A jingle of bells announced LaplandUK’s entrance into our life.
The Christmas tree was finally bought and decorated, the bath had been run and the children plunged into it (the youngest clinging to the sides of the bath like a squid over a saucepan). As they were decanted into their pjs, we asked them if they had heard a strange tinkling noise from downstairs.
Under the tree lay a beautiful box (freezing cold as it had come from the North Pole) containing two letters from Father Christmas, wax sealed and individually addressed to the girls. Children this year have been so good that he was certain that the elves would need extra hands in the toy factory, would they mind coming to help?
My eldest was so delighted that she went to sleep clutching the box and took it to school with her for the next week. Bedtime behaviour improved immeasurably when I reminded both girls that they’d be meeting Father Christmas in a week’s time, which is my kind of seasonal treat.
Finally, Saturday arrived and, en famille, we travelled down to the St Anne’s Manor Hilton near Bracknell. This hotel has a special link with LaplandUK and you can get discounts if you book your tickets with them at the same time. A family room there consists of two kingsize beds in one room, a bathroom and a tv – what more could a family need?
Food, as it turned out. The restaurant was quite busy (and expensive) so we took our chances with a pub nearby. I’ll not name names but I’ll be unlikely to return there. Admittedly it was one of the last Saturdays before Christmas but it was grubby, manic and packed to the brim. We retreated back to the hotel, had a quick drink in the bar and then went back to our rooms.
The kids were enormously excited to be sleeping in the same room together, with the prospect of seeing the big FC the next day. I honestly thought they might never sleep again but by 9 they were drooping and quickly went off, as did we.
At breakfast the next morning, the husband took the kids off whilst I packed our things and checked out of the room. They had a fab time in the swimming pool (and jacuzzi) for an hour or more which shows the benefit of staying at a hotel with these kinds of facilities when you have kids. Even more beneficially, I had a coffee to myself and actually read a bit of a book. Hurrah.
The next bit of the day took something of a nosedive. I’d thought that, as Ascot was nearby, we might stop off and have a wander down the pretty (as I recalled it) high street. Turns out I was thinking of somewhere else entirely. With two fractious kids in the car, revving up to see Santa, we had to make a quick choice as to what to do with our next few hours. Faced with a choice between Windsor and Maidenhead, I chose the latter, thinking we’d not have time to do the castle and, anyway, wasn’t Maidenhead down by the river so probably a bit like Richmond or something?
No. No, readers, it was not. It might once have been a pretty market town but had since been rolled in concrete, picking up a few chain shops and large derelict buildings on the way, and tied in a bow of dual carriageway ringroads. I held the kids’ hands tight as we walked across a flyover and bundled through a Sainsbury’s car park into a bleak town centre only to find that the only place selling food was McDonalds. Apologies, Maidenhead, but Richmond you are not. If anyone would like to suggest places in Maidenhead that we could have gone to, I’ll save them up for next time we’re down there. Otherwise, I’ll suggest that anyone with time to spare in that area might instead head for Windsor, Cookham or even Cliveden.
Finally, FINALLY, it was nearing 2:30pm and just about time to go to LaplandUK for our entry time of 3pm. The car park is in a large coniferous woodland (the Enchanted Forest) with clearly signed areas and direction markers and there were loads of helpful attendants at hand to point out our route. As we came to the entrance, the eldest was excited to see a little elfin house with a note from one of the woodland elves we’d already met on LaplandUK’s website. Eeko was out berry picking so we’d have to catch her later.
Upon walking into the arrivals hall, the atmosphere instantly picked up, with places to sit and a little canteen serving warm food and drinks. It was bustling excitedly, with a signing in area where we were quickly checked in. The children were directly handed their LaplandUK passports, an elf newspaper and a pouch of elf jingles I’d previously bought (1 jingle = £1) underscoring that the children were the most important visitors here.
Elves whom we’d seen on the website were wandering around the hall, engaging with children and whipping up the excitement. We were stickered up (Team Reindeer rather than Team Husky for us – A-ruuf!) by the elves then we were invited beyond the wall of suitcases and through a twisting tunnel to a space with a gnarled oak tree growing through the middle.
Sage, a woodland elf, welcomed us and eventually Eeko made her appearance (much to my girls’ delight). Together they told the tale of Father and Mother Christmas’s journey to the world of the elves in Lapland. At the end of this performance the doors were opened onto a snow-covered wonderland. I was so thrilled that I totally failed to take any photos and the gasps of excitement from the children (and me!) were audible. We were entering a world quantitively different to the one we were leaving behind. That this magical transformation was so seamless is down to the production team and I almost felt a bit tearful at the dedication to their craft. They have created something very special here.
The first snow-covered path lead to a toy factory where Whittle the Toymaster was impatiently awaiting our arrival. Children were ushered through a tiny door that adults couldn’t squeeze through and they sat down at work benches to watch what happened next.
We were introduced to Conker (the naughty elf trying to work harder to win his elf cap’s jingle bell) and Wish (the elf who collects children’s wishes and writes Santa’s list). Wish sat next to my eldest who quivered with delight at this special attention.
The children were shown how to make a fluffy stuffed penguin and everyone was given a basket of the necessary bits. The youngest set to with a determined ferocity to get the job done and was delighted to finish it off all by herself. All the baskets were delivered to the Wrapping Room through a hatch and the elves came round to stamp the passports on the Toy Factory page.
We waited until everyone had filed out as someone must have accidentally picked up the eldest’s passport, leaving us with only one. Whittle swiftly found her a spare, stamped it and, when he realised she was keen to meet Pixie Mixie next, gave her a little stuffed heart to pass on. She was so pleased to have a special assignment that it entirely took the sting out of losing her original passport. I was mightily impressed at that bit of quick thinking and excellent customer service on Whittle’s behalf; top marks that elf.
We travelled to Mother Christmas’s kitchen next and the children listened to a story then decorated their own gingerbread men at stations specially lined up for them. Our two were well into the swing of things by then and needed no encouragement to get involved and earn their next passport stamp. We stowed away the gingerbread and the next twisty path lead us to the elf village.
Here there was everything you might need to divert yourself for 1.5hrs or so, until your important appointment with Father Christmas. We headed straight for the ice rink where the eldest floated off under a sea of sparkly lights and the youngest hacked at the ice with a vengeance and a pair of strap-on skates.
Our next visit was to Pixie Mixie’s sweetshop where we met the lady herself and handed over the heart. I’ve no idea if we were the unwitting pawns in a love story there or not but our two were chuffed to have completed their mission and we went inside to fill up on elfin pic’n’mix, paid for with jingles. 4.5 jingles was a fair amount for some sweets but compared to the (admittedly wonderful looking) gingerbread houses at £25+, we found it a bargain!
There were huskies to pet, different elves to meet, food stands to visit, shops to meander around and even a little post office. Here you could send your wish list to Father Christmas or real postcards to friends and family – a lovely touch.
What is clear is that someone has taken the time to stand back and look at all aspects of the experience, especially from child height, and to design it so that the feeling of magic is never suspended. Even the toilets and the ice-skate stand are housed in “reindeer hide” teepees and the necessary electronics are hidden behind props. As a rather picky adult, it’s something of a relief to surrender yourself and your grown-up cynicism into excellent and assured hands.
Storm Deidre came back to visit whilst we were in the Elf Emporium and made the last 20 minutes or so fairly soggy but there was plenty of under-cover space to hide out and some brave souls continued to skate on the central ice rink. At the appointed time we met at the mouth of another twisty path to wend our way to Father Christmas’s cottage in the woods.
At first we walked past some reindeers and walked into something of a holding pen. You enter personalised details about your children before you arrive and this is the point at which they double check them and iron out any issues to make sure that the last, most important, part of the visit is absolutely perfect. The screens are, as before, hidden inside massive ledgers to add to the effect.
At last! Our names were called and we followed a chatty elf into the forest. It was properly howling down at this point but the anticipation kept us hopping along over the puddles with excitement. There was a short hiatus outside the hut and then the door opened, revealing the most Christmassy Father Christmas I’d ever seen. Even the voice was perfect, as was his outfit.
There was a small banquette to his side, especially for the children and he spoke directly to them using a mix of pre-gleaned information and genial good sense. They were captivated.
Since first hearing about LaplandUK, my eldest had been particularly concerned that Father Christmas might feel left out, giving so many presents and yet not receiving any. It was such a simple thought but it really struck me. She instantly set to work, writing him a Christmas card and finding him a present to take with her. The youngest tested out her brand new writing skills and managed a whole ‘Santa’ with only a very little help. A visibly moved FC took these little heartfelt gifts with grace and for me, the soul of Christmas was given and received. I wish I could have distilled that moment and stoppered it up for my babies to use whenever they felt affected by life or other people. I will never forget it and I hope I shall always be able to remind them of the kindness of which they are capable.
Thankfully, both children were on the Good List (though it’s been touch and go at times this year) so they were given a lovely cuddly husky toy – and a jingle bell for being so helpful. For my two, with their adoration of anything dewy-eyed and cuddly (and noisy), Santa really couldn’t have done better.
A few photographs later, one of which you could have printed out complimentarily, and we were on our way back into the forest towards the exit. There was a shop to negotiate first but a few quick strops later and we were out into the car park. At this point it was nearing 7pm and there was school tomorrow with a 2.5hr journey between us and bed. After some heavy-going traffic, both kids fell asleep and we were able to decant them into bed with relative ease.
On reflection some days later, there are a few things that still stand out about the experience.
- This is all about the children. The experience is designed from their point of view; they’re the first to be spoken to and consulted about their interests and wants. This shouldn’t be such a big surprise, especially at this time of year, but it is.
- The experience is really well designed. There’s barely a break in the magic and it feels like you’re in good hands. What you are given is generally really good quality.
- No one stepped out of character the whole time we were there. That’s some excellent staff training that must have to be refreshed every couple of weeks to keep everyone perky (whilst wearing elf hats).
- It is expensive, most certainly, but to me it felt worth it because of the length of visit and the quality of the experience, as well as the pre-visit communication and excellent website.
- There is nothing like this for children in our area, which is a shame. Perhaps it is proximity to London and London-level expectations, the price of tickets or the length of time they’ve been doing it – or all three – but it’s a hell of an interactive 4 hours. It left me feeling pathetically grateful that they’d designed something so wonderful for children, let alone adults.
Would we go again? In a word, yes. I’d try a different time of day and organise our time outside LaplandUK better but the experience itself was impressive enough to make a return journey.
Thank you LaplandUK, it’s been a blast!
P.S. The eldest is almost certain that Father Christmas got information about her from SpaceBook. Does he still have to know things about children by magic or can we use social media these days? Answers on a tweet, please! (@theplummybrummy)
This experience gets the full Plums Up!