Theme Park Insider

Visiting The Dungeons — A 'Bite'-Sized Theme Park Experience

February 8, 2015, 1:19 PM · Have you ever had a theme park craving and simply not had the time to go and experience your favourite park? Has wet weather ever stopped you getting your theme park fix? Do you hate the drive to some out-of-town place to get a full themed entertainment experience?

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.

London Dungeon
Photos courtesy Merlin Entertainments

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.

Visiting the Dungeon

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.

Dungeon boat ride

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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Replies (9)

February 8, 2015 at 1:32 PM · Great article, Chad! I've heard of these, but had no idea they were so well themed. The price does seem a bit dear, though, but the special prices are much more reasonable. Thanks!!
February 8, 2015 at 2:11 PM · Amsterdam dungeon has a rollercoaster which is quite thrilling.
February 8, 2015 at 2:16 PM · Thanks James. Any feedback or questions from all comers most welcome.
February 8, 2015 at 2:21 PM · Half an hour in the London Dungeon? That seems quite short, the german ones take about 90 minutes (Hamburg) and 60 Minutes (Berlin).

I would say with a 2-for-1 coupon the price is reasonable, but visiting more than one is not necessary as they are pretty much alike.

February 8, 2015 at 2:25 PM · I have been lucky enough to go to Edinburgh (twice) York, London and Berlin. expensive yes, worth it... yes (especially if you haven't been to one before.
They also at some locations change things up for halloween (Edinburgh definitely did).

The water rides are not always moving. they do some fantastic playing with your senses and some of the water rides only move about 20 metres... still very impressive in my opinion.

Berlin runs tours in english as well as German, so it is best to check with them when the tour will be running for you.

London Dungeon is in my opinion the best, it is long, and a lot of fun, and the Sweeney Todd attraction actually made me jump in my seat.

Glad to see some reporting on smaller 'themed' attractions rather than just the big parks.

February 9, 2015 at 4:06 AM · I live in Glasgow so I have been to the Edinburgh Dungeons quite a few times and I love it! Its a fun interactive experience that I think is worth the money - although if you can get a 2-4-1 offer, even better. They are very very common (you can even get them on the back of bus tickets in Edinburgh).

Thanks for covering something near my neck of the woods! :)

February 9, 2015 at 5:55 AM · I went to the one in San Francisco. It was a good way to kill an hour. Interactive and entertaining enough. We got a discount for 4 people. The boat ride towards the end could have been done alot better.
February 9, 2015 at 7:12 AM · Hi Samantha, I'm tempted to visit M&D's for Theme Park Insider, maybe do a tour of "bush league" theme parks... Give the lil guys some attention.
February 10, 2015 at 5:06 AM · Hey Chad!
Wow, I havent been to M&Ds for years! After spending time in some of the most amazing theme parks that place kinda scares me now :P
BUT I think it would be great if you covered it, would be cool seeing it on here! :D

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