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Glitches under the big top

Visitors give Britain's ambitious Millennium Dome mixed reviews.

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The British have a phrase to describe how they rise above life's challenges. They call it "muddling through."

On the banks of London's River Thames, the national capacity for making the best of things when they don't pan out quite as planned is being tested under the Millennium Dome.

Built to symbolize Prime Minister Tony Blair's get-up-and-go vision of Britain's future in the 21st century, it is the focus of a fierce debate. Organizers promised that it would answer three questions about the British: Who are we? What do we do? Where do we live?

But much of the debate is around a fourth question: Why can't we make things work the way we want them to?

Mr. Blair, whose government lavished 750 million ($1.2 billion) on the vast bubble and its 14 entertainment "zones," has called the venture "a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity."

British and overseas visitors, who since Dec. 31 have been exploring the cavernous Dome at the rate of 20,000 a day, have a more restrained view.

Elizabeth McPhail laid out $86 for a family entry ticket, plus train fares to and from Birmingham in central England. She says she and her children were "distinctly underwhelmed" by the exhibits and "only moderately impressed" by the stage entertainment. "My son Edward liked the trapeze artists," she says, but daughter Anne was "frightened by Home Planet," an exhibit that tries to replicate earthquakes and volcanoes.

London electrician Frank Ashton says he was "bowled over" by the Dome's sheer size, but "extremely angry" at having to stand in line for more than an hour to spend 10 minutes in one exhibit. He was not alone in his frustration.

On New Year's Eve the Dome - and several other London events meant to mark the year 2000 - got off to the kind of start that ensured the word "fiasco" in headlines. For organizers and visitors, muddling through became a full-time job.

Forty-eight hours before it was to begin rotating, a 400-foot high ferris wheel fell foul of inspectors. They refused to give it a safety certificate, so the biggest wheel in the world couldn't carry passengers.

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