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Bemusement park: Where Dickens meets Disney

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Housed in an aluminium-clad hangar here, about 25 miles southeast of London, the $123 million attraction opens Friday, though reporters were given a preview Wednesday. Workmen in fluorescent vests were putting finishing touches to the rickety backstreets, roped bridges, and miasmatic waterways of urban, Victorian England. News crews from across Europe streamed through the central cobbled courtyard, shoving microphones into the faces of various wenches, pickpockets, and dubious "gentlemen" whose presence really does make you feel like you're caught in a time warp and woken up in the era of Oliver Twist; chimney sweeps; and ruthless, whip-wielding factory-owners.

In a dingy prison cell off the square, there was a most surreal sight: a workman attaching a hand to a astonishingly lifelike animatronic man – a pathetic, sullen creature – who will live in this damp, cramped cell for the foreseeable future. He's only plastic and electronics, but something in the pretend prisoner's face causes a sympathetic twinge.

If ever words did not belong together, surely they're "Dickensian" and "theme park." "Dickensian" has become a byword for grime and poverty, sludge and disease; for cities overhung with smog and inhabited by poor women in head scarves selling handmade soap on misty bridges. A "theme park" is a place to kick back and relax, where, according to the great American amusement park pioneer, George C. Tilyou, "What attracts the crowd is the wearied mind's demand for relief in unconsidered muscular action." And yet, here, Dickens has been crossbred with Disney, and the end result isn't so much amusement park as bemusement park. It's like Disney World dipped in rust-colored paint and starved of the Florida sunlight and with slightly cheaper prices – $25 for adults, $15 for kids – and significantly less than Disney World admission.

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