Launched to great expectations, Dickens theme park falls on hard times

by @lamthuyvo December 16, 2014 5:30AM ET

What a theme park about Victorian-era poverty teaches us about today's economy


Gesticulating with a foot-long replica of a cleaver, an actor in Victorian costume speaks to a group of tourists standing elbow to elbow inside a dimly lit, sparsely decorated replica of a 19th-century London dining room. He jovially spouts stories about the woes of the poor, like a newsboy of the period.

How many people once lived in 6-by-6-foot rooms like this one? Often, 20 or more! What is that odor, stinking up the cramped room? The animal fat that was used in lieu of candle wax! Where did all these people used to go to the loo? Into this metal chamber pot (which was emptied out the window)!

Youngsters, their parents and other tour participants fill the room with laughter while the 20-year-old actor Nathan Highan teases them at every turn. “You’re 11 years of age? And you haven’t got a job yet? What do your parents say?,” he jokes to one of the children. 

Highan is guiding the group through Dickens World, a theme park that aims to bring to life Charles Dickens’s Victorian England and educate visitors about poverty’s hardships. Tucked into a mall complex in the town of Chatham, an hour outside of London, this 100,000-square-foot attraction features replicas of bleak scenes from Dickensian times — animatronics, sound effects and flickering lights included.

Woes of the past and today

The theme park was the brainchild of designer Gerry O’Sullivan-Beare, who, according to the BBC, also worked on Santa’s World and Andersen World (after the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen). O’Sullivan-Beare conceived the idea of Dickens World in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that he was able to cobble together enough money from private investors to turn the literary play world into reality, according to Thelma Grove, a Dickens expert and consultant for the park. O’Sullivan-Beare died before he could see the finished theme park.

“I thought it was the most exciting thing to be involved in,” says Grove, who once served as the joint general secretary of the Dickens Fellowship, an association of fans and scholars of the late writer. O’Sullivan-Beare and his colleagues, she says, wanted “to create a London that visitors were looking for and couldn’t find anymore.”

Lenny Andreou, a former sales consultant who took over as director in 2012, argues that Dickens’ words — and the park’s animatronic presentations of them — have particular salience in today’s world of growing economic inequity. “They don’t age … They’re still true to this day,” he said. “The problem is that now there’s so many of us, poverty is sort of hidden away. In Victorian times, poverty was so blatantly clear, you just walked the streets and see poverty.” 

The courtyard at Dickens World

The theme park consists of seven scenes. There’s Peggotty’s boathouse, an overturned vessel that, in Dickens’ fictional world of David Copperfield, housed 80 to 100 people. There’s a typical Victorian lounge, similarly overcrowded; a model of the cemetery Dickens visited to ponder story ideas; a debtors’ prison; and an austere classroom where children sat on wooden benches and repeated their draconian teacher’s lectures in unison. There’s also a haunted house, where the actors “show our audience how tricks and illusions were made in Victorian times, using mirrors,” said Andreou. Life-size animatronics and puppets of prisoners and alcoholics punctuate this replica of not-so-merry olde London. The entire tour takes about 90 minutes.

But as fate would have it, Dickens World has fallen on hard times. Few people, it seems, want to experience poverty through a theme park. Built on a budget of $11 million and envisioned by its founders as a rival to attractions like Disneyland, the park has not lived up to financial expectations and is barely eking out enough to get by, according to Andreou.

Since the park opened its doors in 2007, the operators have had to shut down several parts of the attraction. A water ride that encircled the park was drained. Several animatronic creations were put to rest, including a life-size model of Dickens. Many of the puppets now sit in the dark, motionless and unplugged. To attract more people, the park lowered its admissions prices.

“We’re at a point now where we just go for volumes [of visitors] in numbers rather than profits,” said Andreou. “So the more people we can bring through the doors, the more chance we have at succeeding and fulfilling another year.”

Ideally, Andreou would like for Dickens World to find a wealthy benefactor (though one less complicated than Great Expectations’ Abel Magwitch) to help fund the attraction’s operating costs, allowing him to open the doors of Dickens World to the public at no cost.

“I think we must never forget that there’s poverty all over the world,” he said. “And to come into Dickens World actually would show you in a very short period of time how much poverty there was and how much poverty there still is.”