Wednesday 21 August 2019

Visits to Santa's winter wonderland have become so much cooler now

James Kehoe with Jack Frost and Mrs Claus at Rathwood in Co Carlow
James Kehoe with Jack Frost and Mrs Claus at Rathwood in Co Carlow
Faye Keohane, who sang on the ‘Toy Show’ last night

Emma Jane Hade and Jane O'Faherty

They will draw more visitors than the All Ireland finals this year, and probably offer just as many magic moments. With just 26 days left until Christmas, thousands of families are preparing for Santa visits.

And instead of the traditional trip to the department store grotto, increasingly whole days are being set aside to visit elaborate Christmas Experiences which have sprung up all over Ireland.

Snowflakes, sleigh rides, nativity cribs, herds of deer and magical woodland settings are among the arsenal of props being used to welcome and entertain families at these attractions over the coming weeks.

James Keogh, from Rathwood, near Tullow in Co Carlow, has hired an army of more than 140 elves to help on their 'Santa Adventure' train. He has seen the experience at his country garden centre rocket in popularity in recent years and has grown his customer base from 4,000 to 55,000 people - more than the capacity of the Aviva Stadium.

"On September 1, we sold 18,000 tickets in the first two hours they were on sale," he explained. "I think people are now looking for a more active experience than ever before, and so the acting and the actors have to be top-notch."

As well as becoming junior elves in workshops and listening to stories from Mrs Claus, smaller visitors are transported to Santa's grotto in the woods on the Rathwood Christmas train.

Also in demand this year is the 'Wish' winter wonderland experience at Fota Island Resort, where up to 60,000 are expected to visit.

This is Fota's third year running the Christmas experience, and they have almost doubled their visitor numbers since they first opened their doors.

"We employ elves and have recruited about 140 for the event. We even have a few special ones flying over from Lapland," Seamus Leahy, the marketing director of Fota Island Resort, said.

Entertainment for all ages is a primary focus for Fota, where they have created a "pure land of make-believe".

"Suspend disbelief and just go for it. We consider this like a pantomime spread out over 10 or 12 acres. We have gone to enormous expense to develop this wonderland that is second to nothing in Ireland," Mr Leahy, the head elf, added.

Deirdre Murtagh and her team at Causey Farm in Co Meath are keeping it a little more traditional.

As well as a Santa grotto, post office and a sleigh control room, there is also a Bethlehem area, complete with a large crib and some live animals - including a camel.

"We have a Christmas cottage too, and children hear about old Irish traditions and they stir the pudding and make a wish. And we put a candle in the window," Ms Murtagh said.

The family-run business is expecting 20,000 visitors, who will be greeted with a glass of mulled apple juice and mince pies. And they have also hired 50 extra staff for the event.

"The bookings are already up nearly one-third in comparison to last year," she added.

Irish Independent

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