Just in time for the Halloween season, a new attraction has opened at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Marc Ricketts takes us on a tour of The San Francisco Dungeon: Take a Walk on the Dark Side. ~~Rick


The San Francisco Dungeon: Take a Walk on the Dark Side
by Marc Ricketts

On our two visits to London, I was always intrigued by the London Dungeon, only to be overruled by my wife. Since we still saw actual dungeons on both trips, I never held too much of a grudge. Apparently tired of waiting for me to come to them, Merlin Entertainment (operators of several Dungeons in Europe as well as Legoland and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museums) opened the first Dungeon on this side of the Atlantic, and it’s right here by the Bay.

So during the first weekend that the San Francisco Dungeon was opened to the public, the boy and I hopped on a historic trolley from Dallas (that Red Car keeps eluding us) and proceeded to local tourist mecca Fisherman’s Wharf. Here among the Golden Gate Bridge napkin holders, Cable Car cruet sets and Alcatraz informal wear we disembarked by the San Francisco Dungeon.


What it is? Perhaps we should start with what it isn’t. It’s not a progression of dank chambers with racks, chains, and a sinister little hunchback with a bucket and a mop. Neither is it a “Haunt” type experience with a risk of Zombification around every corner. And while there are a few visual effects, it is not the kind of walk through experience as envisioned by Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump when they were exploring the possibilities of a walk-through Haunted Mansion. Ultimately the goal here is more of a creepy atmosphere then shock and gore. Small groups are led through a series of scenes from the City’s past as actors bring some of history’s shadiest characters to life. So let’s enter the San Francisco Dungeon and see what lies in wait.


No, there isn’t a McDonald’s inside the Dungeon. I just told you it’s creepy, not scary; try to keep up, this is a walking tour. And when have you ever seen a dungeon on the upper floors? This is getting down below in the real nitty gritty. But first: tickets.


Of course, we had gone online in advance and left full priced tickets to the suckers and tourists. We were cautioned that photos were forbidden, and directed to a stairway leading to a dark chamber with locked doors along one wall that periodically shook from within. A plexiglass case held a rat habitat, but, frankly, rat in your bed is way scarier than rat in a box. It was our last chance for access to plumbing and hey, nobody said anything about photos in the men’s room.


No, I don’t have any photos of the women’s room; it isn’t that creepy. But directly a door opened, and a man beckoned our little group, which had grown to about 20 or so. We found ourselves facing an old wagon of the sort that would be used by a snake oil salesman. This one identified himself as Colonel Jack Gamble. A volunteer was chosen to spin the wheel of misfortune. Now far be it from me to accuse an apparent snake oil salesman as less than reputable, but I think the game was rigged; or else it was just destiny that caused it to land upon “Retribution”!


At this point two things happened. First, the good folks at the SF Dungeon were kind enough to provide us with some photos like the one above. The other was entering a elevator, that seemed rather suspect, for The Descent. Within moments we had plummeted nearly as deep as the Living Seas Hydrolators. Lights flew by and the entire carriage shook with an intensity which will undoubtedly be toned down as soon as the first guest falls.

Awaiting us was Father Francisco Palóu, who was an animated figure rather than an actor. The animation was facial only (he may have a friend named Leota) and he told of how the peace had been shattered by an influx of miners. Suddenly, our peace was shattered by the influx of a miner.

So here’s the deal. There would be a different actor in every scene. A bit of research reveals that most of the characters encountered did actually exist in San Francisco’s past, although I don’t think a visit to the Dungeon qualifies as studying for your AP History Final. We were ultimately released into the Lost Mines of Sutter Creek, a wordy way of saying mirror maze. It wasn’t much of a challenge to find the door with a sign instructing us to wait…until it was flung open by Sam Roberts of the San Francisco Hounds.


That wasn’t the name of a hockey team, but was more of a vigilante group, or kind of a gang; they like torture and ran protection rackets. Sure, that sounds like it may be a hockey team as well, but these guys were more political in nature. After some threats we were led to the courtroom of Judge Alcalde Meade. Trivia tip: in a British court, the defendant stands in the dock. Therefore, if you find yourself in a courtroom beneath Fisherman’s Wharf and a Judge commands “You, in the docks!”, you will not start looking around wondering if a ship is tied up nearby.

A few short trials were held, including a horse stealing case with testimony from the unseen equine. Our band of ruffians managed to avoid the noose, and made our way to Miss Piggott’s Saloon.


Most are probably familiar with the shady aspect of San Francisco’s past that started in this type of establishment, when unwary rubes were shanghaied onto an ocean going vessel after some extra help from unscrupulous bar folk. It turns out that Miss Piggott has sold us down the river, out the Golden Gate and onto the high seas. The arrival of Shanghai Kelly is marked by…dark. This is a primary visual effect here, shutting off the lights, although in this scene there is a bit more to it than that as Kelly arrives and moves about the room (not unlike a furry blue alien, perhaps?). And, yes, we were bound for a boat.


This, friends, is where your humble narrator found that unwelcome combination of great anticipation and supreme disappointment. We had harbored no illusions that this voyage would be the second coming of Jack Sparrow, but expected more than this. After the lights went out, it was dark. Then we were by the hull of a ship. But I guess there are plague worries. After the lights went out, it was dark. Then we were by a dock and disembarked. It felt like we moved, but it was most definitely dark.

Ahhh, the plague. Look, it’s a figure that’s perpetually puking; isn’t that precious? We were led into the next chamber and directed to our seats.


We had discovered earlier that there’s generally a reason when we were directed to our seats; bugs, rats, whatever. We were then told of the horrors of plague, which I was beginning to realize is different than actually feeling threatened by the horrors of the plague (or crazy miners, crooked judges, et al). By then we were off to the Alcatraz finale.



We appear to have travelled through time as well as our new predicament takes place some four decades after the gold rush. A prison tale followed, building to a climax where (all together now) the lights went out.


After some other stuff, the cell opened and we climbed a stairway to exit through aaaaaaaaaaaaaa Gift Shop!




I had forgotten about the green screen photos that we had taken at the beginning of all this that I forgot to write about it at the beginning of all this. Although the young salesman was eager and earnest in his efforts to sell us a booklet of the story of our escape from the Dungeon with photos included for $34.95, he was ultimately unsuccessful.

But the adventure itself was only about 20 bucks when purchased in advance, a fair fare for what is essentially theater. We were entertained by actors with a variety of sets for over an hour, so the Dungeon is a decent value. Ultimately, the success will hinge on the performers.


This is about more than just memorizing lines, for the San Francisco Dungeon is not so much like the Haunted Mansion as the Jungle Cruise. Like those Skippers, the actors here will have to be adept at reading an audience. They are going to see families from Topeka, frat boys from UCLA and Tahitian tour groups with minimal English skills. Their ability to relate to these diverse audiences and draw them into the stories is the key to this attraction rising above the many competitors just out the door. That’s why the best of the bunch was stationed at the door on the first week of operations.


It’s understandable in these early days of operation. He’s the guy that has to engage those passing by and convince them to step inside. If they can put together a good cast, the San Francisco Dungeon will be able to rise above its neighbors. And if not, Merlin still gets their coin if you choose the wax museum next door. Johnny Depp is in the lobby. Obviously showing Johnny is too cliché, so here’s Michael Phelps, one of the best ever at not drowning.



While you’re in the area…

If you need that chowder in a bread bowl, the Boudin Restaurant can be found right across the street.


Sure it may be more crowded than even the Pacific Wharf Café, but they have a bigger selection and faster service. And while there are no Mickey loaves, there are other options.




Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Shark Week Celebration August 9 Through 15
Special presentations and activities at our Shark Experience

• Dive demonstrations on select days
• Learn the importance of sharks
• Early entry for Pass Holders August 9 and 10

Cirque Dreams Splashtastic concludes its season August 17


Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

National Roller Coaster Day
August 16
We’re celebrating National Roller Coaster Day by giving away pins to the first 300 Giant Dipper riders on August 16.

There are two more Friday night concerts. Great White (August 22), and Papa Doo Run Run (August 29). Weekday night discounts end for the summer on August 28.


California’s Great America

Labor Day Weekend celebrating 75 million guests!

Friday and Saturday night fireworks will continue until August 30.

Celebrate Labor Day Weekend and the summer with a bang! This weekend will include giveaways to the first 7,500 guests on Saturday, August 30. There will be 75 lucky random winners each day, Saturday and Sunday. Fireworks on Sunday, August 31, along with a Red, White & BBQ on Monday, September 1.


The 6th Annual Mission City 5K Run and 1 Mile Walk
Saturday, September 6, 2014

Be one of the first to run in the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara? It’s official, the race date is September 6th!

Proceeds benefit education, seniors and veterans within Santa Clara County through the Mission City Community Fund. Registration, prices and other information may be found at www.kpcu.com/run.


Gilroy Gardens

The Octonauts end their summer run August 17

Pony Up! Petting Zoo
Weekends Only — August 23-September 28, plus Labor Day Monday, September 1
Presented by Pony Up! Back again…meet our marvelous mini creatures. Goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits and pigs, all sized just for the little ones. Open 11am – 6pm. Additional charge for Petting Zoo—Adults FREE with paying Child. $5 per Child. (Not included with Membership or Park Admission.) All proceeds go to Pony Up! for the care of the animals.