Winter wonders: Where to find the best festive experiences this Christmas

Once upon a time, Santa was a quick visit in a department store, at the end of a day of shopping. How times have changed. From Beyond to Winterval, Ciara McDonnell and Vickie Maye round up the best festive experiences. 

BEYOND, FOTA ISLAND RESORT

Five years ago, soon after Fota Island Resort had been sold, a filed-away idea for a Christmas experience came to the new owners’ attention.

It was early October when Director of Marketing Seamus Leahy was told the concept he had helped to develop was to become a reality.

“I thought, great I have 14 months to make it happen,” he recalls, laughing. And then he was told no, he had one month.

He enlisted the help of Peter Kelly, aka Franc, to develop the Christmas plan. Today, five years on, he pays significant credit to Kelly for making the event one of the country’s biggest festive experiences.

Peter and Seamus would do it, they agreed, once it was the best in Ireland.

Franc, a man who likes to think big, made it far more than just your average visit to Santa. Fake snow, mulled wine — it was a visit that could give Lapland a run for its money. Word quickly spread and demand was so strong, the website crashed when tickets were released.

Today, it’s become something of a tradition, an institution, in Cork, no mean feat considering it’s only five years in the making.

Natalie Ryan, 4, gets a hug from Peppermint Wintertoes in the ice tunnel at Fota Island’s Beyond. Picture: Brian Lougheed

Seamus thinks of it as a “panto over 10 acres” — the name and story change every year just as a panto does.

This year it’s <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.fotabeyond.ie">Beyond</a>, and without spoiling the surprise, it features snow caves and gnomes.

The location is referred to as a set — Beyond is given the respect of a theatrical production — and as for the elves, they are never, called by their human names.

“Only one person in the whole place calls them that — payroll,” says Seamus, laughing.

The audition process for the elves is almost as well known as the production itself.

An X-Factor template is used, and candidates are asked a series of important questions, along the lines of, how does Rudolph fly.

The fake snow is sourced from the same company that supplies Game of Thrones. No budget spared here.

The elves are given packs, the songs they can sing, jokes they can tell. Attention to detail is paramount.

Two months ago, work started on next year’s experience (the name and storyline are already approved). It’s a year round plan.

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In January there’ll be a debrief on Beyond, and in March presents will be sourced and wrapped from Manchester and China for 2018.

The set will be ordered in July, and arrive in September. Construction will start the following month.

More than 60,000 people are expected to visit this year, and Seamus has introduced a fourth pricing tier to try to make it more affordable for families: €12 for adults and €16 for kids, versus €16 for adults and €28 for kids at peak times.

Six duty managers keep the queues moving, a crucial part of the job (“if you don’t notice them then they are doing their jobs,” says Seamus).

This year, event management company Catapult are behind the Fota Island experience again — and these are evidently people who truly “get” children.

We can’t spoil the surprise, but expect the aforementioned underground snow tunnels, real life reindeer, ice cream cones, dress up rooms for budding princesses with Princess Elf-sa, and sleigh driving lessons (with licences granted). It is, without doubt, Fota Island’s best Christmas event yet.

WINTERVAL

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Three pairs of little hands with dimpled fingers gripped the red envelope.

‘Santa Claus, North Pole’, was scrawled across the front, in their finest writing.

They all kissed it — for luck — and eyes shut tight, pushed it through letterbox.

“It’ll go straight to him here,” said the youngest, nodding knowingly, with great confidence.

And then it dawned on me. She thought we were in the North Pole, or at least somewhere very close.

<a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.winterval.ie">Winterval</a> has a new tagline this year: Ireland’s Christmas Capital. And it’s true: In just six years Waterford has established itself as the Christmas destination. Its Winterval experience has eclipsed all other festive festivals in Ireland.

If Lapland is out of reach, then there’s something very close, right on our doorsteps.

There’s no snow, or it’s unlikely at any rate. Other than that, it’s all there. Instead of reindeer sleigh rides, there are horse-drawn sleighs.

There are little wooden market stalls, as atmospheric as any you’d see in Europe’s equivalents, selling crafts, crepes and hot chocolate.

But the real secret to Winterval’s success is the intimacy and size of the city. Everything takes just minutes to reach — a quick walk to the ferris wheel, another stroll to the Waterford Eye and its sweeping views, around the corner there’s Santa’s inflatable towering green giant post box, a little further still and you’re at the ice rink.

It’s a village feeling wrapped up in a beautiful city. It’s why cities as big as Dublin or Cork could never host an event quite like Winterval.

There are new additions to the programme this year. Santa’s kingdom has changed location and there’s a quirky giant snow globe for a very unique family photo.

Waterford Illuminates, a light show beamed every half hour after dark that sees a beautiful period house transformed into classic Christmas scenes was better still this year. Market huts line the little lane so you can sip hot chocolate and marshmallows as you enjoy the show.

The Winterval programme is one that other festivals should use as a template, it’s well laid out, clear and informative, prices and opening times included for every event.

And if you really want to make it a magical experience, book Waterford Castle. A trip on a boat, to sleep in a real-life castle? No wonder they thought they were in the North Pole.

AND DON’T FORGET...

Cork North Pole Outpost Experience

If you like good old-fashioned theatre with a sprinkling of magic then the Cork North Pole Outpost Experience at Cuskinny Court is the one for you.

A little different every year, expect lots of interaction with lively elves and a chance to enroll as an Elf In Training to learn their age-old skills in Elfversity. The woodland elves in Santa’s Sleigh Room are full of mischief and divilment and after hanging around with them, you’ll have worked up an appetite for some tasty treats with Mrs Claus in her kitchen.

Of course, Santa is waiting patiently to meet all the boys and girls, and listen to the best direction from which to approach Cork from the North Pole!

The details: The Cork North Pole Outpost Experience runs from November 25 to December 23, from 10am to 9pm each weekend. Visits take about 90 minutes and cost €22 per child over 23 months, €10 for toddlers (12 – 23 months, babies free) and for adults. Book online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://northpolecork.com/book-your-visit/">here</a>.

Santa’s Village At Leahy’s Open Farm

Always a firm favourite, Santa’s Village returns to Leahy’s Open Farm this year until December 23. Like all events at Leahy’s, this Santa experience is really well organised, with lots of helpers along the way to keep the little ones amused.

Families will make their way through the magical forest to find Mrs Claus baking cookies and scones in her cottage before heading off to Elf School and making a special wish with Leahy’s own Christmas Angel.

Santa is the main attraction of course, and is on hand to assuage any concerns about whether or not

certain toys will fit down the chimney.

The details: Santa’s Village Experience tours start between 5pm- 6.30pm, Thursdays and Fridays and from 10am-6.30pm on Saturday and Sunday and take 45 minutes to complete. Families have full use of all the other facilities at Leahy’s Open Farm afterwards. Tickets cost €14 per adult and €22 per child and can be booked online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://leahysopenfarm.ie/santas-village/santas-village-booking/">here</a>.

Rathwood Santa Train

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The annual Rathwood Santa Train is a firm fixture on the Irish festive calendar and it’s no wonder — it is absolutely brilliant.

The journey starts with a special story time with the elves, all about what happens at Christmas time and then it’s all aboard the open-air train, which chugs just slowly enough towards the enchanted forest so that families can catch a glimpse of some reindeer along the way. 

Once disembarked, it’s a quick walk through the forest to Santa’s cottage where Mrs Claus and the elves keep kids entertained with lots of songs and games. Every child gets a gift and a mug of hot chocolate after their special visit.

  • The details: Rathwood Santa train runs each Saturday and Sunday between now and Christmas from 9am to 7pm.

Sessions are 30 minutes in length and cost €16 per child and €10 per adult. Tickets can be booked online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="https://santatrain.ie/santa">here</a>.

Magical Santa Experience At Westport House

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Allow the festive season wash over you with a visit to Westport House this year, where Santa and his elves have firmly installed themselves for the month.

This fully immersed experience starts with story time and face painting before moving onto the kitchen where you will make and decorate your own gingerbread man.

The next stop is at the Wishing Tree, where kids can write down their wish and hang it on a branch of their choosing.

Straight on for a visit to Santa, where children will be gifted with their very own tree sapling and have some one-on- one time with the man himself before heading over to the elves’ workshop where they will make their very own yuletide log to take home for Christmas. Once you return home, keep an eye on your postbox, because visitors to this Santa, receive a letter from the man in red shortly after they meet him…

The details: The Magical Santa Experience is on every weekend until December 23. Visits last two hours from 10am to 8.30pm and cost €26.50 per child and €12 per adult and can be booked online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.westporthouse.ie/event/winter-wonderland/">here</a>.

Green Santa At Belvedere House

Based on the Victorian idea of Santa Claus, the Santa at Belvedere House in Westmeath is the same jolly fella, but wears green instead of red.

All children who visit Santa at this gorgeous estate get to sit with the man himself and pot their very own holly tree. As well as a tree, all kids will receive a Green Santa wild flower seed shaker with instructions for planting and traditional Victorian sweets.

There are 160 acres of parkland and playgrounds to explore within the estate, so make a day of this visit — just bring your winter woollies.

  • The details: Green Santa will be meeting children at Belvedere House each Saturday and Sunday from December 2-17 from 11am until 6pm.

Tickets cost €12 for first child and €10 for each additional child (over 18 months). Infants up to 18 months are free with other children.

Two adults are admitted free with each booking. Tickets can be booked online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://belvedere.bookeventsireland.com/belvedere/visit-green-santa-at-belvedere-weekends-from-december-2-to-17-2017/">here</a>.

The Christmas Experience Castlecomer Discovery Park

If you haven’t seen Santa in an igloo, then you haven’t lived, quite frankly.

This year, Castlecomer Discovery Park has moved their Christmas Experience into the woods, where Mr and Mrs Claus are hosting guests from their very own igloo in the heart of Kilkenny. Families can hop aboard the Santa Express, which will wind its way through the woodland towards Santa’s igloo and the elves’ workshop.

All children will be able to do an art workshop with the elves and run around the elf houses before having something to eat and drink so that they have energy enough for the main event: the visit to Santa.

  • The details: The Christmas Experience at Castlecomer Discovery Park runs every weekend until December 23. The visit lasts about 90 minutes excluding the any additional time you wish to spend in the elf village.

Tours cost €17 per child and €12 per adult and can be booked online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.discoveryparkchristmas.ie">here</a>

Christmas Wonderland at The Farm, Grenagh

Ideal for those with very small children or children with special needs, the Santa Claus Experience at The Farm is mostly indoor and brings families around on a wheelchair accessible train to meet Santa and Mrs Claus.

There’ll be an elf tour guide on hand to make sure that each group is brimming with festivity and each family will have the opportunity to learn the highly secret elf dance before checking out The Farm’s very own live crib.

The details: Christmas Wonderland at The Farm runs every weekend until December 23. The tour lasts 45 minutes and costs €16 per child, €10 per adults and under 2’s go free. Book online <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.visitthefarm.ie/best-santa-in-cork/">here</a>.

Glow, Cork city

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There’s no Santa but don’t forget Cork city’s very own festive celebration, <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.corkchristmascelebration.ie">Glow</a>, which sees Bishop Lucey Park transformed again into a winter wonderland, with markets and fairground attractions on the Grand Parade. 

Not to be missed.

FOTA FESTIVE FACTS

Numbers of Santa: 1

Numbers of elves and gnomes: 160

Number of Christmas trees: 2,500

Casting day auditions: 800

Number of candy canes eaten: 20,000

Cups of hot chocolate: 21,350

Weight of snow: 1,400kg

Length of ribbon: 2,500 metres

Number of toys: 26,000

2016 number of attendees: 53,386

Average website visits: 125,000

Weight of pink sparkle on cupcakes: 17kg

Verses of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer sang: 33,427

Numbers of Ho Ho Ho’s shouted: 82,453

Gold thread needed to repair Santa’s trousers due to too many cookies: NA!

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