These last few days I’ve been engaging in some Wishful thinking - and I’m not the only one.
Last Saturday, my wife and I took our three children - Maisie, 5, George, 3, and one-year-old Tessa - to see Santa at Fota’s Wish Experience just outside Cork city.
They’d been gearing up for it for weeks, and I had a little bit of history with Wish too. I was there when, back on a sunny, surprisingly warm day at the very end of September, the search for the elves began.
That day the Kingsley Hotel in Cork was packed with people in unseasonably festive jumpers and wrapped in tinsel at Elf Factor, searching for top elves to help out at Santa’s greatest, southernmost outpost.
Then, just a few weeks ago, the Irish Examiner went to see the preparations for Wish in full flow, when the elves were being put through their paces under the watchful gaze of the lead elves, including Seamus Leahy (who sometimes goes by the title ‘Marketing Director’).
Everyone was asked to come up and state what type of elf role best suited them, and maybe to add a bit of a party piece. The mood was buoyant. Everything led to applause and laughs. About 36 elves were gathered, but that was only about a quarter of the 140 elves all primed and ready for fun at Wish this year.
Seamus said around half of this year’s elves took part in last year’s Imagine spectacular, but the selection process is suitably arduous. “For every one elf, they probably spoke to 18 people,” he said.
For Creative Director Olivia Buckley, the Christmas event at Fota “is truly a very special project”. “We have the ability to bring such special memories to so many families at Christmas,” she said, stressing the need to make it “extra unique”.
When you see the elves being selected and the sheer scale of the material used, from snow machines to sheds and the acreage involved, it’s truly an epic labour of love. Olivia again: “As you will see it has totally changed in design, storyline - with the introduction of some very interesting characters and of course it has doubled in size.
“We started working on the conceptual design last February as everything is built bespoke for this event from costumes to set design. [Her company] Olivia Buckley Events is quite an interesting place - at the height of summer when the days are warm and balmy you’ll find us working on Christmas. We have very large teams in place to make sure every detail is covered and we start building on site in October. It is such a wonderful event to design and we really enjoy getting into the spirit of Christmas.”
In 2014 it welcomed 53,000 visitors. According to Seamus, whether it’s judged on square footage, number of visitors, or the overall cost of putting it all together, Fota’s annual Santa bash is quite probably the biggest in the country.
It’s been voted the Best Santa Experience by readers of Primary Times, and it also came out on top in a vote by listeners of The Ray D’arcy Show.
On the night of my visit, the lights were still on, the various rooms and stages almost completed. It’s a place to be enjoyed by young and old, he says. “Maybe the big kids will find something to do.”
And so last Saturday we checked in at the Alpine Lodge and then ventured down the path to be met by our first Princess, Stargazia, who had a lovely song for us and an important message about a global shortfall of fairy dust.
The surroundings were dusted with festive snow as we reached an elf stopover, where there were songs and games. And then suddenly, it was the bit everyone was waiting for - Santa’s Lakeside Lodge.
A warm fire, an elf on hand to help with the photos, and Santa himself in fine fettle and displaying his usual encyclopaedic knowledge of what all children want. So Santa knew Maisie loves Frozen, and that George wants some Star Wars toys, and Tessa would like a cot for her dolly.
These are the moments you remember. It’s eye-opening to watch how one child, who in past years was shy or starstruck, opens up as the years tick by. Two years ago when we visited Santa, Maisie was diving for cover. Not this year.
My son was calm and collected. And Tessa was a little like Maisie of a few years back - stunned, but not so much that she couldn’t pose for a picture with the main man. The elf handed over some presents, and we were off again.
Now, you might be wondering why the one-on-one with Santa comes so early in the Wish experience? Well, it’s because after that, you and your children can travel at your own pace. No one’s metaphorically nudging you in the back, and so on you go, this time on the Elf Train.
A few Christmas songs are sung as the train toots its way down to the Lands of Wish. As you pull in, Mr Wibble Wobble greets you at some large golden gates.
“Are you ready for an adventure?” he asks. Well, yes. With a reminder about needing to help create some extra fairy dust to help power the spirit of Christmas, the big gates are pushed open and we’re in - but only after the smallies grab some quills and scribble their names onto a big board.
Mr Wibble Wobble reminds me of someone else with the same initials, another chocolate impresario, whose name I can’t quite remember just now. Similar tailoring as well. And the important thing is, his factory is fantastic.
Before hitting Golden Crisp lane you have to pass through a mini hall of mirrors. My children were in stitches. But once you get past all that, you can gaze up at the pipes carrying suspiciously chocolatey-looking fluid to the chocloate waterfall.
Then it’s over to the biggest TV set you’ve ever seen - even bigger than that plasma effort you’re earmarked for the post-Christmas sales. Three Wibble Wobbles were doing a little show, trying to bake a cake, with ingredients including a plastic bag of sweets, a paper cup with some coffee in it and other inedibles. Maisie got to ‘beat’ the eggs with a big long spoon. “Oh, we forgot the milk!” said another, lobbing the carton over her head.
We said a quick hello to the Lands of Wish resident scientist, and then hoiked down Bubblefizz Lane, with its effervescent, multi-coloured panels, and into the elf communications centre, where you can listen into elf chatter as they feverishly continue getting all the toys ready for delivery on Christmas morning.
But before all that, there’s Mrs Claus’s house, with some energy-boosting chocolate buttons (especially needed by the parents, ie, me). She is a star - by the end she was dancing with Tessa, who otherwise was perpetual motion as she hared from one section to another. .
And then you’re out from under the star-lit covers, out into the fresh darkening air and real stars, around 90 minutes after we started. And into the Christmas market, ready for a hot chocolate - as if we hadn’t had enough already - and a go on the merry-go-round.
It’s easy to get sentimental, but for all the chatter about how we’re all just big kids really, it’s not often you get to truly be one. These trips at Christmas time, they’re rare and beautiful times.
I’m already fretting about the days when my youngsters will be too cool or busy to be hanging around with my wife and I, when we’re in the ‘glorified cabbie’ phase. But we’re not there yet.
We’ve still got a few more years when all three of these little people are fully engaged, immersed and central to these moments, when, in a strange way, all your Christmases seem to come at once.
Merry Christmas, folks.
* Wish continues at Fota until December 23 - check fotawish.ie and its social media pages for booking opportunities.
- 140 elves
- 500,000 chocolate drops
- 10,000 fairylights
- 30,000 presented wrapped
- 60km of wrapping paper