Bemusement park: Where Dickens meets Disney
Can the kids put down their iPods to relive Pip's hardships – in grim and smelly fashion?
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Can today's iPod generation – more into P. Diddy than Pip, and whose "Please sir, may I have some more?" is aimed at snazzy cellphones or sneakers – be drawn to a dark, brooding park intended to transport them to a poorer time?Skip to next paragraph
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When the city-block-size indoor park opens today, it will be serviced by 200 staff – the majority of whom will be dressed as dandies or washerwomen or some other class of Dickensian character. The main attraction, and only traditional theme-park ride, is "Great Expectations." The sewer-to-skyline-to-graveyard boat ride based on the enduring story of orphan Pip and escaped convict Magwitch, the heroes of one of Dickens's "Great Expectations." It's one of the longest theme-park boat rides in Europe (210 meters), and the only one in the world, boasts the park, that combines a "water ride" (the sewer experience) with a "dry ride" (the flight over rooftops).
Trevor Lupton, a retired civil servant, was my guide. Dressed in a burgundy waistcoat, breeches, and shiny-buckle shoes, he looked like a Victorian town crier, but spoke in hushed, polite tones. He applied for a job here, he told me, because "I love reading about that old world – and now I get a chance to live in it! Well, at least from 9 to 5."
He led me to the courtyard, a quite mesmerizing brown-and-gray, faithful rendering of a Victorian town center, where he introduced me to a Ned Fiendish, a rat catcher. "How do you do?" asks Ned, tipping his tall brown hat in my direction. Next we climb a winding staircase to visit Dotheboys' Hall, a Victorian schoolroom. I instantly feel 10 years old – worse, 10 and stuck in unforgiving Victorian England. An actor playing a rotund, red-faced schoolteacher, dressed in a headmaster's cap and gown, bellows at us to take our seats. And we do, obediently plonking down on the harsh wooden benches and observing the various slogans on the walls: "BE SEEN AND NOT HEARD," "RESPECT THY ELDERS."
Escaping the glare of the scary teacher, we headed toward Marshalsea Prison, a stark recreation of the dungeons in which Dickens's real-life dad was imprisoned for running up debts. As a result, 12-year-old Charles had to work 10-hour days in a boot-blacking factory. "We want to educate people about Dickens's own life as well as his books," explained Mr. Lupton.
Drat! One of the most attractive-sounding experiences – Ebenezer Scrooge's Haunted House – wasn't finished yet. Trevor assured me it will be very scary: "Ghosts, noises, the works." We climbed another stairwell to Fagin's Den. Fagin, of course, is the master of thieves in "Oliver Twist" who takes in destitute young kids and teaches them art of picking a pocket or two. So how has Dickens World presented Fagin's Den? As a children's playpen, of course, where young' uns can muck about on slides and climbing frames and bounce off soft, colorful walls.
Despite the fact that the prestigious Dickens Fellowship has given its blessing to Dickens World, there have been murmurs of disgruntlement about the transformation of the life and works of one of Britain's best-loved writers into a theme park. I mean, it's people like Dolly Parton, not Charles Dickens, who get their own amusement parks, right?
Kevin Christie, managing director of Dickens World, brushes aside these "snobbish arguments." Sitting at a table in the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters Bar, the park's food-and-drink outlet (no, Twist-style gruel on sale), Christie told me that "Dickens was a showman."
"He loved giving public readings, in Europe and America. His novels were originally published in serial form in magazines, complete with nail-biting cliffhangers. Dickens's work was like a soap opera for Victorian times. You know, if he were alive now, I bet he'd love Dickens World. He'd probably be a shareholder."