Well, if you’re in London, Blackpool, York, Edinburgh, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam or San Francisco, Merlin have a treat for you — a trip to The Dungeons.
Never heard of Merlin? Admittedly the name is no “Disney,” but they operate some of the biggest brands in theme park and family entertainment, including the Legoland Parks. Amongst other things they operate the Sea Life brand of Aquariums, five non-Legoland theme parks, ski resorts, observation towers (including the almost-completed Orlando Eye) and perhaps one of the oldest themed experience brands out there — Madame Tussaud’s.
A Dungeon experience (depending on the location) is part theatre, part dark ride, and part audio-visual experience (often with 4D elements included) usually capped off with a thrill ride at the end. You’ll move in sequence through a number of locations where a cast member (or “Creature” as they are called) will either start an experience, or talk you through through the whole part before passing you, and around 30 or so other unfortunate souls onto the next room (and creature).
Rather than be a trip report of a single location, this report is based on visiting the Blackpool, London, Edinburgh and York dungeons. Although each location is similar in theme and presentation, what experiences you will have depend on the location. Each location has a combination of experiences that are unique to that location, and some others that face only minor tweaks to reflect the city it is in — English Dungeons tell stories based on English history, the San Francisco dungeon tell stories based on California history, etc. I'll try to limit what I say in order to ruin the surprise, but enough to give you a feel as to what to expect.
In many dungeons you can expect to meet “The Torturer.” This creature will talk you through a selection of real-life torture implements, explaining how they worked (don’t worry, the creatures aren’t allowed to touch you), in a gory yet funny and still family friendly way; however the “background story” of the torturer will vary on location — York and Blackpool will invoke the imagery of their respective feudal lords' position during the English Civil War whilst the London Torturer claims to be in the Tower of London with your visit timed just after Guy Fawkes’ “gunpowder plot.”
Uniquely in London you will come face-to-face with Jack the Ripper inside the “Ten Bells,” a pub linked to the Ripper murders; whereas in Edinburgh Sawney Bean and his family are rather excited to "meat" you (sic).
The creatures in some experiences interact with fixed elements to allow for historical figures to tell their story. In some locations (such as York) this is done via TV screens, however other locations use more spectacular “talking mannequins” — rather than a full animatronic, a video of a face is projected onto the mannequin; between shows these can be seen to look around or sleep (the sleeping ones can give quite a surprise when they "wake" if you’re not expecting it); the effect is impressively lifelike. This is sometimes combined with further animatronics to move arms, or other show elements.
A dungeon experience will typically include a dark character, such as Sweeney Todd (in the London dungeon) making an “Audio” appearance. Guests sit in chairs as the room is darkened, and a audio begins to play. Combined with surround sound and other 4D elements it gives the impression that there is indeed a psychopath walking around the room (especially when you feel something in your back that could be a knife).
Many elements rely upon audience participation. Plague Doctors will attempt to cure one of the audience members who has unfortunately come down with the Black Death whilst the Judge will try three or so of the group for a hilarious array of crimes, so if you're not a fan of being "called out," this isn't an experience for you.
Most locations also include at least one ride (York is a notable ride-less exception). A common “starting” ride is the Dark Elevator (which in addition to having a practical element of getting people to the start of the rest of the experience, can include audio and animatronic elements to suggest the rate of falling is much much greater); there’s no real thrilling element to this, its more practical than entertainment.
Many locations include a fixed river ride which operates like a dark ride past fixed animatronics (although it can include a splash element too), which given the limited space an indoor attraction like the dungeons have, it is impressive that they can actually find the place to somehow include one as long as they tend to be.
Most dungeon locations end with an optional thrill ride — “Drop Dead.” This is a mini version of a drop tower (similar to the portable versions) that drops just far enough to simulate a hanging. It also serves as a photo opportunity for the (high priced) photo souvenirs.
A dungeon experience is relatively expensive. For example, the walk-up rate for the London Dungeon is £25.95 for adults, and £20.95 for children, and will take you about half an hour (to aid in International Comparison, a large McDonalds' meal is about £5-6). The (relatively) nearby Legoland Windsor is £48 for Adults and £43.80 for children at the gate (and will last you all day). The San Francisco walk-up rate is $26 and $20.
That said, it is probably harder to pay full rate to any Merlin attraction than it is to get a discounted ticket. Buying online will save you 25% off if you book a week in advance (10% within the same week), and you can combine a ticket with nearby Merlin attractions if you’re in London (Sea Life Aquarium, London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s) or Blackpool (The Blackpool Tower Eye, Sea Life, Madame Tussaud’s Blackpool, and the ballroom and circus in the tower) for further savings. Additionally, 2-4-1 offers to Merlin Attractions are extremely common. If you plan on visiting a lot though, look into the Merlin Annual Pass, especially if you’re planning a trip to any of their theme parks.
Overall, if you love haunted houses, have kids over 10 who like “gruesome” stories, or if like my girlfriend your better half gets a sadistic kick out of seeing you terrified on a drop tower, you’ll probably want to try the dungeons at least once.
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