One amazing day: A record crowd of 38,000

The Dome: Suddenly, the doomed white elephant is packed with visitors and its French boss is winning over many Britons. What's happened?
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The Independent Online

Pity, if you can, the organisers of the Millennium Dome, because they are destined to be always in the wrong. Ever since the ill-starred exhibition opened they have been castigated for failing to attract enough visitors. Now, only two months before it closes, the number of people going to the site in Greenwich, south-east London, has reached record proportions - and the organisers are being castigated for failing to form proper queues.

Pity, if you can, the organisers of the Millennium Dome, because they are destined to be always in the wrong. Ever since the ill-starred exhibition opened they have been castigated for failing to attract enough visitors. Now, only two months before it closes, the number of people going to the site in Greenwich, south-east London, has reached record proportions - and the organisers are being castigated for failing to form proper queues.

Half-term has sent visitors flocking to the Dome in numbers that have never been seen before. The New Millennium Experience Company, which runs the attraction, believes it is on target to reach the now "realistic" revised target of six million by the end of the year - albeit half the original figure.

Expect a "Save the Dome" campaign to be launched any day now, plus, of course, a burst of enthusiasm for the project by hitherto sceptical politicians.

In a total reversal of the original policy of only revealing visitor figures on a monthly basis, a spokesman said that last weekend 101,000 people went through the doors, including a record 38,300 on Monday. An estimated 35,000 went on Tuesday and yesterday was reckoned to be equally busy.

Back in the heady days before the "giant cowpat" - Prince Charles's words - opened, the talk was of 35,000 people every day. It has taken 296 days but they have finally achieved that not just once but three times this half-term week - and it is not over yet.

The Dome spokesman said the half-term holiday was an obvious factor in the surge of visitors but added that the rise in numbers also coincided with a radio advertising campaign pointing out that the giant tent would be closed in just over two months. "If you don't go you'll never know," it says.

"The trains are packed in the mornings and there are just hordes of people carrying their little Dome bags," said the spokesman. "But there are no queues to get in and the queues inside are manageable. That was one of the first things PY [Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, the chief executive] did and he is very good at minimising the queues by giving people timed tickets and bringing in hosts to manage the queues. Where there are queues they are moving fluidly because of the new systems."

Those inside the Dome yesterday disagreed with this blithe dismissal. Again and again the refrain was the same: the queues were awful and people were not able to see as much as they would have liked because there were too many people. But with typical British stoicism, everyone added they were glad they had come even if they had not managed to see everything.

Ruth and Brian Broad and their son Damien, of Ipswich in Suffolk, had booked their special price tickets in advance but still had to wait 90 minutes before they were allowed in. When they finally entered at midday they were given a timed ticket for the Body Zone at 6.20pm. "It's very unlikely we'll still be here by then,"Mr Broad said. "The queues have just been so long. We are pleased we came but we haven't seen much."

Sue Cartridge and her daughter Sarah, 14, and son Steven, 12, of Worcester, were already winding their way round the queue for the Body Zone. "We always wanted to come and half-term seemed like a good time. I don't mind the queues - they are moving," she said.

Sarah was less impressed. "It's very busy; it's a waste of money and it's badly organised," she said. "We started off in one queue and then were told we were queuing in the wrong direction and had to start again. But I am glad we came before they ripped it down."

Kim Moore and her husband, Richard, had not seen many of the zones because of the long queues and their daughter Eloise, six, was already exhausted. "It's no good with all these children. I wish we had been able to come last week before all the crowds," Mrs Moore said. "I'm glad I've seen it and I think it would be good if there weren't all the queues but we haven't managed to do anything."

Perhaps they should have followed Neil Bixby's lead. He and his family simply joined the shortest queue without bothering to find out what it was for.

The visitor figures should be music to the organisers' ears, but instead they are likely to spend the next few days fending off more criticism about the lengthy waiting times rather than being able to crow about the crowds.

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