New attraction is anything but Thame!
The history of one of the world’s most famous landmarks takes on a sinister twist at the London Bridge Experience and London Tombs – the newest attraction to hit central London. Rowan McIntyre visited ahead of the Easter holidays …and returned to tell the tale.
According to its owners, contractors unearthed genuine human remains when building work started on the attraction in the abandoned arches of the old London Bridge by the River Thames. From this moment on, the worlds of reality and fantasy came crashing together, confirming that they have chosen the right location for this thrilling new £2 million (E2.6m) visitor experience.
“The idea had been brewing ever since my brother visited similar attractions in America, particularly Silo X in St Louis,” explains nightclub entrepreneur Danny Scriven, who developed the London Bridge Experience and London Tombs together with his brother Lee.
“We’d seen the London Bridge location about a year previously but at the time couldn’t come up with a suitable idea for the strange shape of the site. Soon it all clicked. Once we started construction and found the bones, we couldn’t believe it! We called the police in and it seems they are from an ancient burial site for plague victims, we now have to rebury them in the consecrated ground of the adjacent Southwark Cathedral.”
The original plan was for the London Tombs, a standalone haunted attraction in the basement of the site, while the upstairs was earmarked as a restaurant space, but the more the brothers learned about the rich history of the bridge, the more they became convinced that there was a second attraction to be developed.
It is the resulting London Bridge Experience that now the forms the headline attraction and, while it will always be the Tombs that provide the biggest frights, the upstairs has its own share of thrills and surprises.
Visitors enter from the street straight into the ticket office and holding area where they l queue until the start of the next available tour. While waiting they watch a short pre-show video from “the Queen” (played by look-a-like).
The entire experience is controlled and paced by a number of character actors and it is one of these, playing the butler Sir John Rennie – the architect of the 1831 bridge – who starts the ball rolling. The group is addressed by a ghostly CGI portrait of Rennie, who introduces a brief history of the various bridges that have occupied the site (including the version famously transplanted to America) and sets the tone for what is to follow.
The group follows the single path through the attraction to be greeted a each stage by either more CGI animations or real actors expounding on each stage of the bridges’ lives, from the battles between the Romans and British Queen Boudicca, through Viking attacks, an encounter with the spirit of William Wallace (of Braveheart fame, whose head was displayed on a spike on the bridge to deter traitors) and Dickensian London, before finishing with a final message from the Queen.
Members of the group are then given the choice whether they want to continue on to the London Tombs, or visit the gift shop and café bar. Those who choose the former should be warned that it is not for the fainthearted. Visitors are provided with hard hats and fluorescent jackets to reinforce the loose storyline that revolves around spooky goings-on in an underground building site.
Once in the tombs, and after several warnings about weak hearts and strobe lighting, the real scary stuff begins. The path winds around various macabre models and (hopefully) imitation skeletons, but the truly heart-stopping moments come when the actors enter the fray, dressed and made us as zombie types, cackling and screaming maniacally as they follow the group through the practically pitch black labyrinth of tunnels, picked out occasionally by flashing lights or a dimly coloured spot.
The path travels through several more number of themed areas, such as the Spider’s Nest, the Dark Catacombs and the Root Maze – although it is likely these will be lost on many visitors as they will be preoccupied with impeding zombie attack.
While there are some well-placed and interesting animatronics in the Tombs, the fright level of the experience is really driven by the actors, and the same is true for the enjoyment level of the London Bridge Experience – a fact not lost on Scriven.
“We’re very lucky to have an really good team of actors,” he says. “After an initial stage of castings it was quite clear that we had a couple of great actors who also showed excellent management potential, so we ended up giving them free rein to bring in the other members of the cast. I think they enjoyed that, and giving our staff responsibility is a key aspect of the way we like to run things. It helps to build a good team spirit, which is what I like to think we have here, from the management right down to the cleaners.”
While at the time of writing both parts of the attraction were still at the very early stages of launch, it is quite clear that the Scriven brothers have created an unusual and well-balanced experience.
“It’s hard to compare to any existing attraction,” admits Larry Kirchner of Halloween Productions, the US-based haunted attraction specialist that worked on much of the content. “This is because on one hand it’s a high-end haunted house, but on the other it mixes live action with history, so it’s more like the Tombstone Ghost and Legends attraction we built in Arizona. When you go through the attraction, you learn much about the history of the bridge. When we were making it, I learned more about the bridge than I realised had ever happened – its history is very rich.”
It’s the educational aspect of the attraction that Scriven hopes will help drive people to the London Bridge Experience, with school trips and foreign student packages a large potential market.
“We’ve tried to offer an educational element and provide an experience that will appeal to all ages,” he says. “They’re both family attractions. Obviously younger children may not appreciate downstairs so much, and we recommend that under 11s don’t go there, but we’ll leave it up to the parent as well – if they really think their children can handle it, then it’s up to them.”
But educational pull alone will not be enough to help the
attraction’s owners achieve their projection of 300,000 visitors (a realistic figure) in the first year. There has already been some fairly extensive promotion, with the attraction receiving national and international media coverage. There is more to come and, given the unusual nature of the site, it is only fitting that the marketing should be slightly unconventional.
“We’ve spent a lot on the traditional channels already, but guerrilla marketing is our speciality,” explains Scriven. “We’ll be doing a lot of street theatre, sending some of the actors out into the local area to scare up a bit of business, so to speak. We’ve picked up some really good props, like a hearse and a handcart that we can pile up with dead bodies to help spread the word of mouth.”
The new attraction will no doubt be helped by the rich vein of tourist attractions in the immediate area, such as Vinopolis, HMS Belfast and the similarly macabre London Dungeon and Clink Prison. Certainly, Scriven sees this as an advantage rather than competition: “If the London Dungeon were to close tomorrow, we wouldn’t be happy,” he claims. “It’s all part of what helps bring people to the area. I think they complement us and we complement them. If you go to the London Dungeon and it’s not scary enough, then we are just around the corner!”
Jack is back!
Merlin Entertainments’ flagship London Dungeon has been operating close to London Bridge station – just a stone’s throw away from the new London Bridge Experience – since 1975, and now attracts nearly three-quarters of a million guests a year. To keep its new competitors on their toes, the Dungeon this spring unveils a £300,000 redevelopment of its Jack the Ripper show.
A scarier and more intense experience than before is taken in the form of a guided tour given by a policeman investigating the Whitehall murders. The Ripper’s crimes are described in brutal detail, and guests get a glimpse of the victim’s bodies.
The torturous journey ends in the eerie Ten Bells pub. The landlord here is beside himself with terror and rage – he anticipates that the killer will strike again soon. Suddenly the lights flicker, a bloodcurdling scream can be heard and Jack himself can be seen.
Jack the Ripper opened before Easter and joins a line-up of existing London Dungeon attractions including the Great Fire of London and Extremis drop tower. According to a Dungeon spokeperson, all are entertaining yet historically accurate: “Otherwise we’d just be doing a Pasaje del Terror!”