The Seasonal Pleasures And Life Lessons Of The Dismal Winter Wonderland

The annual tradition of the sub-standard Christmas attraction is something to be celebrated.

For many years now, one of the annual joys of Christmas has been the Terrible Winter Wonderland,  as much a part of the festive season as Christmas Trees and family arguments. Christmas, after all, is a time to make many a businessman’s eyes light up, and as increasingly entitled generations expect more than just a trip to visit a whisky-soaked Santa at the Mall, so the demand for fun-filled festive attractions has increased. With that increase has come, as inevitably as indigestion after a Christmas dinner, the inevitable disappointments. For while some event organisers have managed to create costly and exciting spectacular events at exhibition halls, others have simply scrambled together a few flea-bitten reindeer, fake show and surly elves and attempted to pass it off as a magical experience for the whole family. There’s something oddly glorious – and very British – about these catastrophic events, where greed collides with a lack of ambition to create an utterly dismal experience for everyone except those of us who revel in such monuments to failure. The sheer nerve of the organisers, the furious reaction of parents who perhaps should have realised that a ‘winter spectacular’ taking place on a bit of wasteland outside a rundown Northern town and charging six quid a head entry was always going to be more carny con than actual extravaganza… it never gets old.

And it never ends. Every year, you can bet your life on at least one disastrous and often shamelessly shambolic affair that has left the kiddies crying and their parents fuming. Think of the notorious 2013 Milton Keynes Winter Wonderland MK, which promised “a magical, festive spell” and then turned out to be a field lacking in snow, reindeer, rides, a Christmas Market or just about anything else save a dishevelled Santa in an ill-fitting costume. There was a plastic ice rink, though. The event lasted a whole day before closing down.

Or what about the Lapland New Forest event that promised snow-covered cabins, huskies, a nativity scene and other delights but instead delivered a muddy field, broken ice ring and faulty fairy lights? Things quickly became fraught, with angry visitors tussling with elves and Santa being punched in the face. This debacle saw the organisers jailed for thirteen months.

2014 saw Harrogate’s Magical Winterland failing to live up to expectations, with visitors faced with what was fantastically described in the Mirror as “a desolate scene of disappointment” – deflated polar bears, depressed reindeer and scenes of such indescribable misery that it is hard to imagine just what anyone was thinking. Of all the events that have crashed and burned, this is the one we wish that we could’ve attended – the sheer sense of despair is palpable and infectious.

That same year same TV personality Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen brought down to Earth when an event he designed failed miserably, with huge queues for a third-rate Santa who handed out (gasp!) unwrapped presents. Perhaps not at the very top of the shitty Christmas Attraction lists, but still an embarrassment for the celebrity – and we can all get behind that.

The Bakewell Winter Wonderland of 2016 also suffered the curse of problematic weather – perhaps the trick is to hold these things indoors. This one was compared to the Battle of the Somme by one irate customer, which seems a little extreme, but you can see that it perhaps let down customers expecting festive cheer.

Even if your Wonderland is up to scratch, there’s no saying that it won’t be let down by unpredictable forces. Famously, the best Santa ever ruined a Festive Grotto in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in 2012 by telling three kids that he didn’t exist and then making up for this disappointment by describing in detail the Sandy Hook massacre to them. None of this went down well with parents.

You might think that Covid would have put paid to such spectaculars for this year, but think again. The North Pole Experience in Manchester – despite being called “a cracking deal” by defiant organiser Mike Vaughn (who might not be the most impartial judge) – has come in for criticism from parents who have found the drive-thru event lacking in value for the £25 entry fee, not least because another £95 had to be stumped up to feed the two reindeer (nine had been promised, but as Vaughn points out, the advertising didn’t say that they would all be alive).

But just to show that some parents are hard to please, the Hull Magical Drive Thru Adventure has also come in for criticism this year, with people complaining that it was both too scary and too brief, with a terrifying Grinch who bore a curious resemblance to Iron Maiden’s Eddie (see the photo to decide for yourself) and lasting just a minute – though perhaps that was down to freaked out parents hitting the accelerator. Other characters were missing because “Mrs Claus missed her bus and Frozen’s Elsa got her timing wrong and had a poorly child” according to organisers. Tell you kids those reasons and you’ve probably shattered more than just their Christmas illusions. We might, of course, raise eyebrows who complain that an event was both unsuitable for kids and not long enough (“we wanted our children to be traumatised for longer, dammit”), but nevertheless, this event does seem ill-conceived.

But then, perhaps you should tell your kids that Elsa grows up to be a single mum with a rubbish job, Mrs Claus has to take the bus and reindeers die with alarming regularity. The crushing disappointment of these events is a life lesson for a generation – and their parents – who have been told that they can have whatever they want, be whatever they choose. In truth, life is full of disappointment and misery, and most people will end up having to do shitty jobs that they hate just to pay the ever-mounting bills – even those with Humanities degrees. There’s a life-lesson in the shitty Winter Wonderland, and the sort of people who go to these events and probably just the people who should embrace its message of failure, shoddiness and unambitious ‘that’ll do’ mentality. Maybe lay off the Sandy Hook details until the kids start high school though.

DAVID FLINT

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