San Francisco

San Francisco Dungeon Gets the Drop on Entertainment

After a $2 million upgrade and a year of hard labor, San Francisco’s newest tourist attraction is up — and down.

Two floors exactly.

The San Francisco Dungeon, a haunted house-like attraction on Fisherman’s Wharf that uses the city’s sordid past as its theme, recently opened its new star feature — a two-story drop meant to emulate an escape from Alcatraz.

“You’ll drop right from the very top to the bottom,” said Michael Clarkson, the Dungeon’s marketing director. “It’s a real gut-wrenching drop as if you jump from the rock itself.”

The plummeting is actually done in a row of secured seating — like a theme park ride. You’re winched up a floor as sirens blare and strobe lights blink, and then everything goes pitch black as you drop two floors, landing six feet below sea level.

“The story is prisoner 13 is escaping and he’s going to escape with you,” Clarkson said.

Guy With Knife
Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
An actor inside the San Francisco Dungeon gives a demonstration of the preferred surgery technique for typhoid.

The work to construct the ride took a year to complete. Parent company Merlin Entertainment knocked out walls and expanded into the basement below the themed rooms where actors portray spooky characters based on the city’s Barbary Coast days.

During its days as a prison, 36 men escaped from Alcatraz — though only five got away. Everyone escaping “the rock” in the San Francisco Dungeon is expected to survive with a more than good chance of going home.

“There’s some surprises,” said Andy Koh, who was visiting from Singapore. “Like some sudden sounds, some sudden movements.”

Tucked in between the Rainforest Cafe and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the San Francisco Dungeon is in its kitschy element on Fisherman’s Wharf. Across the street, bakers in the Boudin Bakery form sourdough loaves under the watchful eyes of tourists as nearby fishmongers crack fresh Dungeness crab for masses of visitors.

The Dungeon opened two years ago as a darkly macabre spin on history with actors playing the roles of shady madams, crazed doctors and gritty prison wardens with references to days of shanghaiing and typhoid plagues. The subject matter is intentionally gory mixed with a healthy dose of humor.

“We go to all the gritty, bloody bits that might be a little grisly and a little bit dark,” Clarkson said. “But they’re actually the fun bits, the ones in history class that everyone was interested in.”

Guy With Knife
Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
An actor inside the San Francisco Dungeon gives a demonstration of the preferred surgery technique for typhoid.

The hour-long attraction is a world away from the bobbing fishing boats and seafood businesses outside its doors. But it’s even further from the world outside San Francisco.

“Nothing to do with roads or politicians,” Clarkson laughed.

Young visitor Lu Xiang Cheng emerged from the darkness of the Dungeon’s harrowing hallways, landing in the gift shop where shelves pedaled $6.99 shot glasses.

“Quite scary,” Cheng said, summarizing his visit.

But pressed about whether it was the good kind of scary or bad — he answered without pause: “Good scary.”

A good scare-the-tar-out-of me adventure in the Dungeon will cost about $15.

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