New SF Attraction: The San Francisco Dungeon

Posted on Jun 20, 2014 in Reviews, Travel |

The San Francisco DungeonI was honored to be invited to a press-only event this week to get a sneak preview of the new attraction opening up June 26, 2014 at the historic Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The San Francisco Dungeon is the first dungeon attraction in the United States, continuing the scary fun reputation of the Dungeon attractions in Amsterdam, Berlin, and across the UK.  This attraction is operated by Merlin Entertainment, the company who runs the Madame Tussauds Wax Museums around the world (also opening a new SF location next door).  From their press release:

The San Francisco Dungeon is an entertaining, 60-minute theatrical trip through outrageous moments in the Bay Area’s rich 200 year-old history where the audience is part of the show. The Dungeon originated in London, expanded into Europe and will open its first-ever North American location in historic Fisherman’s Wharf. This attraction introduces immersive sets, along with a regaling cast that will captivate audiences with their edgy humor and scary, fun antics.

SF Dungeon Press PreviewI didn’t quite know what to expect before venturing into The San Francisco Dungeon.  It’s promoted with the tag line “Being scared has never been so much fun!”.  Now, despite my fascination with all things haunted, true crime, forensics, and the like… I’m a wimp.  I get startled very easily, don’t like haunted houses or thrill rides, and can’t watch scary movies.  Yet I’ll sit for hours in front of nonfiction shows regarding true ghost stories and haunted locations (true “nonfiction” if you believe, I guess, but just go with me).  So I when I was invited, I asked if I could bring a friend… I had a feeling I’d need some moral support!

The Experience

My BFF since 4th grade Rachel came with me, and I’m glad she did.  I knew she’d be able to take the day off (she has a lot of PT time banked) and that she would enjoy it.  We definitely did!  Visitors to The San Francisco Dungeon will travel below through nine live actor shows, which are very scripted to keep the flow of the groups moving.  Groups of victims (guests) will be sent through in 8 minute intervals throughout the day, very similar to a haunted house to allow for maximum traffic but more staggered so they have unique experiences that don’t run into groups behind or ahead of their group.  Each live actor show lasts for approximately 5 minutes with the whole experience taking about an hour, which includes the dark boat ride.  The press preview we attended was a shortened version that did not include the boat ride, but I can’t wait to go back and check that out!

I was impressed that there were very few animatronic elements.  I could only pinpoint a couple, and one was so good I’m still not 100% sure if it was an actor or a projection onto a blank faced dummy (like the singing ghosts in The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland).

An introduction to retribution

You’re probably wondering if I was scared, screaming, crying, or worse by the end of our 30 minute preview.  Not at all!  It was a ton of fun – especially having a friend there with me.  It certainly was a dark vibe, not a friendly cheery experience, but a lot of fun in a way that I don’t find most “scary” attractions fun.  This was definitely scary fun!  Throughout the different scenes there is some audience participation, which is designed in such a way that the actors can roll with any punches that may come from unpredictable guests, but the show is still highly scripted to keep the group moving.  The artistic director for The San Francisco Dungeon, Kieron Smith, told me that keeping the groups moving is one of the more unique challenges to an attraction like this that a traditional theatrical show or even a haunted house wouldn’t experience.  A lot of the “scary” portions are more startling than scary.  The actors use a lot of lighting effects to their advantage to get a good amount of misdirection to startle guests.

The History

Sam Roberts, leader of the Hounds, administers justiceWhat makes this attraction different from an haunted house is that scaring you isn’t really their goal.  They’re also whipping some education at you.  The shows cover actual history – 200 years of San Francisco and California history is the through line of the shows.  Some of the shows include history of the gold rush, gangs of San Francisco, the mines of Sutter’s Creek, shanghai’d visitors, the plague, and finally the ghost of Alcatraz.  The general manager, Adrea Gibbs, is a California native, and like most of us natives, remembers going through the California history portions of 4th and 5th grade.  She emphasized that this attraction is very true to history – lots of research was done to make the script both entertaining, startling, and accurate.  Even the costumes and sets were heavily researched to ensure accuracy.  Speaking of the sets, they were incredibly detailed and very impressive considering they only started building this elaborate underground history attraction back in February!  At the end of the journey, like any good attraction, you exit through a gift shop – where there are lots of fun souvenirs and you can buy a map to visit the actual places referenced in the show.  How’s THAT for living history?

Behind the Scenes

We were fortunate to have a Q&A session with the general manager Adrea Gibbs and the artistic director Kieron Smith where they answered some more detailed questions.  I had a long list prepared, but some were asked before I had the chance and some were answered naturally while they answered other related questions.   Having a degree in Theatre Arts myself, I was very interested in a lot of the technical aspects of this kind of 360° theatrical experience, and I was certainly not disappointed in the answers.  What I would give for a full behind-the-scenes tour of the place!  Some fun facts that came from the Q&A session:

  • Why not New York or another US city for the first United States Dungeon attraction?  The stories and rich history of the Bay Area and California just lend themselves beautifully to an attraction, with the kinds of stories they knew work in the European Dungeon attractions, like gangs, plague, and other seedy stories.

“I’m mean, it’s nice to know that things like plague and torture are actually universal!” – Adrea Gibbs, General Manager

  • Fisherman’s Wharf was a natural fit for the location, being a hub of tourism AND right on the Barbary Coast, so the attraction is where the history happened.Give 'em a fair trial & hang 'em high!
  • The individual shows within the attraction aren’t likely to change any time soon.  There’s the possibility for seasonal shows (hello Halloween!) or changing some of the core shows in a couple of years.  With the company of 36 actors, victims (guests) are very likely to have unique experiences every time they come to the attraction.
  • This is an ideal attraction for teens and families looking for a fun and adventurous thing to do, while secretly learning about California history!
  • All the wood used in the attraction was reclaimed from a former Japanese internment camp in Arizona.  Nice to turn something that was not a great part of American history into something positive and fun.
  • Very little is improvised; it’s mostly very set scripts to keep the crowd going and moving along so groups don’t run into each other.

The Price & Accessibility

As far as tourist attractions go, and theatrical productions go, The San Francisco Dungeon is a very reasonable $26.  The opening day is June 26th, and you can actually save up to $7 off per person if you buy tickets online in advance.  Madame Tussauds is right next door, and you can even upgrade to a combo ticket for both attractions and save up to $10 and get more bang for your buck.  There’s plenty of places that are inexpensive to eat at in the area, namely my favorite clam chowder in the world, Boudin’s, right across the street!

The attraction is mostly ADA compliant, however any guests who wish to participate in the boat ride will need to be able to get themselves in and out of the boat without assistance.  As a word of warning, there are some jarring movements and strobe lights used in the production, so there is a warning posted at the beginning of the attraction stating that strobe lights are used and advising anyone with back issues or are pregnant to proceed with caution/at their own risk.  The tour is not guided by any cast member, instead the crowd is more ushered along by the script and cast, so there would not be an opportunity to know when the strobes are coming to skip just those parts.

Verdict: Visit The San Francisco Dungeon!

It was tremendous fun and a very unique attraction.  I will definitely be checking this out with my friends at some point to experience the entire 60+ minute tour through 200 years of history!  They also will be having Halloween events October 3 – November 2 and even Christmas events November 28 – December 28!  The San Francisco Dungeon is located at 145 Jefferson St., in between the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and the Rainforest Cafe.