What the Dickens? Great Expectations for Themed Attraction

CHATHAM, England ~ Britain’s newest visitor attraction, a theme park dedicated to the novelist Charles Dickens, offers a taste of the grim world of Victorian London stalked by his characters, including Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge and David Copperfield.

In the naval dockyard town of Chatham in southeast England’s Kent, where Dickens lived and worked, Dickens World opened its doors last week. Victorian street urchins, barmaids and pickpockets lie in wait inside.

The attraction, built on a 6,600-square-metre site, offers a step back in time to the Dickensian environs conjured up in Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Thelma Grove, 71, from the Dickens Fellowship, a club created in 1902 that has some 6,000 members.

“When I heard about the project, I was very scared but then when I saw the plans, I found it great. They found a fun way of presenting Dickens to a younger generation,” she said.

Sably Mansoor said: “We came very early this morning; we wanted to be the first.”

Eldest daughter Auni, a fan of Oliver Twist, wanted to visit as a seventh birthday treat.

As with many new attractions, the finishing touches have still to be completed on the £62-million (US$123-million) complex. A 4D section – featuring smells – will open in June.

The showpiece feature, Great Expectations, received the thumbs-up from the Mansoors.

Europe’s largest themed dark boat ride transports visitors from the vile depths of London’s sewers through atmospheric streets then across the city’s rooftops.

“Go at the front, you’ll get less wet on the descent,” said Tony Bates, one of the actors in period costume who wander the streets recounting Dickens’ tales to captivated children.

When he was a child, Bates said, he read Great Expectations during the bombardments of the Second World War.

“I was more afraid of Magwitch than I was of the German bombs,” he said.

Dickens, who lived from 1812 to 1870, “has a very dramatic writing, so you can actually see the characters,” said Grove, recounting the humor found among the miserable conditions he depicted.

In Dickens World, there’s Scrooge’s haunted house, Fagin’s Den, and Nicholas Nickelby’s Dotheboys Hall school, presided over by an authoritarian teacher who does not hesitate to scold anyone who answers a question wrong on the interactive screens.

A 3D film recounts the life and times of Dickens.

The idea for Dickens World was spawned 30 years ago by Gerry O’Sullivan-Bere, who worked on Santaworld in Sweden.

“In 2001, he came to me and asked if I could help him realize his dream by finding the financing,” Dickens World chief Kevin Christie said.

“Gerry died last year so he didn’t see it completed.

“Nothing will replace reading the books. Our role is to stimulate the reading,” he added, saying that regrettably, Dickens was not on the curriculum of Britain’s schools.

Dickens World had 6,000 visitors over its first three days of business.

“We had to stop people from entering on Monday because it was overcrowded,” Christie said.

The attraction hopes to welcome 300,000 people per year and needs 110,000 to break even. Adult tickets cost £12.50 pounds.

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