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Bemusement park: Where Dickens meets Disney

Can the kids put down their iPods to relive Pip's hardships – in grim and smelly fashion?

By Brendan O'NeillCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2007

Chatham, England

OK, this is officially the weirdest theme-park ride I've ever been on. A woman who can only be described as a wench, dressed in a small white apron over a black dress that drapes to the floor, leads me onto a boat in a stinking sewer.

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"Mind your step, darlin'," she says, flashing a toothy grin as I lower myself into my seat, wondering if the filthy, shadowy water that surrounds me will stain my new pinstripe suit.

Animatronic rats splash about in the sludge. The boat starts forward, suddenly and slowly, carried along by the gentle movements of the murky river, colored to look like movements of a different kind. We pass through the sewer, and then, courtesy of a conveyor belt, we're lifted above the rooftops of London as they would have looked 150 years ago. We fly over tightly packed houses, church steeples, and tall shop walls bearing slogans such as "Mrs. Beaton's Whooping Cough Tincture: Made from Syrup of Squills."

Then, whoosh, the boat plunges down a hill and splashes back into the murky stream (yes, water gets all over my suit; no, thankfully, it doesn't stain). We enter a dark, gray tunnel – "eerie" doesn't begin to describe it – and then a graveyard. Ominous creatures, including a crazed and wide-eyed undertaker and a pale, petrified woman wrapped in a shawl, lurk behind the wonky gravestones, seeming to plead with we boat-riders to reach out and help them.

The boat finally comes to a stop. "Enjoy yourself?" asks the smiling wench. "Yes, thank you," I respond, brushing pretend sewage-water from my head and shoulders.

Welcome to Dickens World, a theme park with a difference. If you thought theme parks were all about thrilling roller coaster rides, wolfing down hotdogs and cotton candy, and shaking hands with overgrown mice and goofy dogs, you're in for a rude awakening. Dickens World recreates the filth, squalor, and even the unpleasant whiffs of Victorian London, the city in which Charles Dickens lived and breathed, and wrote so memorably about in "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," and "Oliver Twist." It's less a theme park, and more a "grime park."

Housed in an aluminium-clad hangar here, about 25 miles southeast of London, the $123 million attraction opens Friday, though reporters were given a preview Wednesday. Workmen in fluorescent vests were putting finishing touches to the rickety backstreets, roped bridges, and miasmatic waterways of urban, Victorian England. News crews from across Europe streamed through the central cobbled courtyard, shoving microphones into the faces of various wenches, pickpockets, and dubious "gentlemen" whose presence really does make you feel like you're caught in a time warp and woken up in the era of Oliver Twist; chimney sweeps; and ruthless, whip-wielding factory-owners.

In a dingy prison cell off the square, there was a most surreal sight: a workman attaching a hand to a astonishingly lifelike animatronic man – a pathetic, sullen creature – who will live in this damp, cramped cell for the foreseeable future. He's only plastic and electronics, but something in the pretend prisoner's face causes a sympathetic twinge.

If ever words did not belong together, surely they're "Dickensian" and "theme park." "Dickensian" has become a byword for grime and poverty, sludge and disease; for cities overhung with smog and inhabited by poor women in head scarves selling handmade soap on misty bridges. A "theme park" is a place to kick back and relax, where, according to the great American amusement park pioneer, George C. Tilyou, "What attracts the crowd is the wearied mind's demand for relief in unconsidered muscular action." And yet, here, Dickens has been crossbred with Disney, and the end result isn't so much amusement park as bemusement park. It's like Disney World dipped in rust-colored paint and starved of the Florida sunlight and with slightly cheaper prices – $25 for adults, $15 for kids – and significantly less than Disney World admission.