A first-time guest to Disneyland Paris may expect to see nothing but parades, big-eared balloons and humanoid animals wanting to embrace them. Little are they prepared for the sophisticated artistry that's about to suck them up and land them in environments beyond logical comprehension. Few rides are as successful in using their artistry to immerse guests than Disneyland's theatrical masterpiece, Phantom Manor, and the man who led its creation, Jeff Burke, explains how it entangles us in its overwhelming atmosphere.
Embarking on Your Own Story
The liveliness of Disneyland all around, we are drawn towards an eerily still building in the distance, hidden behind dark, overgrown shrubbery. This place is not just another ride. It's a story for us to make for ourselves. Jeff explains his intentions here...
“As guests approach the imposing, dilapidated exterior of Phantom Manor, I want them to wonder if this once could have been a grand Victorian mansion, now fallen on hard times. I want the guest to feel a sense of mystery, intrigue and even foreboding before they enter the Manor.
“Once the guest enters the vestibule, I want the sense of mystery to linger. Why hasn't anyone cleaned the cobwebs from the chandelier? I want the guest to feel like maybe they shouldn't be there, like they're trespassing where they shouldn't. BUT too late now! The front doors have just been closed and there's no turning back- only the journey ahead through Phantom Manor.”
Phantom Manor is based on the Haunted Mansion, from the original Disneyland park in America. In the Haunted Mansion, guests are guided through their adventure by a Ghost Host's narration, built into their Doom Buggie vehicle. However, Phantom Manor needed to tell its story in a different way:
“Because Disneyland Paris would have guests from so many countries, the language logistics of such a narration was considered unfeasible. As an alternative, I approached film and theme park composer, John Debney, to create a lyrically descriptive musical score for the ride. As a result, Debney composed the 'Phantom Manor Symphony' with unique movements for every scene throughout the attraction.”
Upon entering the house, we are greeted by sad, romantic strings and echoes of singing from its tragic inhabitant. Immediately, we are engulfed in a rich atmosphere; the music hints as to where our story might take us, but the rest is up to our imagination.
“The mood of each scene was appropriately underscored by a selection from Debney's symphony. The end result surrounded guests in the drama, terror or humour of whichever scene they were viewing. John Debney's music was extremely successful in immersing the guests in the many moods of Phantom Manor.”
We see the face of a young lady appear and disappear behind a mirror in the first room. As we delve deeper into the Manor, the halls become darker and the lights flicker.
“Where candle lights flicker, yet the air is deadly still- this is Phantom Manor. Although this is a portion of the opening narration in the vestibule, it's also a great description of how lighting creates the atmosphere that surrounds the guests in the Manor.
“Light is the very key as to where the guest will focus their attention in a scene. Dimming the light down a long darkened corridor indicates that something frightful could lie ahead. Absence of light altogether and then a sudden lightning flash can be the most frightening and it's all controlled by lighting. Well designed lighting is absolutely essential when creating the desired atmosphere in Phantom Manor.”
Story: Embellishing the Haunted Mansion Model
With a pre-existing Haunted Mansion to reference, Jeff and his team had the task of staying true to its core appeal. However, they had the unique opportunity to embellish the experience too.
“All the other Haunted Mansions feature a collection of clever scenes with no discernible thread or storyline. Lead writer Craig Fleming and I decided that Phantom Manor needed a backstory to tie the attraction together and relate it to the neighbouring town of Thunder Mesa.
“We determined that the Manor was the home of Henry and Martha Ravenswood and their lovely daughter, Melanie. Henry was a very wealthy and esteemed member of the community since he owned the Big Thunder Mining Co.
“When the guests visit Phantom Manor, it's the day that Melanie is to be wed to her beloved, Jake, a foreman at the Big Thunder Mine. But the guests discover these plans will take a different turn...”
The Stretching Portraits
Guests encounter their first instance of supernatural activity in a gallery, featuring portraits of Melanie Ravenswood. As in the Haunted Mansion, the entire room begins to stretch downwards, revealing alarming scenarios at the lower-ends of the portraits. Jeff's team thought up brand new scenarios for Phantom Manor's portraits. The image below shows a portrait from the Haunted Mansion on the left, with Phantom Manor's Melanie to the right.
“The stretching room portraits were a collaborative effort of writer Craig Fleming, designer Christian Hope, and illustrator/painter Julie Svendsen. Craig and Christian determined the elements in each of the four threatening scenarios and then Christian did a sketch of each. We all decided, based on Christian's sketches, that the right balance of innocence and macabre had been achieved and these would become the final four designs.
“Julie Svendsen then took Christian's black and white drawings and created four magnificent paintings which became the basis for the portraits which guests now enjoy in the stretch room.”
Future Changes to Phantom Manor
In 2018, Phantom Manor will receive about nine months of refurbishment, leading to much speculation as to what is planned! 25 years since its opening, there is much opportunity for positive change, but what does the Manor's lead creator hope to see?
“I am hopeful that whatever is done to rehab the attraction, the spirit and essence of the Manor remains intact. During the 25 years since Phantom Manor first opened, there have been so many technical advances made in the areas of special effects, theatrical lighting and sound systems. I would hope that this new technology can be part of the refurbishing to upgrade the show quality of Phantom Manor.
“If there were anything I would have added once the ride was complete, it would have been to visually support the Ravenswood family backstory. Like having the huge portrait of Melanie as the Bride in the portrait gallery, I would have added so many more Ravenswood family portraits in that corridor. Also, I'd add photos of Melanie's fiancee, Jake, to the dressing table in her bedroom. Even if not all guests see every photo, that's a detail which richly enhances an attraction.”
What changes do you think could enhance the experience of Phantom Manor? Let's discuss on Twitter and Facebook!
Behind the Scenes Bonus: The Phantom Manor ride is actually in a large building behind the house façade that guests encounter outside. So what's inside of the façade? Jeff reveals:
“There are wooden floor boards on the second and third floors. The spaces are not open but filled with wooden and steel structural supports. The second floor can be reached by a ladder which is accessible from a service passage way behind the portrait gallery. The third floor is so crowded with support structures that it's nearly impossible to move within that space. It's also difficult to move around on the second floor, but necessary because of the show elements installed there.
“When Phantom Manor first opened, the special effects team installed a flickering candle behind the sheer curtains in the far left window on the second floor. There was also a figure of Melanie as the Bride illuminated by flickering lights placed behind the centre window on the second floor. A figure of the Phantom was placed in the second floor balcony window of the West facade of the Manor. Over the years, due to irregular or total lack of maintenance, these show elements have only rarely been seen. With the upcoming refurbishment, hopefully these show elements will be returned permanently to the second floor windows of Phantom Manor.”
By Liam R. Findlay
With thanks to Jeff Burke and Julie Svendsen