|Ol’ Ichy, if you recall, was a country schoolmaster, dreamed up by Washington Irving. Oh, he had a way with the yarn, did Mr. Irving. If we could journey back to that remote period in American history when the City of Manhattan was but a market town, we would discover in the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the shores of the Hudson, the little village of Tarrytown.– Walt Disney’s “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, read by Bing Crosby; story by Erdman Penner and Winston Hibler, et al.|
Two things I know about Disney nuts:
- We often distort reality, twisting it on its end as if life imitates Disney when we know the opposite is true. (That pub you see in London does not resemble the Rose and Crown Pub®in Epcot®, The Rose and Crown resembles that pub!)
- We obsessively pine for lost Disney attractions…particularly if we
never had a chance to experience a particular one…or worse:
failed to experience one with our kids!
Enter the extinct Haunted Carriage Rides at Disney’s Fort Wilderness®Resort.
A mainstay in the Disney World Halloween arsenal for years, the attraction – from what I hear – was an ethereal jaunt in a horse-drawn carriage turned legitimate thrill ride upon its conclusion. Themed amongst the backdrop of a hayride in the legendary hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, your bumpkin-y guide would regale you and your fellow voyagers with the spooky tale of Ichabod Crane’s formidable and terrifying encounter with the Headless Horseman…the wandering spirit of a Hessian soldier whose head was lopped off by a Rebel cannonball in 1776. According to eyewitnesses, the journey was a meandering and quaint journey for most of the trip but quickly turned menacing as the Headless Horseman literally appeared from the shadows to chase the unsuspecting riders of your cohort.
By all that is chilling and supernatural, I wish I had a chance to see it!
After all, I have been in love with 1950 short animated classic, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, for as long as I’ve known creepy-crawlies and Halloween tricks have existed. The sweet mellow tones of Bing Crosby combined with the expert characterizations of animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are endearing, frightful tonic for anyone’s light-hearted yet nefarious All Hallows’ Eve menu. And when I found out a few years ago that an attraction based upon the film actually existed…well, let’s just say I was “dying” to see it with my own eyes one special October.
But, alas, as do many cherished experiences at Walt Disney World®, the death knell sounded for this attraction two seasons ago. Sort of crushed when I heard, I sought macabre comfort by viewing several recorded experiences of the “ride” on YouTube – something I never do for an attraction if I have yet to ride it, but in this case I made an exception as the ride no longer exists.
However, this proved futile. Maybe it was the never-quite-adequate-enough night vision of the video recordings, maybe it was the unquenchable sense of never being able to see the ride for myself in the future…I don’t now. But I had to do something. I had to heal my broken Disney heart. I had to mend these Halloween wounds…I had to…I had to…
I HAD TO VISIT ICHABOD HIMSELF!
Alright, living in the Northeast — Northern NJ, just outside of Manhattan,NY – I have the blessing of living near some very historic American real estate. Colonial settings abounding, New Jersey may generally be a cramped, built up place, but even our most densely populated areas contain remnants of our pre-Revolutionary past. With it come elementary school visits to houses George Washington slept in and old ghost stories of red coat ghosts and Rebel apparitions on the woods, glens, and old homes of the area.
One such legend that traveled south down the Hudson River from a small town called Tarrytown, past my hometown of Westfield, NJ, and into the hearts and minds of all Americans is the subject of the Disney productions mentioned above: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
Incorporated by Dutch trappers in 1645 and popularized by Mr. Irving in the 1820’s, this sleepy little hamlet of Tarrytown has maintained a quaint air that oozes with nostalgia and atmosphere; this makes it not only a perfect Disney setting from which to create a classic piece, but a place in which any Disney fan can find a fix for these same emotions we crave outside of the parks and movies themselves. And being that this place is only a 35-minute ride from my own home, it felt only logical to visit the inspiration for some of my favorite Disney Halloween material this past October.
Boy, am I glad I did.
For in a small corner of this sleepy little town, Washington Irving’s home still exists: the estate known as Sunnyside. Yes, it exits! Nestled on a secluded cove on the mighty Hudson River, not far from the Tappan Zee Bridge, it is a beautiful locale for literary buffs, those in search of a classic fall fun, or anyone on a Disney pilgrimage like myself. Of course, this place is far more profound than simple Disney fun, but it certainly strikes a fulfilling chord for Disneyphiles, all the same.
The home is Mediterranean-inspired country house so far removed from the massive metropolis not ten miles south of it, the only hint among the multi-colored autumnal forest, pastoral landscaping, and ancient trees of the Big Apple is the Metro-North rail line that occasionally provides a means for suburban commuters to pass by and gawk at the Halloween revelers at the home. And this time of year is clearly most special Sunnyside.
With all sorts of activities for little ones and adults alike, the spirit of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow which Washington Irving first penned here and henceforth inspired generations of artists from John Quidor to Walt Disney is alive and well. Story-telling for kids, haunted hayrides, face-cut-out picture opportunities and tours of the original home are just some of the reminiscences of the legend and season offered. That coupled with the smells of hot apple cider and chimney smoke make for a most memorable time. (There’s even a “funny” cemetery much like the one found at the Haunted Mansion®…witty tombstones and all.)
And as we visited – my Disney mug in-hand and Official Haunted Mansion soundtrack on my mind – I must say Disney World was the last thing on my mind.
I was having a fantastic time with my family: this destination was an experience all in itself, and I felt myself feeling guilty, once again, for searching for Disney outside of the parks. For while trying to recreate Disney World in New Jersey or Minnesota or Alaska or wherever it is you live may seem, at times, like a great idea, we never truly do it, do we? Plus, some experiences should just be experienced on their own merit or we risk not doing them justice. Some places, like Irving’s Sunnyside transcend and predecess even our wildest Disney fantasies…otherwise they would not have been deemed fit by Walt, himself, to recreate.
But search for experiences outside of the parks I will continue to do. Because like Ichabod Crane, I sometimes feel compelled to run like the Dickens – not because I am being chased by a Headless Horseman, but because I am chasing the specter of Disney nostalgia all the time.
I just hope they don’t discontinue Christmas before I make it down to Disney World one December.
Then I’d be in a real fix.
Richie McNanna is an 8th grade teacher from Westfield, NJ. He has been a self-proclaimed Disney nut since the age of seven when his parents convinced him that real ghosts lived in the Haunted Mansion, and his goal in life is to retire one day and become one of the Dapper Dans. Richie’s wife, Helene, is the most understanding woman on the planet for putting up with his Disney obsession and owed a great deal of emotional payback. His son is one year old and already owns several sets of Mickey ears.
(Photos from author’s personal collection.)
(DVD photos c/o Walt Disney Studios®)