A Dickens of a theme park

Stephen Beard May 24, 2007
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A Dickens of a theme park

Stephen Beard May 24, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: On the theory that every marketing campaign needs a good gimmick, Simon and Schuster’s turning to the Internet.

 The publishing company's going to start an online video channel featuring chats with authors talking about their books, And walking through the places those books are set.   A group of British investors is taking that idea a step further. They've poured more than $120 million into England's newest tourist attraction. Dickens World opens to the general public tomorrow. Our man in London Stephen Beard went down to Chatham in Southern England for a sneak preview.


KEVIN CHRISTIE: The customers, when they come through, will come through this way . . .

STEPHEN BEARD: Managing director Kevin Christie led me into a building site. By tomorrow, it should be transformed into a multimillion-dollar visitor attraction.

CHRISTIE: . . . and as we step into this space, this is a first view of Dickens World.

The scene will transport visitors back to Victorian London, with the cobbled alley ways, ramshackle warehouses and wharves. Tomorrow, if all goes to plan, these streets will be filled with the sounds — and even the smells — of Dickensian England.

Looks like a theme park. But it’s not, says Christie.

CHRISTIE: We’re a themed attraction, not a theme park. Because when you say “theme park,” you know, people . . . conjures up visions of, sort of roller coasters and things, and we’re definitely not that.

BEARD: There isn’t a Dickens Roller coaster?

CHRISTIE: There’s not a roller coaster in sight. And I call what we have here “Pink Knuckle” rather than “White Knuckle.”

There is one ride called “Great Expectations.” Passengers will board small, wooden boats and be whisked over the rooftops and plunged down through a murky but make-believe sewer — complete with mechanical rats. Other attractions include a visit to a reconstructed debtors’ prison.

FEMALE NARRATOR: The dirty windows looked into a gravelled area, bounded by a high brick wall topped by iron spikes.

This is a replica of the jail where Dickens’s father served a sentence for debt. The author’s fictional characters are everywhere here. There are life-size, robot-like models of them, haranguing the visitors.

DICKENS CHARACTER ROBOT: Am I what folks call a miser? Only a miser? A jolly old gentleman? I’m reviewing . . . the situation . . .

And the robots re-enact famous scenes from the novels.

EBENEZER SCROOGE ROBOT: Who are you?

JACOB MARLEY ROBOT: Ask me who I was?

EBENEZER SCROOGE ROBOT: Who . . . were you, then?

JACOB MARLEY ROBOT: In life, I was your partner, Jacob Marley.

The object of Dickens World, says Kevin Christie, is to entertain and educate. And of course, first and foremost, to make money — from the $25 a head entrance fee and from the merchandising operation, dubbed “The Old Curiosity Shop”

CHRISTIE: We’re going to have a range of goods — mugs, t-shirts. But then at the high end, we’re looking at branded goods at the high end, such as cases of wine, Christmas cakes, hampers . . .

BEARD: And they’ll all have the Dickens label, logo?

CHRISTIE: Dickens branding, Dickens World branding, absolutely right.

One or two academics have dismissed Dickens World as “Disneyfication.” But the author’s great-great grandson, Gerald Dickens, has given it his blessing.

GERALD DICKENS: If one person or one family gets intrigued, gets fascinated by the characters and stories and then goes and reads one of the novels, and then gets more fascinated and reads a biography and then starts . . . that’s a great thing.

The only question is whether Dickens World will pull in the crowds, or prove a little highbrow for most people.

Dickens always took a keen interest in his own commercial success. No doubt he’ll be here, in spirit, hovering over the project to make sure that it succeeds. His fictional characters, too.

DICKENS ROBOT: You fail, and your heart and liver will be torn out and ate. Hahahaha!

At Dickens World in Chatham, Kent, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

A contractor works to complete part of Dickens World in Chatham, Kent. The Dickensian theme park includes a London sewer boat ride and a re-creation of the Newgate debtors prison. (Bruno Vincent, Getty Images)

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