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The countdown begins...;Millennium

Will a trip to the Millennium Dome be more than a just spectacular day out? Lord Puttnam, 'Godfather' of the Work and Learn zones, tells Chris Johnston it will hold a special message for young visitors.

Politicians and newspaper columnists have ridiculed it, called it a waste of money and condemned it to failure but, with less than three months to go, the Millennium Dome is set to be one of Britain's most popular attractions in 2000.

More than 12 million people are expected to visit the great white tent during the 12 months it will be open, and most people probably have a sketchy idea of what it will contain: 14 different zones -covering the history of the last millennium, humanity in various spirital and creative aspects and speculative peeks into what the next 1,000 years may hold.

But will the country's latest national landmark justify all the broohaha?

One of the Government's senior advisors, Lord Puttnam is un-ashamedly enthusiastic. But then as a "Godparent" - a title given to those who are put in charge of individual zones - he has to be. His belief in the project is rock solid, for the simple reason that he feels that it could change the way that people face the future.

Lord Puttnam is Godfather to the Work and Learn zones, the only two of the 14 which are to be linked both physically and thematically. "The link between learn-ing and work will become a major feature of the 21st century," he says. "We'll never quite leave school, nor settle into a life of work that remains the same throughout our careers."

The Work and Learn zones' huge facade will be the first thing visitors see as they enter the Dome. Described as the world's largest billboard (it is 12 metres high and 72 metres long), it will change every few seconds to reveal a different image.

Visitors enter the Work zone first, a calculated move which Lord Puttnam says is designed to persuade people that they should be excited about how the world of work is changing, not afraid. For example, a display will demonstrate how the skills used to drive a forklift are similar to the ones needed to fly a helicopter.

The Learn zone is entered after the Work zone. This is supposed to convey the message that the challenges of employment can be met through learning. Visitors to this zone will enter through a typical school corridor, intended to reflect preconceptions about learning, before going into one of two 200-seat theatres to view a provocative short film about the form learning will take in decades to come. The zone ends in the "learning orchard", which will showcase the Tesco SchoolNet 2000 Internet project.

Lord Puttnam is confident that visitors "will feel genuinely empowered and excited about what's ahead" after experiencing both zones.

Children, however, might be more excited by Gaia and Max, the two "alien pilots" who will guide visitors through the Home Planet zone.

These characters, designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop - the creators of the television Muppets - will accompany visitors on an intergalactic journey to Earth in a space capsule. For seven minutes the ride speeds passengers through special effects evoking tornado winds, freezing ice and boiling heat, before plunging them into the centre of the Earth. Above the zone, a 12-metre model of the Earth will be a floating in space.

More than 5,000 pupils every school day will be able to visit the Dome for free under a scheme which is subsidising one million school visits. It will mean that at least one-third of British schools can bring children to the Dome without admission charges, says Jennie Page, chief executive of the New Millennium Experience Company.

However, tickets will be limited to 100 per school. They will be distributed in a "regionally balanced" draw, the first of which takes place in November (for tours in February and March) followed by three more in February, June and October.

Schools can enter one draw only and children in Years 4 to 11 (Primary 4 to Secondary 4 in Scotland) are the only ones eligible. Schools will also be able to reserve tickets for visits by pupils of all ages for pound;8 each. College visits will cost pound;14.50. Education tours will take four hours and include shows and exhibitions appropriate to the children's age and curriculum needs.

Undoubtedly there will be much to marvel at but until the doors open on New Year's Day, 2000, we will not know whether the Millennium Dome's 14 zones will live up to all the publicity. But in the Work and Learn zones the search for a balance between spectacle and substance is clearly there.

The Millennium Dome, North Greenwich, London SE10 0BB. Nearest tube: North Greenwich, Jubilee Line. Opening times: 10am-6pm from January 1, 2000.Applicaton for free education tours: 0870 243 2000Tickets from Dome ticket line 0870 606 2000; National Lottery retailers, the Millennium Experience website at as well as travel agents, and rail and coach companies.pound;16.50 for children aged five to 15, pound;16.50 for student card holders and pound;20 for adults. Group discounts available.

Other general information is available on: 0870 603 2000

MILLENNIUM EXPERIENCE - Facts amp; figures

* The dome is big: it is the largest structure of its kind in the world and could contain more than two Wembley Stadiums, 13 Royal Albert Halls or 18,000 double decker buses.

* It also has the biggest roof in the world, covering 80,000 square metres, or 20 acres. The structure consists of a network of cable netting suspended from 12 90-metre high steel masts, covered by a canopy of Teflon-coated glass fibre.

* As well as being the largest fabric structure in the world, the dome is also the strongest: it could support the weight of a Jumbo jet.

* Such colossal landmarks don't come cheap: the budgeted expenditure is pound;758 million. pound;399 million of which comes from a National Lottery grant, pound;150 million has been raised from sponsors, while pound;194 will be generated by admission charges and other sales.

* Visitors can reach the dome on any type of transport, except private cars which will be banned from the area. There is a new Underground station that will whisk visitors from central London on the Jubilee line extension, or you can take a bus, coach, riverboat, cycle or walk.

* There are 14 exhibition zones in the Dome, as well as the Millennium Show, a stunning live multimedia performance co-designed by Peter Gabriel, that will take place up to five times a day in the dome's central arena. A smaller arena will host Our Town Story, where people from cities and towns throughout Britain will perform shows about their history and traditions.

The Millennium Experience does not end at the Dome: there will be a nationwide festival of events throughout 2000 to provide the backing for local celebrations.

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