Coaster Kingdom

Phantom Manor, Disneyland Paris
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Thunder Mesa is prospering from the Gold Rush, and the wedding of the century is planned. In this woeful tale of young love, this is a wedding like no other. Melanie Ravenswood, the daughter of a wealthy patriarch has fallen in love with a railroad engineer from the Big Thunder Mining Company. Her father, Henry Ravenswood invited the couple to wed in his glorious manor house overlooking Thunder Mesa atop Boot Hill.

Wooed by his generosity, the young couple graciously accepted and were to wed on a dark, stormy winters evening. Ravenswood Manor became haunted by a mysterious and illusive Phantom who fell in love with Melanie. On the night of her wedding, he hung her husband to be leaving her to wait in vein for her young suitor.

Still in her wedding dress, the bride still awaits, the once-magnificent manor now decaying, her very presence ever haunted by the malevolent Phantom.

Walt Disney died before the first Haunted Mansion in America could open. Even so, he had much to do with the design process of the ride, and many - if not most of his ideas where honoured. Most notably, the architecture of Phantom Manor does not adhere to Walt's philosophy that the outside of the mansion should be serene and assured as opposed to Phantom Manor, whose foreboding appearance can be likened to the house in the film Psycho.

Furthermore, the whole ambience of Phantom Manor is far more macabre and theatrical than the older versions in America. Enhancing the poignant tale of the jilted bride with a beautifully reworked soundtrack throughout giving the whole attraction a near operatic quality to it.

Henry Ravenswood's once glorious estate is now an overgrown mess of weeds and deadwood, with a crumbling perimeter wall. Despite the unkempt presentation of Ravenswood's gardens, a sense of the former majesty of the estate is still maintained, with the once-beautiful house overlooking Boot Hill.

A secluded gazebo stands deserted in the garden. The haunting notes of a music box are still carried through the wind as you climb the hill up to a garden pavilion to the left of the house.

The queue continues under the veranda of the decaying timber house before entering through the open front doors. Once in the dimly lit entrance hall, hung from a wall of rotting wood and peeling wallpaper, an image of the beautiful bride fades in the mirror before the doors slam shut and you are grimly welcomed by the voice of a host.

The next room is dimly lit by wicked looking gargoyles clutching candles, panelled in wood, finished off with a bleak blue and white striped wallpaper. The bride is pictured in more felicitous times; picking roses in a garden; enjoying a gondola ride down a river; paddling in shallow water and enjoying a summers' afternoon picnic with her adored fiance.

But within this doorless chamber, you are warned things are not what they seem. Slowly, the room stretches - the ceiling slowly disappearing into the bleak darkness above. The pictures are being stretched to reveal more ghastly circumstances for our troubled bride; an undead skeleton claws its way from the ground in her rose garden; her gondola perched upon the peak of a treacherous waterfall; a wicked beast clawing at her feet from beneath the water, and ants, snakes, spiders... all encroaching on the happy couple.

A crack of thunder and flash of lightening reveals the attic high above, the corpse of the husband to be hanging from the rafters with the mysterious silhouette of the Phantom clasping the noose with his cape blowing in the wind, his haunting laughter sending shivers down your spine.

Further into this elegant home, an ornately furnished gallery has beautiful oil paintings on display. On a second glance, many adopt a somewhat sinister appearance, fading back to their original beauty in the blink of an eye.

A huge candlelit marble staircase draws your attention up to three arched windows, the stormy skies silhouetting a flailing branch. Lightening harshly lights the room on occasion, with an endless stream of doombuggies parading through the centre of this spectacular hallway.

Originally, doombuggies were created by WED and manufactured by Arrow. These two person vehicles form part of a continuous loop of such 'buggies', and are capable of turning up to 180-degrees in either direction, therefore directing your gaze with pinpoint precision.

Once seated in the black doombuggy, your lap bar lowers and you pass under an archway and begin ascending into the darkness of the manor.

At the peak of a landing, Melanie in her full bridal outfit clutching a bouquet of flowers curtsies as if to welcome us. Travelling unhurried through the sinisterly decorated corridors of the manor, a candelabra shines from the darkness, with a momentary vision of the bride clutching the candelabra appearing out of the darkness for a fleeting moment.

A piano plays the haunting melody as we pass, under a shrieking raven's piercing glare whilst a clock perpetually chimes the 13th hour.

In the next stately room, doombuggies circle a tattered table with a vision of Madame Leota uttering the words of a seance, summoning all present evil into this house most haunted.

Music of the most harrowing tone sets the scene for the next hall, a cavernous ballroom. Mysterious characters dance, the former majesty of the room a fading memory as the paper peels, the wood rots and the curtains thrash in the wind.

The bride stands weeping at the top of a staircase, whilst looking down on the banquet from an open window the mysterious Phantom dressed in top hat and a cloak blowing in the wind.

In the boudoir, weathered by years of torment and anguish, the now elderly Melanie, still in her wedding dress, sobs into her mirror, which catching the light is in the shape of a skull.

Passing through an open door out into the manor's cemetery, a hauntingly realistic animation of the Phantom stands in the eerie darkness next to the grave of her husband to be, and an open grave, presumably for the jilted bride.

Our car descends down further into a crypt with grisly scenes of scant skeletons clawing their way out of rotting coffins. This graphic and macabre scene alone shows that this ride can be genuinely creepy without relying upon cheap scares.

Killing this grim atmosphere, a quartet of busts sing a cheerful rendition of Grim Grinning Ghosts. These animated characters are singing of 'happy haunts' materialising, which whilst it sets the pretext of the American versions of the ride, I can't help but think that these busts are only there for the sake of sentimentality.

To debunk urban legend, Walt Disney is not one of the projected singers, either, instead it's that of Thurl Ravenscroft, which provides a tenuous link to the story of Charles and Melanie Ravenscroft in Phantom Manor.

At this point, Phantom Manor goes way off piste, and is all the worse for it. We enter Phantom Canyon, a western township devastated by a recent earthquake.

Passing an emancipated stationmaster selling 'one way' tickets, we are welcomed by the mayor of Phantom Canyon - he lifts his hat... and head... as he welcomes us to this devastated town of ramshackle buildings.

After many tacky scenes of games of poker, foolhardy residents drinking lethal potions and jovial scenes in run-down bars, the Phantom, traumatisingly real for young riders, stands over an open coffin.

As you approach the final scene, the storyline is once again picked up with the bride, her skeletal remains still dressed in the tatters of her wedding dress in front of a whirlpool of swirling light as the car turns to follow a wall of mirrors, the Phantom clasps onto the hood of your car as the car turns back and you are free to escape this cursed house.

The exit takes you out onto Boot Hill and the manors' neighbouring cemetery. Amidst the weeds and decay, and next to the bubbling geysers on the banks of the river, gravestones mark the final resting places of many Thunder Mesa residents, such as Lead Foot Fred (he danced too slow, and now he's dead) and various parodies of Disney films and characters.

The attention to detail throughout makes Phantom Manor simply one of the most polished, remarkable dark rides in the world. Using John Debney's moving orchestral sound track (pictured left), lavish sets and a tear-jerking story throughout, Phantom Manor works on setting a harrowing - and often creepy atmosphere, building upon the story of the bride and the obsessive Phantom.

The story of Phantom Manor is told throughout the ride, but with such subtlety that those who are no au-fait with Phantom Manor the complexity of the plot may elude them.

The main problem with Phantom Manor is that the ride has built an identity of its own, but still seems to have problems getting away from the original Haunted Mansion rides. The Phantom Canyon part of the ride with the singing busts is a real intrusion on the otherwise polished story line for example.

The sense of drama and theatre accomplished by Phantom Manor is one that only a few of the worlds greatest rides have managed to accomplish. Scares and indeed even the most expensive of effects only have a certain level of longevity to them, but as Disney have managed time and time again, Phantom Manor has a relentless re-ridability to it.

Given that the ride could have been a carbon copy of the American Haunted Mansions, it's great to see that the ride has been given a more European character to it. Overlooking the somewhat off-topic jaunt through Phantom Canyon, Phantom Manor is an example of Disney at its best.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • Very artisan ride with elaborate sets and a stirring orchestral soundtrack
  • An elaborate plot, although you don't need to know the finer details to be entertained
  • Doesn't rely on jump-out scares, although a very dark and sinister theme
  • Technically superb with many effective special effects
  • The car design means that your ride will be taken more-or-less in isolation with no other people able to talk or interfere with your enjoyment

Bad points:

  • The plot is perhaps too complex. Also, the storyline is forgotten about towards the end of the ride

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