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.
"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.
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?
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."