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Bemusement park: Where Dickens meets Disney

Can the kids put down their iPods to relive Pip's hardships – in grim and smelly fashion?

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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."

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