16 months later and after an unfortunate Halloween delay, Phantom Manor has reopened. Ever since closing off to the public last January fans have been very slowly drip fed information and promises of improvements and additions. While some were met with thunderous applause others received quite the opposite.
Regardless, I vowed to leave any pre-conceptions I may have had at the gates of Ravenswood Manor and judge the refurbishment purely on its own merits. What you are about to read are my unabridged, unadulterated and real thoughts after returning to the iconic attraction.
I have already went into non-spoilery details my thoughts and feelings regarding the Phantom Manor refurbishment in my spoiler free review. As such, take this review as a companion piece as it were that may reference and compliment arguments already raised in the aforementioned article.
Of course, as a spoiler review it goes without say I will be discussing key story changes, effects and new attraction elements throughout Phantom Manor. If you are yet to experience the post-refurb version and wish to refrain from having the surprises told, this is your chance to turn away. For everybody else, let’s begin…
Truth be told I have been putting off writing this review ever since I returned from my time at the Phantom Manor relaunch event. Despite my eagerness to give my full thoughts, free of the restrictions of spoiler worries, the refurbishment has been something I’ve force myself to mill over in my head for quite some time. Piecing together my feelings and critical thoughts.
Without doubt part of the reason for my tardiness has been my adoration for the attraction and what it means to me. Ask most fans to name their favourite thing from Disneyland Paris you will more than likely be met with an indecisive response. For many it is like choosing between a favourite child and something they can’t possibly nail down. Not for me, ask me and the answer is simple. Phantom Manor.
Phantom Manor will always have a very special place in my heart, and has done ever since first riding it 16 years ago. Not just an example of what Disneyland Paris can achieve, but what theme park design in general is capable of. The intrinsic mix between a classic ride show to a brand new, much dark story told through means other than language and dialogue. Phantom Manor had the ability to perfectly capture the tone and push a narrative through lighting, sets, visual effects and, of course, an astounding soundtrack. Accompanying all this was a deep, complex story fitting right into the connected world of Frontierland’s Thunder Mesa. Inspired by classic works of literature it was a tale about love, the paranormal and the eternal struggle of good versus evil.
This outpour of love I have for Phantom Manor only pains me to say this refurbishment has transformed it into its own horror story. A once flawless part of the Disneyland Paris experience reduced to just a speck of its former glory.
That isn’t the say there are no positive to come from the Phantom Manor refurbishment. There certainly is, but unfortunately they are few and far between.
In my spoiler free review I touched upon my appraisal for the improved lighting in some iconic scenes within the Manor. The enhanced lighting and elemental technology brought into the Grand Staircase and Madame Leota’s seance is fantastic. Though I was hesitant at first of Melanie’s new position atop the Doombuggy loading room the combined effects of the new lighting, added details, updated storm effects and even eerie wind to her wedding dress are excellent.
Of course, the Phantom Manor refurbishment cannot be discussed without mention of Vincent Price. Announced all the way back at Disney FanDaze, the iconic spiel from the acting legend has finally came back to its rightful place in the attraction’s pre-show… albeit in a bizarre way. Rather than the same spiel we’ve all memorised from 1992, Price’s dialogue is woven between that of French actor Bernard Alane. This gives us an interesting, bi-lingual Phantom welcoming guests in both French and English.
More curiously though are the new lines of dialogue I had previously never heard before. With so little source material leaving the walls of Walt Disney Imagineering (and understandably so) it is difficult to tell whether these are previously existing and unused lines from the Vincent Price recording session, or merely a convincing soundalike. My mind is prone to think the latter but the thought of hearing new material, never before used by the late, great Price does excite me.
The minor audio additions in the stretch room I quite like too. The clanking of chains and echoes helps build a personality within the Manor and its seemingly empty, foreboding presence at this early stage of the attraction. It does however raise a question of consistency and placement in the theming. The harrowing sounds we here sound an awfully similar to a Victorian era pulley or lift. chains. Does this confirm the stretch room to be an elevator? If so, then it completely breaks the illusion and mystery behind the room and its… stretching.
This incidence of an idea contradicts against itself is, unfortunately, a trend the Phantom Manor refurbishment has found itself plagued with. New ideas and approaches that fail to make thematic sense or – even worse – break the plot and immersion the original attraction succeed so perfectly in creating.
Perhaps best noted by this would be the new portraits that reside in the aforementioned stretch room. What once depicted just Melanie Ravenswood we now have the young lady joined with each of her four suitors. Why would our protagonist, or rather her newly vindictive father, commission and proudly hang portraits of four ex partners, all within the same room?
Where the original stretch room experience had evil energy manipulating art pieces to put Melanie in mortal danger, these new paintings seem to have a touch of clairvoyance with them. Rather than using the initial setting to their advantage to create a dangerous scenario, the portraits depict the grave ending of the four suitors. Each suffering a fate fitting their already pun name.
I have a major problem with these new four suitors, but my biggest issue is their names alone. Pun created names can be fun and worthy of a good, cringed chuckle when seen on posters or newspapers spread within Frontierland. A good example would be now regularly mentioned characters Sheriff Will Ketchum or Councilman I.L.B. Back. When puns are brought into the main Phantom Manor story however, an attraction that is build around a more serious, horror-lite tone, they only come across as cheap and corny. This is only emphasised when we already have established characters with original, sensible names Imagineers worked hard in ensuring were believable and era fitting.
Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Though the Phantom Manor refurbishment has used time well to fully re-enhance existing effects and mechanics it is the new and different that spells the project’s downfall. This is evident more than anywhere else in the updated story of the attraction and the problems it has created.
For those who made be unaware and yet to read the final part of my Phantom Manor Refurbishment Detailed series, the iconic story of the attraction has been totally changed. Gone is the tale of a murdered groom and eternally waiting bride and in its place is a collection of confusing motivations, lackluster reveals and the character assassination of Phantom Manor’s once strongest and most fascinating individuals.
Let’s start from the beginning and the biggest change of all, the removal of the groom. Ever since first learning of this massive change to the plot I struggled to figure out exactly why the decision to remove him was made. After all, the groom and his death was the entire driving force of Phantom Manor.
With the unnamed, innocent victim of the cursed Ravenswood family now deleted, Melanie’s story as well as her appearance, motivation and arc have been destroyed. Granted attempts were made to continue a love story with the four suitors but their inclusion only creates more confusion than ever before. Worst of all, this new story and grief that has struck Melanie paints the character in a more negative light than ever before, dejecting all initial relatability and sympathy guests had with the eerie bride.
In the original story, we quickly and easily established that Melanie is a seemingly gilted bride. Unbeknownst to her, but known to us, that in reality her groom hangs atop the Manor’s attic. It is a tragic tale of heartbreak and festering anxiety but ultimately loyalty as she remains dressed for marriage. Eternally hopeful her beloved will arrive for their happily ever after. Now, there is no planned wedding whatsoever. All four of Melanie’s new suitors met their fate prior to guests entering the Manor. None of the four new characters share any resemblance to the original groom, meaning all traces of him have been removed from the attraction.
Although already a massive detraction from the original story to the point where they simply cannot be seen as the same anymore, it may not be in vein if these new characters were portrayed in a similar dark, sympathetic but mysterious manner as the unnamed groom. Sadly it is in vein as the four suitors add nothing to the attraction’s story without even a vague establishment the groom had.
It is perhaps shocking that, despite being major, the removal and poor attempt of replacing the groom is not my biggest complaint with this new Phantom Manor story. There unfortunately is something done that is much worse and manages to completely destroy the entire construct that made the original so unique.
I am of course talking about the reveal that Henry Ravenswood is the Phantom. Bizarrely announced weeks in advance of reopening, fans have long theorised that the mysterious, lurking figure was the father of Melanie. Bringing this beyond that of speculation and into canon was the worse decision that could have been done to the story.
Phantom Manor has always been a story of mystery. An attraction designed with unanswered questions for guests to piece together themselves and find an solution they are happy with. Much like visiting a real ‘haunted’ house, there is an aura of the unknown that creates the unsettling vibes perfect for possible ghostly presences.
Confirming and spelling out the biggest mystery of all – who the Phantom really is – removes all of that from the attraction. There is no more speculative aura to Phantom Manor. No speculation for fans to discuss with one another and no reason to dig further into the extended story of Thunder Mesa, hoping to learn more clues.
This extraction of intrigue is only further projected by the addition of the Phantom into several scenes for the first time. Originally the character was a lurking shadow, one you usually heard before you saw, if at all. The refurbishment has turned the Phantom into a Hollywood diva who demands the limelight in every scene.
No example of this is more prominent than in the ballroom. The once peak atmospheric moment of Phantom Manor. If you can recall the scene prior to the refurbishment you will know exactly why it was the favourite element to many fans. The grand set pieces, the perfect use of the Pepper’s Ghost effect, the excellent foreboding medley and, best of all, the Phantom appearing from atop the window. Appearing only as the lightning strikes. His maniacal laughter booming across the whole room.
That is no more now. With the Phantom in his new position directly behind Melanie it fails to resonate any of that atmosphere and looks more laughable than frightening. I’m just thankful that the original medley was restored shortly after the attraction’s official reopening (and saved you several more paragraphs of reading!).
Ultimately the revelation of father Ravenswood being the cloaked menace doesn’t make sense within its own story. It has been mentioned several times now that the new plot of Phantom Manor has Henry driven to murder through belief that no man will ever be good enough for his daughter. That may explain the apparent absences of the four suitors, but why does he decide to hang around the Manor? Laughing and mocking at the tears and despair of his only daughter; the one he loved so much he thought was too pure and good for anyone.
A lot has been said by Disneyland Paris how virtually everything, exterior and interior, was either remade, polished or renovated to make it the best it has ever been. There’s no doubting this and its clear to see the effort that has went in here when visiting. The talented men and women who worked to bring the attraction’s original special effects back to life, so to speak, is triumphant. What’s less impressive are the new effects and changes that have been made alone the way.
Whether it be budgetary reasons, a lack of grasping the core of the attraction or misplaced nostalgia for its American cousin I do not know. Regardless the truth is that the technical changes and inclusions from this refurb has made Phantom Manor look cheap and has brought the quality of this iconic attraction down with it.
The best example of this is definitely with the Phantom and its new, glowing red eyes that appear on each and every vision that appears in the attraction. Much like how his now overuse kills any mystery with the figure, these new eyes feel more fairground ghost train than quality Disney attraction. The Phantom’s soulless, empty skull was perhaps one of his best features but feels more at home in a supermarket’s Halloween display.
Phantom Canyon and its new look for the undead residents is another area quality has been reduced for the pursuit of a new effect. I can understand the motivate for giving the ghoulish misfits zombie green skin but again is tonally deaf compared to what the attraction once was. It feels more akin to something you may see at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion than its darker, more horrorcentric younger cousin.
Indeed, The Haunted Mansion is a comparison I cannot help but always bring it back to when I think of the Phantom Manor refurbishment. Not only through these bizarre scene alternations but story changes to. I cannot help but feel the true meaning behind them was to bring the attraction closer to the American original.
The new moving suit of armour that replaces Melanie in the hallway, the increased lighting and overuse of the colour green in rooms, even the stretch room portraits feel more like they have been ripped straight from one of the US versions and brought over on a plane. Core elements and atmosphere that made Phantom Manor so unique and different from any other Disney spook-house have been erased.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love The Haunted Mansion. The attraction is a true, 100% classic in its own right and deserves to stand on that pedestal of nostalgia it does. Without The Haunted Mansion, there would be no Phantom Manor, of course. But Phantom Manor is not The Haunted Mansion, nor should it ever be.
The attraction’s very existence relies on the belief the original Mansion wouldn’t translate well to a European audience. Why Imagineers have felt that 27 years on, after almost unanimous praise from fans all over the world, it is now time to shoehorn unrelated references and detour from that original and unique genius I do not know.
Ask me before the refurbishment what my favourite scene in Phantom Manor was, it would have been the grand finale. The epic confrontation between the guest and the Phantom himself. His clothes torn, skull decaying he has laid out a makeshift coffin. Your coffin. Just as you think your doom has been sealed you are saved by the story’s true heroine, Melanie. Accepting her eternal fate and sacrificing her soul, she points you towards the exit for you to flee. Her body rotting to bone as the evil of the Phantom takes control.
It was ambiguous for sure, and I can appreciate that many may have found it hard to interpret, but for me it was perfect. After a lifetime of torment and suffering waiting for her beloved, Melanie knew the power and threat the Phantom posed to both you the guest and the mortal world beyond. Her sacrifice perfectly rounded off her arc to present a story fit for classic tragic literature.
All of that is gone now. There is no last minute sacrifice from Melanie. Instead her newly introduced suitors, peculiarly, rest in tombs underneath the Ravenswood estate. One in particular, Barry Claude, seems to have breached his way into the spirit work and has broken through his sealed eternity. Presenting a ring intended for his one girlfriend.
This is odd for a number of reasons, but above all else the lack of foreshadowing or logic. This new Phantom Manor story never presents Claude as being a rejected suitor, quite the oppose infact with Melanie’s story now revolving around her desperation to be wed. His attempt to proclaim his love from beyond the grave as such is a moot point.
Where what was once the final chapter of the Melanie Ravenswood story, giving her a true arc of loss, hurt and eventual selflessness, we now barely have any story connected to her. Our sympathetic protagonist has lost a coherent tale which has been swapped for one that fails to make sense. Culminating in a last mirror scene where she begs the guest to marry her. It’s such a curveball from the original I can’t even see this as the same character.
Even ‘Little Leota’, the melancholy epilogue that confirmed our bride’s fate, has changed into a post-show lacking explanation. The ghostly figure of Melanie has now been removed, the room she once stood now empty despite its positioning, right in guests’ view. Her haunting voice and longing to “Hurry baaack” remains, however. With no explanation who the voice belongs to or its connection to Phantom Manor, this once again reduces the scene to a cheap, Haunted Mansion easter egg than the dark farewell it once achieved so brilliantly.
Phantom Manor was always my all-time favourite attraction. For me it was the perfect attraction and no day in Disneyland Paris was complete without visiting the iconic manor at least once. With this refurbishment it feels as if Phantom Manor has been destroyed. Almost everything that I loved and held dear about the attraction – its story, dark atmosphere, influences by classic literature and bravery to stand apart from other Haunted Mansion attractions – all of that is gone.
I can’t see this new version of the attraction as Phantom Manor. To me it no longer features the elements that made the original such an icon and triumph of Disneyland Paris. There definitely are positives to take from the refurbishment, but ultimately it has transformed an unique, original attraction built upon former foundations into a re-skinned Haunted Mansion.
This refurb will have its fans I have no doubt. And if you are happy with the changes which have been made I cannot argue that. All art, even attractions, is subjective and if this new version brings you joy, that is great. Alas it doesn’t for me. What was once my favourite thing to do in the resort, the place I was more excited to reopen than anything else, is now just the resting place of what once was.
Phantom Manor is no more.