WESTON-SUPER-MARE, England — The princess is slumped lifeless in her upturned vehicle; her body illuminated in the darkness by a thousand paparazzi flashes.
This life-size crime scene replica features Cinderella in place of Princess Diana; her devastated carriage was driven by two white horses, not a pastis-soaked chauffeur, but the photographers are the same.
Crouched too close to the disaster, they snap away endlessly even though their subject is still, frozen in time.
He doesn’t quite deliver that, but standing among the model cameramen with a horde of visitors taking their own photographs, you are given a disarming glimpse of the horrific scene inside that Parisian Pont d’Alma tunnel.
Much like the rest of the “Bemusement Park,” it’s bloody depressing.
“This is not your average sugar-coated fantasyland selling scrapings from the Hollywood floor. No, we couldn’t afford the license for that,” explains Banksy. “The fairytale is over, the world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe, maybe all that escapism will have to wait.”
And that’s just page one of the program.
Don’t all rush at once, folks.
On Dismaland’s first day Friday, the rush actually started at 9 p.m. the night before. At the front were Tallulah Belle and Jo Burgon, two of the town’s tattoo artists. They had followed the construction of the secret site avidly, regularly going down to the seafront to try figure out what was being built inside.
As rumors swirled, they would repeat to each other: “Please be Banksy! Please be Banksy!”
Their wish came true, and after sleeping out all night to secure the first glimpse of the theme park parody, they plan to celebrate the arrival of the six-week show by offering a range of Banksy-inspired tattoos at their Silver Lining parlor on High Street.
Dismaland is certainly the talk of the town. “Last time Weston was in the news, our pier had burnt down,” said one local.
The theme park has been built on the crumbling, abandoned site of the Tropicana, which was Europe’s largest outdoor pool, complete with the continent’s tallest diving board, when it opened in 1937. Its gradual decline turned to decay once it closed down completely in the year 2000.
Banksy’s project seems to have generated some genuine local optimism in one of England’s many dilapidated seaside towns. Admittedly, the next-best rides on the beach are being offered by a set of weary donkeys.
There’s not much sign of optimism inside, however.
Seconds after walking through the gates, one of the stewards dressed in Mickey Mouse ears and a high-viz vest approaches to whisper: “Rubbish, isn’t it? Just shit.”
A distorted seafront ditty, reminiscent of the organ music at the ballpark, offers an uncomfortable soundtrack as dark, foreboding clouds gather overhead.
There is a miniature boating lake containing vessels that brim with gaunt refugees.
A child tried to control one with the steering wheels and levers on the side of the attraction but there was no response from the boats. “It doesn’t work,” explained his big brother. “This place is supposed to be depressing.”
Most things do work; you can hook a ducky from the pond, except the yellow plastic birds are all smeared and blackened with oil.
The carousel is spinning magnificently but one of the horses cannot be ridden by the children lining up to have a go because it’s hanging by its back legs above the blood-spattered model of a slaughterman who is clutching a machete.
Recalling a recent scandal that found traces of horsemeat in British TV dinners, he is sitting on boxes marked “lasagne.”
If that wasn’t enough, the Museum of Cruel Objects contains a set of “scissor stun tongs” and video of them being used to brutally slaughter sheep and pigs in an abattoir.
Also, inside the museum is an anti-sitting bench, an exaggerated version of a new breed of urban street furniture designed to dissuade the elderly, homeless, and young from loitering for too long.
“Made of steel,” the description begins. “Cold in winter, hot in summer. Slippery and buttock-numbing. Discourages long sitting. Arm rest dividers block lying across bench by homeless or tired people.”
But don’t worry, kids, once you’ve passed a genuine Colombian socialist offering to sign you up to the Independent Workers Union “if you hate your boss,” there’s a puppet show to enjoy.
It’s a retelling of the traditional British “Punch and Judy” shows, which feature a hand-puppet husband-and-wife team whacking each other with squeaky rubber batons.
Good day to you my audienceYou seem a smashing bunchLet me introduce myselfMy name is Mr. Punch.
This is more like it.
I’m part of your folk historyLike saucy Jack the Ripper.We’re both a lovely bit of funLike beating up a stripper!
Of course—it’s a politically correct version of the children’s show. It ends with Judy collapsing unconscious, the victim of horrific domestic violence.
Despite the heavy-handed political posturing, the park is teeming with children.
“It does look weird at first,” said Esme Busditt, 12. “But then you get into it and it’s really fun.” She was clutching a black helium balloon that reads: “I am an imbecile.”
Her dad, Steve, 44, remembers coming to the Tropicana in its heyday. “There was a kind of pineapple that you climbed up and went down a slide,” he said. “My one memory of this place is getting to the bottom and a boy asking if I wanted a fight. I was standing there in my little trunks.
“So this is the same, really, a mix of excitement and trepidation.”
A set of interconnected galleries show off an array of hectoring art about climate change and a huge, stunning miniature village populated only by members of the emergency services and their blue flashing lights.
The post-apocalyptic scene captures the aftermath of an outbreak of civil disobedience with police and the media as the only survivors.
Back outside, and half-submerged by the remains of the pool, is a police riot van that has been transformed into a fountain, spraying water rather than tear gas.
Opposite the truck, which was built to patrol the troubled streets of Northern Ireland, stands the original fountain, its top cracked, covered in lichen, and tilted forlornly towards the decrepit Disney castle that contains the unsettling ode to Princess Diana.
Demand to get inside the park is such that the website, which was built to sell the $5 tickets, crashed so comprehensively that it has been shut until next Tuesday.
“Due to unprecedented demand the U.K.’s most disappointing new visitor attraction is currently unable to process online ticket sales,” organizers announced.
Tickets for Massive Attack’s highly anticipated performance haven’t even gone on sale yet, and the Friday night comedy and music shows promise much.
This maudlin party may well have brightened up Weston’s struggling seafront and Banksy fans will continue to surge through the gates; just don’t expect too much fun.
Burgon giggled as she walked back up to me. “I just got told off for laughing.”