of the “cultural concept” of pirates from being genuine criminals to romantic fantasies and finally blockbuster movie stars. Along the way I cover all four versions of the classic attraction as a keystone in understanding the 20th century’s ideas of piracy.
I’m hoping it will take me less than seven years to complete this one, but we shall see!
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