Charles Dickens has a great laugh. Photo: tibchris

DICKENS WORLD IS in an outlet mall in Chatham, not far from London. Sabine read a newspaper article about it. “Sounds terrible,” I say. “Yeah,” she agrees. We take the next train to Chatham.

At the station, we ask the guy at the ticket counter for directions. He doesn’t know what we’re talking about. Luckily, Sab remembers from the article that we have to take a bus to the outlet mall: a collection of huge white hangars that could contain anything. Porn studios. Illegal immigrants from Algeria. A theme park inspired by the literary accomplishments of Charles Dickens.

You enter by way of the gift shop. Past the Dickens World coffee mugs and fake quill pens. The Dickens World t-shirt features a picture of Oliver Twist as a Macaulay Culkin look-alike with grease paint smudges on his cheeks. He’s holding out a big white bowl and is about to deliver his trademark line: “Please sir, I want some more.”

In the book, of course, Oliver doesn’t get more. But at Dickens World, for 12-pounds 50, you can get as much Dickens as you want.

Dickens World isn’t really a theme park. It’s more like a theme mall the size of a Super Walmart with a food court at the center (note to Dickens World: the Sausage, Mash, and Peas with Onion Gravy makes sense, but Chili Con Carne?). Various attractions radiate off in all directions.

I suggest to Sab that we check out the haunted house first. Behind a door is an endlessly long corridor. We figure this is part of the attraction, and keep looking behind us expecting to be chased by Jack the Ripper or some street urchins.

We later realize the entrance corridor is so long because the people who designed the place were expecting big crowds, and this is a kind of holding area. “Crowd folding,” the experts call it, which in Dickens’ day would have probably been literal and violent but is now accomplished with long, winding corridors. Only, there aren’t any crowds to fold. Just an empty hallway and, in the far distance, a family of Japanese tourists.

The corridor ends at a bedroom. There’s a bed. A fake fireplace. We stand there for a while. Nothing happens. Just as we’re walking away, a hidden video projector kicks in, projecting an image of Ebenezer Scrooge onto a sheet of plexiglass that’s positioned in front of the bedroom furniture. What follows is the entire “Christmas Carol,” complete with a dramatic voice-over, all three ghosts, and assorted audio effects.

The Japanese tourists catch up with us just as the Ghost of Christmas Past materializes. They stand there for 10 seconds, then walk away. We don’t last much longer. This is when we begin to suspect that translating Victorian-era social novels into a tourist attraction may not be such a great idea.

“Let’s check out the boat ride,” I suggest. “Okay,” Sabine agrees.

“Look,” Sab says, pointing. “The fourth dimension.”

A miniature River Thames loops through Dickens World, complete with little boats you can ride. But we can’t figure out where to catch the boats and there’s no one around to ask. Occasionally, we catch sight of someone in the distance dressed like a Victorian prostitute or a pickpocket, but they hurry away before we can ask for directions.

Dickens World may be the size of a Walmart, but it’s also a maze of fake Victorian hovels and storefronts, and instead of the boats, we find ourselves at the movie theater.

    “Do you want to watch a movie?” a wenchily dressed lass asks us. We stand there awkwardly.
    “What’s it about?” Sab finally asks.
    “It’s a 4-D cinematic presentation of the life of Charles Dickens from age 30 until his death.”
    “4-D?”
    “Yeah, you wear these glasses,” the girl says, holding out a basket of 3-D glasses.
    “What’s the fourth dimension?”
    “There’s a simulated wind effect,” she says.
    “The fourth dimension is wind?” I ask. She nods.

The cinema is big enough to seat a hundred people, but we have it to ourselves. There are two industrial-sized fans mounted on the ceiling behind us. “Look,” Sab says, pointing. “The fourth dimension.”

It turns out that several parts of Charles Dickens’ life story are very four-dimensional, including his stormy sea voyage to the United States for a reading tour and a train wreck he experienced back in England.

Photo: llamnudds

But even with the 3-D specs and the fans running full blast, the movie is pretty slow. Sab and I leave before it ends, more determined than ever to find the boat ride.

We come across an old guy dressed in a red velvet suit and a top hat holding a cane. When he sees us, he spins around and walks in the opposite direction. But he’s too slow and we catch up to him.

I figure I’ll have to shake him by his lapels and demand that he tell us how to find the boat ride, but he gives us the info without too much trouble.

We walk briskly past a sign that says “30 minute wait from this point,” then past another that says “15 minute wait from this point.” Since there’s no line, we keep walking, and soon enough, we arrive at the boat dock. Another wenchily dressed lady is standing there.

    “Ahhrr!” she screams. Sab and I stop in our tracks. The wench looks at us. A moment or two passes.
    “Right, then, get in the boat,” the wench commands. We climb aboard.
    “Are you Dutch?” she asks us.
    “No. We’re American,” I reply.
    “Figures,” she says. “Oh! Look! There’s a rat!” she screams.
    Then she reaches into the water and splashes us.
“Some good old fashioned Victorian street performance. Very Dickensian.”

The boat ride is a Dickensian version of Disneyland’s “Small World” ride: instead of animatronic children from all over the world, animatronic homeless guys sing drunkenly from the shadows.

When it’s over, we make our way back to the big, echoey food court called “Downtown London.” The Japanese tourists are there, watching a woman spinning a dwarf around by his hands.

“This is more like it,” I say to Sab, hurrying ahead. “Some good old fashioned Victorian street performance. Very Dickensian.”

When we get closer, we realize it’s not a street performance but another visitor, a mother, spinning her toddler around by his hands. The few paying customers are gathered around, enjoying the show.

You want to visit? Really?

* Here’s the website: www.dickensworld.co.uk

* Probably the easiest way to get to Dickens World is by car. Chatham is about 40 miles from Central London. It’s located in Chatham Maritime, “easily accessible,” the website claims, “by the Medway tunnel via the M2 (A2) and the A289.”

We took the train from London to Chatham. You can get train info at the National Rail website. London St. Pancras to Chatham takes about 40 minutes.

Once you’re at Chatham, you can take a cab to Dickens World, or a bus. The website says “the Dockside bus service runs every 10 minutes via Chatham and Rochester town centres.” If you decide to walk from the train station, keep in mind that it’s really far and you’ll probably get lost in the wilds of Kent.

* The place ain’t free: £13 for adults, £8 for kids. You can buy tix online.

* Here are the hours: Monday-Sunday [sic], 10am-4.30pm (last admission 3pm)
. Closed on Mondays from September 2011 – Easter 2012. Saturdays, Sundays, Bank Holidays & Kent School Holidays, 
10am-5.30pm (last admission 4pm)

. Closed Christmas Day and selected dates for Routine Maintenance.