My Review of the London Dungeon, South Bank, London
We first visited the London Dungeon on 31 May, 2013. I was aware that the attraction had recently relocated from Tooley Street to the South Bank - however, since I had never encountered the original setting, I am unable to make a comparison. My understanding is that the new experience is pretty similar to the old.
There were just two of us in our party - myself and my thirteen year old son. In fact, it had been his birthday just the day before and I had promised to take him to the Dungeon as a treat during a day out in the capital. We had separated from his younger brother (5) and his Dad, leaving them playing on the adventure playground at Jubilee Park, around the corner. The London Dungeon website recommends that the attraction is unsuitable for the under 10s - having visited, I would definitely agree that young children could become quite distressed at times. There are some scary encounters and moments of total darkness, which my son would have hated - and the disturbing resurrection of Jack the Ripper scared even my teenage son, a boy not easily fazed. Having said all this, some parents had taken their younger children into the Dungeon, and most of the time they seemed ok - although the two overexcited brothers with the most to say became noticeably quieter as the tour went on!
We attempted to visit the London Dungeon during May half term. The day we went, it seemed as though everyone had decided to visit the city. I had researched the attraction and realised that long queues were a possibility (and indeed likely). For reviewers who gave the attraction a low rating on TripAdvisor, the long queue was a large part of the reason why. You can purchase advance tickets online, but if you do, you have to pick a time slot. Even then, you will still have to queue, but the waiting time should be no greater than 45 minutes. This is a vast improvement to the walk-up time, which can be up to two hours.
Did I book in advance in order to obtain priority entrance? Actually, no - even though it would have made the day exceedingly easier. The reason I chose not to was because I had 2 for 1 vouchers with Greater Anglia (anyone can print them off if you are travelling by train, and you can also get them on Days Out). Unfortunately, you cannot use 2 for 1 vouchers together with priority booking. I know this for certain because I phoned them to ask - and I was also warned that the queuing time would be up to two hours. Still, always one for a bargain (especially when we wanted to visit another, expensive attraction on the same day), I decided to risk it.
We arrived at South Bank around 11am and the queue was long. I asked the staff how long the wait was. Two hours, I was informed. My son's face dropped. He didn't want to spend the first two hours of his birthday trip in a queue. Our plan had been to visit the Dungeon in the morning, then the London Aquarium as a whole family in the afternoon. It was time to reorganise our plans. A quick query at the Aquarium - conveniently located next door - told us that the queue there was only 40 minutes. That was fine with us, what else can you really expect for a popular attraction? We jumped in the queue and ate half of our picnic lunch while we waited. But for those of you who now have the idea that the Aquarium has a much shorter queuing time, beware - the family who made the same query only a few moments later were told the queue time was 90 minutes.
But back to the Dungeon. We returned at around 4pm, thinking the queue must surely be shorter by now. Wrong. It was still two hours. Wondering if we might have to abandon all hope of entering the Dungeon that day, I asked the staff whether the queue was likely to taper off. He told us to return at 6pm and it would probably be a lot better. He was right - it was. The queue outside had diminished altogether. We still and to queue inside the building, but we were somewhat entertained by the dark, dismal décor; atmospheric setting; small exhibitions and the live rat that passed by on somebody's shoulder! There was also a rather authentic odour.... Finally, we arrived at the ticket desk.
On the Boat Ride to Hell - Traitor's Gate
After you have paid you pass through into an area where live rats are plentiful - and thankfully ensconced in cages. Then the tour begins. You spend the entire Dungeon experience with your tour group, which is controlled by numerous excellent actors playing different parts. Not being able to go off and do your own thing is in no way a disadvantage - the actors are fantastic and engaged everyone from beginning to end. There are two rides to experience, and the Boat Ride To Hell is very close to the beginning of the journey. Prior to the visit, I was slightly worried about the rides, because I don't usually like all but the tamest. Rest assured, however, that this ride is perfectly fine for all but the pregnant and those with mobility and back problems. It is a ride taking you to the doom of Traitor's Gate, Tower of London and I thought it was a brilliant way to start the tour off - it certainly has more than an element of scariness, but this is mainly to do with the setting and the suspense rather than the actual boat ride. My son had already learned about Traitor's Gate on a previous school trip to the Tower of London, so he understood the scenario. Be aware that you can get quite wet - we were rather lucky in that our seats, second from the back, seemed to avoid much of the soaking that everyone else got. If you can't, or don't want to take the Boat Ride To Hell you can avoid it - but on our tour I think everyone really enjoyed it.
On With the Tour
The attraction might be named London Dungeon, but it is much more than that. The tour addresses so many aspects of London's turbulent past, that this is a real history lesson, delivered without the chore of the classroom. As you pass through the different sections (perfectly welded together so that it is a continuous journey) you will be unaware of the time that has passed. Even the younger members on our tour were not bored for a moment. This is an experience that is set alight with scary suspense and fun, both in equal measures. There are times when you want to cling on to the rest of your party, plus moments when you will want to either laugh or grimace (learning about the various torture instruments used on prisoners springs to mind; as does the medical demonstration as you learn about the bubonic plague!) Sometimes, members of the tour party are called upon to participate - this even happened to me as I was judged for my 'crimes' in the dock - but the audience participation is always fun and nothing scary happens to you!
I don't want to reveal too much about the tour, for fear of spoiling the surprise for those who make the visit. Once the tour begins, you are forbidden from taking photos - hence, there are none to view here. I think photos would spoil the surprise though - far better to enter without having seen it already. My son and I passed through many historical re-enactments, brought back to life by the excellent actors. waxworks and holograms throughout. My personal favourite, though fictional, was the infamous Mrs Lovett in her pie shop - her brilliant switch from sweetly demure to sinister evil, (all in the same sentence) really made the character. I can still hear her voice, more than a week later! Moving on and passing through the pie shop into Sweeney Todd's Fleet Street barbers was also very memorable - I think more than a few of us were on the edges of our barber's chairs......."who wants a close shave?"
Entering the Ten Bells was undoubtedly the most disturbing public house encounter of my life - I wouldn't recommend it for a relaxing drink and the outside sound effects really set the stage of suspense. Huddled inside the pub, listening to the barmaid retell the tale of the shocking demise of her friend, I was suddenly very grateful that I had left my youngest child on the playground. And the graphic story and the stormy weather isn't the end, by the way....
Any budding doctors are sure to enjoy the medical demonstration as the Black Death hits the dirty and germ-infested streets of 17th century London. The local folk are fighting a lost cause, as people are dropping like flies all around...and those that are still alive have some pretty revolting symptoms. Plus, one of the remedies comes unexpectedly a little close for comfort!
Drop Ride To Doom
As you move on from the court room (in which you may even find yourself before a judge in the dock for a heinous crime, like I did) it might seem as though the tour is reaching a gentle and uneventful end. What? Don't be silly! This is historical London, when life was hard and cruel. Didn't you see the list of crimes punishable by hanging? It was there, on the court room wall, for all to read. It seems that everything, from shooting a rabbit to walking on the King's highway whilst not looking your best, can lead to an untimely demise. So you are not getting out of it that easily.....
However, you can make your choice......leave quietly and without a bang through the side door, or experience the Drop Ride To Doom - a ride that will see the floor disappear from under you as the crowd cheers and your mortal life is over. I, a non thrill seeker, hesitated, but my adventurous son forced me onto it. Actually, I'm glad he did - it's a great, explosive end to an entertaining tour (and nothing to worry about if you hate daring rides, like me.)
So, Should You Go?
My son and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the London Dungeon. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, with the exception of the very young. Older children will certainly be entertained without being traumatised, but this isn't a family attraction - it's for everyone. Yes, the queues can be long - if you are visiting during school holidays and not intending to use a 2-for-1 voucher, then booking in advance is really the best the way to go. For me, the only negative point I can make about our visit was the queue. Everything else was fantastic. It's a little expensive, but this is London and to be expected. My thoughts are that if you don't go once, then you have missed out. The Dungeon is probably one of the best attractions I have visited in London, and I have been to most of them.