A trip to Santa’s grotto can be magical, miserable, sometimes merely tolerable, but there are a few things you can count on: queuing for an hour with other harassed parents, smiling awkwardly as you pose for photos with the man in red — and feeling grateful that Christmas comes along just once a year.
Thankfully, LaplandUK has overhauled this exhausting festive tradition. Promising far more than the chance of a one-to-one with Santa, its bold offer is nothing less than the whole Lapland experience on home soil.
Within spitting distance of Ascot Racecourse, among the trees of Whitmoor Forest, it has the sort of remote, peaceful vibe you just don’t get in a retail park.
A letter of invitation beforehand, from the man himself, has already alerted the kids to the day ahead. And upon ‘check-in’ they’re presented with an Elf Passport, in which they’ll collect stamps for each task completed.
Initially, it’s something of an immersive theatre-meets-pantomime experience — elves take to a mini-stage in the woodland, fairy-lighted tent, where they explain what happens in Lapland, and their role in the festive assembly line, before taking us through the ‘magical portal’ (large wooden doors) into the Narnia-like land beyond.
Here, grown-ups and children are ‘Big Folk’ and ‘Small Folk’, respectively, with appropriately sized doors for each. After a short wander through the artificial snow-dusted forest, we arrive at Father Christmas’s toy factory. Here the kids stuff reindeer toys and make wooden bears in preparation for the big night.
Next up is Mother Christmas’s kitchen, where storytelling and decorating gingerbread men are among the highlights — the latter particularly tasty, the kids assure me.
The winter wonderland continues in the Elf Village, where there’s ice skating, huskies and an elf post office, for writing and sending letters to Father Christmas, as well as drinks, snacks and merchandise.
And then it’s time for the big man himself — but first, we encounter real, live reindeers and a rather impressive sleigh, then the final Nordic log cabin, where Santa reveals his knowledge of the children’s favourite things, checks his Good List, offers some advice on looking after each other, and gifts them a toy husky. Two very satisfied children.
What’s striking is how easy and well-run the entire operation is — there are no crowds, endless queues or unnecessary hold-ups and delays. It’s a good three- to four-hour experience yet never feels too long or too short and has a real feel of quality to it.
There are Hollywood set designers involved, special effects and costumes, not to mention West End performers — all of which is reflected in the price. It’s not cheap but, that said, it’s comparable to other forms of London entertainment — theatre tickets, Premier League football games, stadium concerts, etc.
And, thankfully, while there are opportunities to spend more money — or jingles as it’s known here — there’s no sense of obligation. Plus the kids get to walk away with a present, bauble and photo and plenty to talk about, having loved every second.
Tickets are still available for visits to Lapland UK until 24 December. Prices from £75.50 per person. Under ones go free.