Junior visits Lapland UK to see if the magic of Father Christmas is real.
There are two ways to approach a big family event, writes Natalie Johnson for Junior.
The first is to research the fine details, spend hours pouring over websites for any and every little piece of advice - and to devour at least seven ‘top tip’ lists. The other is to believe in the process, trust that all will be well and head off into the unknown; to turn the day into an exciting adventure.
Last weekend, I chose the latter approach for our highly anticipated day out to Lapland UK. We have three children: aged 12, 10 and nine. They are teetering on the edge of the Christmas precipice; dangerously close to the edge, but struggling with all their energy to hold on to the magic. My rationale was this: tell them nothing. The more they know, the more questions they will ask. So, in suspense, we began our Big Adventure to Lapland UK.
Almost as soon as we pulled away, the silence was interrupted by, “Did you bring spare gloves? You need gloves to ice-skate, it says here. And hot chocolates - hot chocolates are four pounds, it says.” It was clear that the 12-year-old had adopted the over-researching OCD approach to our day out - and was scouring websites for any detail that she could find. I don’t know why I was surprised; the internet is the ruiner of magic, the curse of parents everywhere. Where once upon a time we would have got away with, “Because I said so” or “Wait and see”, now kids search for themselves, tell you the facts and ensure that they know more than you do.
With all devices swiftly confiscated, we continued on our way. When we arrived at Whitmore Forest, on the Ascot estate, it was soon obvious Lapland UK was larger than anticipated; my husband began to twitch in that way that fathers do when car parks look full. We found a space in the Owl car park. “Oh it’s a really long walk from here” chirped The Lapland Encyclopedia once more. A further lecture on the importance of getting into the spirit of Christmas and not ruining it for her younger sisters was firmly delivered.
Meanwhile, attention turned to the third child who, after finally getting out of the car - two shoe changes later - had come to Lapland without a coat. The stress-induced parenting fog that shuts down senses and muffles the wailing and frustration engulfed me, as I calmly unzipped my coat and handed it to her. I took the hideous old 'emergency breakdown jacket' from the boot and chirped, “Great, let’s go to Lapland, then”, in a tone akin to your own mother, when your father has spent the morning reading the paper only to ask, “Is there any more tea on the go, darling?”.
The walk through the woods to the Enchanted Forest was just the right length. I suspect it was planned that way - to give car-weary parents the time to calm down and children the opportunity to skip off some post-journey energy. Listening to little ones asking questions and jogging along in their shiny wellies, woolly hats and best coats (not ours, of course) was a heartwarming start. Indeed, as the day unfolded, it became clear that everything at Lapland UK has a defined purpose, a clear role to play in supporting the experience - and the walk from the car was that first part.
Inside the entrance hall, the Welcome Elves find your booking on iPads hidden inside old tomes and use fabulously large quill iPad pens to check you in. It’s here, from the very beginning that, as a parent, you start to really notice the detail and the care taken to make Lapland UK the magical experience that you hope for. Occasionally the cynic in you tries to creep out, but as it does so, a well timed talk, or new door to venture through, or even just a ginger biscuit from Mother Christmas’ elves, puts it firmly back into its box.
What makes Lapland UK work is the story that it tells of the history of Christmas - specifically of Father Christmas and his wife Mother Christmas needing help in the Toy Factory. From the moment the child receives their invite the stage is set for the story that enables the magic to happen. And while this magic happens, it’s so beautifully crafted that it answers questions about Christmas - and even nature - that you never knew you had. With each moment, each experience, or rhyme, a little piece of the Christmas story slots into the memories of your childhood, both supporting your nostalgia, while creating more magical memories.
On meeting the founders, husband and wife team Alison and Mike Battle, it’s this empathy and acute understanding of the need for a magical family day that shines through so clearly. Having spent many winters trawling the Christmas Grottos of England, with their four boys, they never found an experience that delivered the Christmas wonder that the boys (and they themselves) were looking for.
Hence 10 years ago Lapland UK was born and every year they challenge themselves to make it even more special. They work with international set designers, actors and wardrobe artists, to bring to life the perfect Christmas tale. This year’s challenge, Mike told me, over a hot chocolate in the log cabin restaurant, was to work even harder on the characterisation and story of the land. The elves Sage and Eeko are the guardians of the door to the Enchanted Forest and their opening sequence - pure theatre itself - explains how Elves are born, weaving a deep and believable narrative into the story, setting the scene for the rest of the day. This year there’s also a book of the story, written by the couple: Lapland, The Untold Story of Father Christmas, which beautifully introduces the story behind the experience - and promises to become a Christmas classic and much-loved part of family traditions.
From the special nose-wiggling elf welcome, to the prioritisation of children over adults, the whole event is created as an immersive experience, designed to bring back that feeling of childhood joy. “We created what we wanted for our own family” said Battle, of the planning and dedication that goes into the five-week event. With over 250 staff - who, impressively, never break character - it’s a slick yet believable performance. Suspense is created from the beginning, where, after chanting some rhymes, doing some actions and much cheering, the door to the Enchanted Forest opens. The view from inside the dark forest glade is superb. Aside from the impressive set design, the white roof of the toy factory, the snow covered trees and forest floor, I knew they’d got it right when the middle child (10) gasped, “Oh man. That is epic”.
Father Christmas, Mike tells me, in a very sober tone, comes with a huge responsibility - one that they take very seriously. It frustrates him that something so important to childhood has become a commodity, reproduced at garden centres and shopping malls around the country, with stuck-on beards and rubbish presents. They are both at pains to highlight the effort required to balance the needs of a business, with the overall experience for families.
Alison adds that they feel that they carry the “emotional crown jewels of the family experience” and children will remember their day in Lapland UK forever. At Lapland, she continues, they are “guardians of the magic” and have just a few hours to deliver it - and for every child to believe, more than ever, in the story of Father Christmas. The Battles’ enthusiasm and love for what they have created is genuinely infectious and you find yourself regaling tales of your own Christmas memories, before realising that they know all of this, of course. They have observed 10 years of tales, of anecdotes, of parents and grandparents wiping away tears as they relive their own childhood again through their visit - and of making sure every visit is individual and special to each family.
As we finished our meeting, the Battles noted my youngest daughter’s LED flashing shoes (a birthday present from the day before). Relaying the car park horror of the two pairs of shoes and the infuriating coat incident, their laughter was warm, friendly and understanding. Which ultimately is really how they make the balance between a business and a fairytale happen. How they keep the cogs turning, for the thousands of visitors, making sure that each family enjoys every moment.
“Wait until you meet Father Christmas’ they promise as they head off, “He’s the real thing”.
After ice-skating (free of time limits, or wristbands thanks to the clever tour plan), we meandered our way around Lapland. The physical movement of people through the place is remarkable. Despite at least six car parks being completely full, you never feel quite like the conveyor belt of Disney, nor are there queues as per the Magic Kingdom. There is enough space and time given so that it all works seamlessly to follow the story from the toy factory, through the activities, onwards via gingerbread men in Mother Christmas’ kitchen, then out to the village.
In the village we met the husky dogs and we posted a letter home from the Post Office. We spent too long (and too many Jingle coins - the currency of Lapland) buying sweets in Pixie Mixie’s Sweet Shop. We bought gifts in the gift shop, we bought baubles in Mrs Bauble's bauble shop - and, like everything else - they are exquisite and beautifully made. We drank mulled wine and we drank hot chocolate.
Having been warned by our eldest about the (apparently exorbitant) price of hot chocolate, the food was actually very reasonable. We paid less for dinner than we would in a very average high street restaurant: £48 for five of us - and that included an extra kids’ meal for Millie. Even the menu was a nod to Christmas, with Scandinavian style meatballs on the kids menu and schnitzel amongst the adult options.
I had the pie - and I must take time to congratulate the Chef. How you make a £12 pie and bubble & squeak meal taste like Christmas, inside a log cabin in a forest in Berkshire, I don’t know. Perhaps it was Mother Christmas' recipe? But that pie was delicious. A Christmas pie in a fairy lit log cabin in a snowy Lapland: brilliant.
After four hours in Lapland UK, walking through the snow-frosted secret pathways of the elves; past the little elf cabins and past the reindeer (a real herd); past Santa’s sleigh (stunning); past the blacksmith’s reindeer food stall (purchased) and onto the great man himself, I feared we had already reached Peak Magic. Meeting Father Christmas with an over-researched 12 year old, an over-awed 10 year old and an over-tired nine year old could go horribly wrong.
After finding ourself with another cheery elf (they are always cheery) we were lead to meet Father Christmas. Inside the beautifully appointed log cabin, we sat in the warmth (it really is cold in Lapland) and started to thaw out. As he welcomed the girls by name (from their adorable Elf Passports), he asked how their day had been. Our youngest gushed, “It’s been amazing”, to which he replied, “Well that’s good to hear”, followed instantly with a friendly observation, “I do like your doll's coat. It’s a bit like your coat isn’t it, which is funny - because that’s not even your coat is it?” He turned to the Elf on duty saying, “Fearne forgot her coat, you know! Can you believe she came all this way to Lapland without the one thing you really need?”
At that moment, the 12-year old looked over at me, wide-eyed and I knew he’d done it. The magic was right there, as promised - and Father Christmas absolutely was the real thing.
Lapland UK is open every day until Christmas Eve, 2016. Tickets and all information (and FAQ's if you, like our child, like to know all the details) can be found online at the Lapland UK site.