A Fresh Look at Old Favourites: The London Dungeon

Image credit: London Dungeon

We work with some of the UK’s greatest venues – but we tend to only see them (professionally) when they’re in need of transformation.

In this series, we want to take a look at some of London’s favourite heritage venues – and see whether their customer experience lives up to the high expectations of visiting tourists and Londoners alike.

The London Dungeon has a 40-year history in the city, but took up its current position as part of Merlin’s Southbank line up in 2013. With a tongue-in-cheek online presence, the attraction describes itself as a visit to the ‘bad old days of the capital’s most perilous past’.

Full disclosure: we did have a good time once we were in, but the admission process was so convoluted that it was almost impossible to truly win us back again. Anyone planning to buy a ticket on arrival is in for a nasty surprise (as promised). The first impression of the Dungeons is an incomprehensible queuing system with a lot of confused huddles and no-one to direct us.

We join a queue for the ticket desks, discovering when we arrive that there are self-service machines available. These machines, as well as a screen promising “Fast Track” tickets are redundant by this point in the journey but which would have been appreciated further up the queue.

The next show is in an hour and a half away. There is a sign at the front with this information, but as an unmanned piece of communication, it gives us (and everyone else) a case of the “what-ifs” and so we’re still surprised to find this out as we eventually arrive at the ticket desk.

The inevitable “where can we go for an hour” conversation is likely the cause of the queue. If a host had been stationed out front we might feel more in control as we hand over our cash and prepare for (what feels like) a delay in our busy entertainment schedule.

Once we’re admitted with our timed ticket, we’re hosted in a dark corridor with some atmospheric chains and props – with no idea whether the experience has started already or when it might begin. We couldn’t help but feel frustrated by this, however the children seemed occupied enough by the rattling doors and peep holes. By the time we’re called through for a souvenir photo, we’re not invested enough in the experience to enjoy taking a picture – and we’re sure the photographer can tell.

Our group eventually embarks on our adventure through the Dungeons. Once we get going, the Dungeons reveal a slick production, moving groups from one story set to another. We travel through London’s history – from Guy Fawkes to Jack the Ripper via the plague and the Great Fire. We take a fictional detour via Sweeny Todd but it all adheres to a consistent level of grungy staging and fun, inclusive theatrics. Special and gruesome touches included seat rippling to mimic escaped leeches and a close-shave encounter using puffs of air to put guests on edge.

There’s about 30 of us altogether, including several family groups and two actual babies. The experience isn’t moderated for little ones and we’re unsure whether parents are given the right advice about the level of “horror immersion” when buying tickets or browsing online.  One couple and their small child find an exit route half way through the experience.

Actors are engaging and well-scripted, and audience participation is balanced between passive scares and active speaking roles. The same member of the audience was selected to participate in the production throughout our tour, which provided much laughter. The sets are immersive, though the transitions between stories don’t leave much time for surprise encounters. There are two rides included on the journey (one was out of order for our visit).

The whole experience is hosted and the total time in the Dungeons is circa an hour and half. One of the more recent innovations is the addition of a London Pub at the end of the experience (just after a small gift shop selling relevant branded gifts and scary souvenirs). This gives guests a chance to reflect on their encounters and includes more interactions with back-street characters from London’s underworld.

As a way to increase secondary spend, the pub is a stellar idea. We just wonder whether it could be introduced at the beginning of the experience to better manage expectations and prevent so much passive time spent in the queue. By the end of the tour you feel ready to leave and enter the normal world again, so introducing this at the start could be a great way to get guests in the mood.

Theme-park style souvenir photos are available, for a price (£15). The cost for two adults (£30) and two children (£24) with just one of the three pictures taken would add up to a pricey family afternoon (£123). A souvenir ticket would have been a nice touch, and might have made the enterprise feel less transactional.

With various tickets available for groups, stag dos, engagement tours (!) and work parties, navigating the pricing hierarchy is tricky and the price would inhibit most parents from considering the Dungeons as a destination for a birthday party. This leaves tourists – and we didn’t see any efforts to translate the content into other languages. There was actually a woman in our group translating aloud to her children.

The website is well designed and goes into great detail about each story on the experience. The level of detail feels like spoilers – so guests aren’t likely to read accompanying ‘scare factor’ rating before they arrive.

There is a small amount of digital integration into the overall experience but only at a production level. Social media isn’t given a nod – because a selfie opportunity would compromise the souvenir photo offer. In fact, there’s no photography allowed throughout.

To the dungeons credit, when you’re going through the various sets and stages, you don’t feel like one of thousands of people coming through the doors – but we’re spat out from the pub into Merlin’s vast (and bright!) ticket hall concourse, a reminder of the massive operation that takes place here every day. On reflection, we had a good time at The London Dungeon. But when people asked us about our trip, the experience up-front really was our lasting memory.

Customer Experience Scoreboard

  • Brand Presence 7/10 (All sets, scripts and stages felt on-brand and consistent)
  • Intuitive Journey 7/10 (Hosted once inside, but ticket journey is anything but intuitive.)
  • Engaging Perspectives 7/10 (Some interesting stories shared about London’s gruesome past)
  • Digital Integration 3/10 (Hardly any)
  • Instagram Moments 0 (None)
  • Shop 4/10 (Appropriately stocked with grisly souvenirs but a super-small footprint. The website denies its existence)
  • Café 6.5/10 (The pub is the only place for refreshments. A nice idea and well realised)
  • Go-back-ability 4/10 (Fun experience but no return ticket communicated)
  • Overall 5.5/10

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