I meet Seamus Leahy in the middle of October; the annual hunt for Halloween costumes and the perfect pumpkin has already begun. But Leahy is full of festive spirit of another sort: as marketing director of Fota Island Resort, he oversees one of the largest and most popular Christmas attractions in the country. By Halloween, he is already knee-deep in preparations and his eyes twinkle when he tells me how, when it comes to organising the event, he takes his orders from the top man himself.
“Santa likes to shake it up every year. He doesn’t like us to rest us on our laurels,” he laughs.
The theme of this year’s event is Discover and the planning began last year.
“I’ve started next year’s one already, I actually start about 15 months in advance,” says Leahy.
The opening of ticket sales is greatly anticipated every year and certain dates are gone quicker than Santa’s sleigh.
“This year, tickets went on sale at 10am on October 5, and after four minutes, two Saturdays were booked up, every slot was gone. Tickets are flying, we are probably 20% ahead on last year,” says Leahy.
This year, the event is being co-ordinated by a Dublin-based events company called Catapult: “It’s exciting to work with new people and have new ideas. It is very much a collaborative process between Catapult and the people who work on the event here.”
Leahy takes a hands-on approach to the event and says the feedback is hugely positive.
“Last year, we had 65,000 visitors, I probably personally spoke to 500 families. We got a handful of complaints from that 65,000 people. There are one or two genuine ones, like a ticket not arriving, or sometimes an elf might hand out the wrong present. But we have a present exchange so if for some reason the elf does make a mistake, there’s a back-up plan. We’ve had complaints like Santa had the wrong-coloured eyes. I didn’t know the answer to that one but I consulted Alabaster Snowball, head of communications.
“He explained that as St Nicholas was originally from Turkey and he made his home in the North Pole, he is indigenously brown-eyed but because Coca-Cola, in its advertising, visualised him with blue eyes, Santa wears contact lenses.
“Another person sent a letter asking why Santa had an Irish accent. Alabaster put me in touch with Apple, Santa’s voice coach, and she explained that Santa gets voice coaching so the local boys and girls can understand him.”
Given the scale of Discover, Santa needs lots of helpers, and because so many want to work with the great man, auditions have to be held for the 150 or so positions available. I return to Fota 10 days before the event is due to open to see the hand-picked helpers being put through their paces at “elf and safety” training. . The elves are a big hit with the children who visit Fota every Christmas but it’s not just the kids who get a kick out of the Christmas extravaganza, says Leahy.
“When we envisaged this first, we assumed the breakdown would be 40% adults and 60% children. It turns out it’s about 35% children and 65% adults that come to the event. One in every seven groups that comes has no child.”
It also turns out that there were more surprises in store when the event kicked off in 2013, with the Christmas wonderland inspiring a more romantic kind of magic. “The first year, we had six proposals at the event, three of which we knew in advance because the groom-to-be had organised it. We had about three last year, one of which was a member of staff,” says Leahy.
The Discover experience is greatly enhanced by the participation factor, with the elves leading singalongs and interacting with adults and children along the journey. “I like to describe it as a pantomime over 10 acres. The people who get the most out of it are those who put on the silly jumper and are willing to participate.” It’s a crisp dark winter evening when we return to Fota en famille for the big reveal. Temperatures are as near to Lapland level as you can get without being frostbitten and there is an air of anticipation and excitement as we approach the entrance to Discover. It’s also noticeable that the family groups converging from all sides are each being pulled along bodily by the smallest member, clearly in a fever to see the man in red and white. The area around the clubhouse and golf course has been transformed into a snow-sprinkled, light-twinkled winter wonderland with authentic wooden cabins linked by pathways with evocative names like Candycane Lane and it’s all any parent can do to restrain the kids from rushing headlong down the walkway to find Santa.
There is no shortage of interactive activities in the experience, with everything from wish machines and a dousing of anti-Polar bear spray keeping the kids — and adults — amused. Giving each child a card to get stamped (“Naughty or Nice”) at the various stops is a nice touch, and means there’s an incentive to take in the entire experience rather than skipping ahead.
One of the key stations is the teleporter trip to the North Pole, ably and entertainingly navigated by Lammetta Emberbaubles and Stollen Jollyleaves. We were warned there was a possibility of a polar bear coming through the hatch ahead of our trip North, but luckily he must have been on his night off. While all the interactive bells and whistles are now a prerequisite of the Santa experience for this technologically-charged generation of smallies, the essential ingredient is still face-time with the man himself and in this regard we are not disappointed.
As we enter his cabin, straight out of a Lapland-inspired fantasy, we see Santa in a large wooden chair, his head lolling on his chest to the rhythm of gentle snoring. Not sure of the protocol in such a situation, I give a quiet cough, trying to wake him. The elf standing sentry is more proactive, telling the girls to shout “Wake up, Santa!” He awakens with a start and greets us. What follows is a mainly one-sided conversation as the two girls are struck with shyness in the face of Santa’s enquiries. The looks on their faces when he enquires after their favourite cuddly toys by name is a sight to behold, one to lodge in the precious parental memory bank.
In the end, it’s the little details that make the biggest impression. “There’s snow!” the girls exclaim as they shake the flakes from the branches of the many fir trees that line the woodland walk. It’s true: it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.