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Photo: Rob McFarland

Think twice before visiting Dickensian London at a new attraction in Kent, Rob McFarland writes.

Somewhat appropriately, I arrived at Dickens World with great expectations. After all, it's not every day a shiny, new £62 million ($150 million) theme park opens its doors.

The media fanfare accompanying its launch in the UK was so successful that on opening day they had to turn 4000 people away and run advertisements asking people to stop coming.

Given this sort of build-up and knowing the technological wizardry that's now available to theme park designers, you'd be forgiven for arriving expecting something special.

Sadly, Dickens World makes a mockery of its promise, "the day out of a lifetime". It barely has enough substance to entertain visitors for more than a couple of hours. And when you consider Chatham in Kent is a 40-minute train ride from the centre of London, it's hard to recommend making the trip.

You enter the indoor attraction by way of a bridge over the River Thames which plunges you into the sights, smells and sounds of the early 19th century. The river running below is suitably brown and putrid and rickety wooden houses teeter nervously along its bank.

Cross the bridge and you descend into a dimly lit, cobbled Victorian square that forms the centrepoint of the complex. Surrounded by shops and buildings taken from Dickens' novels, it's patrolled by a cast of traditionally dressed Victorian characters who supervise old-fashioned games such as skipping and skittles.

The square is also the starting point for a guided tour by a cheeky Cockney called Finigan Blake. This turned out to be the highlight of the day as I learnt more about Dickens during this 10-minute stroll than I did during the rest of the afternoon. Sadly, unless you happen to be standing nearby when the tour starts, you'd be blissfully unaware of its existence.

The four main attractions all branch off the square but there are no signs or directions to tell you where to go. Eventually I located Peggotty's Boat House, a "4D" show staged in a small theatre that follows Dickens on his travels around the world. It's actually quite entertaining, with some tongue-in-cheek 3D computer-generated graphics of Dickens on his tours around America and Europe.

I'm still a bit perplexed as to what the fourth dimension was (there was a dodgy smell at one point but I thought that was just the bloke sitting in front of me). The 3D effect worked well.

The Haunted House of Ebenezer Scrooge, where ghostly images are supposed to act out extracts from Dickens novels, was a disaster. The projection system in the first room was broken, it wasn't clear when you needed to move from one room to the next, and all the soundtracks competed with each other, making them difficult to hear. I've watched scarier episodes of The Wiggles.

I joined a class full of schoolies in the Victorian School Room, where an enthusiastic teacher dressed in a cloak and mortar board provided an insight into how teaching methods have changed. A couple of particularly mouthy individuals were hauled out the front and made an example of, to the great delight of their teachers smirking up the back.

The complex's biggest drawcard is its Great Expectations-themed boat ride. At 210 metres it's the longest indoor dark boat ride in Europe, taking visitors on a journey across the rooftops of London before plunging them backwards down a "fall of death" in the pitch black.

Well, that's what they say it does. I wasn't able to verify this because it broke down shortly after I arrived and shut for the rest of the day. Apparently this has been an embarrassingly regular occurrence since the complex opened in May, with angry patrons flooding message boards urging people not to go.

Predictably, Dickens World has attracted its fair share of controversy since it opened. A great deal has been made by the owners about the involvement of the Dickens Fellowship to ensure accuracy and authenticity but it would be quite possible to come away having learnt very little about the man and his works.

Until they've ironed out all the problems and added a lot more content, Dickens World will remain a good idea which is poorly executed.

The writer was a guest of Air New Zealand and Dickens World.

TRIP NOTES

* Dickens World is located next to the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Kent. Phone +44 163 489 0421 or see http://www.dickensworld.co.uk. Open every day from 10am to 7pm, except Christmas Day. Cost: adults £12.50 ($29.50), concessions £10.50 ($25), children £7.50 ($17.50).

* Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to London twice a day via Auckland then either Los Angeles or Hong Kong. There are lie-flat beds in Business Premier and seat-back video- and audio-on-demand in all classes. For flight times and prices, phone 13 24 76 or see www.airnewzealand.com.au.