Into the Santalands: Our family Fota opportunity at Wonder in Cork
Kirsty Blake Knox whisked her family away to check out the 'Big Kahuna' of Irish Santa visits
Not all of Santa's grottos are created equal.
There are Miracle-on-34th-Street style department store grottos. There are rough and ready Santy sheds, carpeted with red felt and dusted with frothy effluvia.
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And there are state-of-the-art experimental winter wonderlands.
The visitation rights and access to the 'Bearded Gentleman' also vary from place to place.
This year there was uproar in London when Harrods' Santa – who resides in a Swarovski crystal studded lair – would only meet well behaved children whose parents had already spent in excess of £2,000 in store.
Irish Santas aren’t quite so money-hungry, but taking a trip to the Santalands has become big business, as well as a festive rite of passage.
It’s right up there with complaining about the diminishing size of Roses' tins, watching endless repeats on RTE, and arguing with your in-laws while wearing stiflingly hot knitwear.
In Ireland, Fota Island’s Wonder is one of the Big Kahunas when it comes to Santa trips: close to 3,000 people will visit in the lead-up to Christmas, and there are 200 elves on hand to shepherd you around - when they're not busy making toys.
The place is so "Fah-la-la-la" it has been dubbed “10 acres of Christmas Panto” (oh yes it has!).
So we packed our bags and made our way with Georgie, our one-year-old daughter, from Dublin to Fota Island Resort - the five-star resort where the experience is based.
Into the world of Wonder...
The whole shebang begins with a Christmas market, complete with carousels, mulled wine and giant mechanical zoo animals that children can ride.
Our booking had gone MIA, so we had a bit of wait before we were allowed into Santa’s special kingdom.
Once through the doors, however, we were greeted with the unmistakable peppiness of Santa’s Elves. They speak in rhyme and are called names like Puffle and Twinkletoes.
The elves keep kids entertained while you wait for Santa to call your name. When he does, another elf magically appears and guides you towards his hut.
The day we visited, Old Kris Kringle was in sparkling form.
He even had contingency plans in place when our one-year-old inevitably started crying, and knew when to wrap up the naughty/nice chit chat. He also made sure we got multiple photos taken.
And let's be real: that is 99.99% of the reason parents bring their children to see Santa.
Photo taken, Mr Claus handed us a present and sent us on our merry way. I thought we were done and dusted, but our elfin companion informed us that our adventure was only just beginning,
She led us toward two of Santa’s reindeer friends - I think they were Prancer and Vixen, but I can't be sure. And there was more to come...
A Fota opportunity
Having travelled from Dublin, we stayed at Fota's self-catering lodges the night before - we're relatively new to family travel, and have learnt the hard way that staying in a nice hotel room with a baby is a very, very bad idea.
You’re crammed into one room, and once the bábóg eventually goes to sleep, you spend the evening watching TV on mute, and taking turns running to the hotel bar for wine and chips.
A self-catering lodge on the same resort as the Santa experience, however, offered a whole new world of possibilities...
The baby could sleep in a different room! Leaving us free to watch TV with the sound on, while eating chips and drinking wine – together!
We found the lodges to be warm, spacious and comfy, if a little lacking in personality - but there was just one snag. We had never done self-catering before and didn’t realise you must stock the place out entirely.
There wasn't so much as a quart of fresh milk in the place.
We had only brought supplies of yogurt and Liga (for the baby, not ourselves), so decided to order from the hotel takeaway menu.
Unfortunately, we were told that takeaways are not offered on Friday nights, which seems kind of weird because everyone knows Friday night is prime takeaway night.
We were advised instead to ring the local Chinese, which we did, but you can’t help but think the hotel is missing a trick here.
(The hotel has since clarified that takeaways are usually available Fridays, but were not on this particular occasion due to a private function).
Otherwise, we found Fota Resort to be a very family friendly hotel – rising early in the morning, for example, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the hotel and a fun swim in its pool.
As our afternoon booking to see Santa, Mrs Claus, Elves and two of his fleet of reindeer neared, we joined a lobby filled with children high on adrenaline and sugar and frantically counting down the minutes to see the Big Man.
Luckily, there's a soft play area where children can hurl toys at each other while parents slump around the edges of the room. The staff are also friendly and forgiving, and polite enough to ignore full-blown tantrums.
A well-oiled machine
Wonder is a well oiled machine, and having Santa meet and greet the littles early on is a smart move; it allows everyone to relax and meander along Candy Cane Lane, and on through the maze of snow covered pine trees.
On a practical level, the flow of movement was top notch. Guests crisscross each other and are able to move at their own pace. There were no traffic jams of disgruntled adults or overtired children during our visit, and the pathways were buggy-friendly.
Along the route, elves located in various wooden sheds (aka letter writing stations, post master's house, and reindeer pens), tell children about Santa and the mechanics of working and living in the North Pole.
It’s worth remembering that a lot of the set-up is outdoors – so make sure to wrap up. Especially if it’s chucking it down. This is not the day to crack open your festive finery – opt for fleece.
After meeting Mrs Claus - who is disconcertingly younger than Santa - we travelled through a time machine to a games area. This was complete with free ice cream and Ribena, a slide and tunnel, and teddies whizzing through the air on a high wire string.
There was also a mysterious-sounding infinity box (looking suspiciously like a mirrored room with fairy lights and baubles).
This finisher proved to be our daughter’s favourite bit (sorry about that, Santa). After loading up on sugar and tearing around, we all exited Wonder, and headed back to the main hotel for a well deserved drink/ bottle.
Visiting Santa at Wonder is a marathon of a Santa visit.
It’s totally exhausting - at times you wonder if you’ll ever cross the finishing line. But, it has to be said, the excitement is infectious.
Even the most hardened Scrooge will leave on a high.
Fota Island Wonder runs from November 22nd to December 23rd this year (fotawonder.ie). Tickets are priced as follows:
Off Peak: Little One €16 / Grown-up €11
Low price: Little One €21 / Grown-up €14
Mid price: Little One €23.50 / Grown-up €15.50
High price: Little One €28 / Grown-up €18
Kirsty and family were guests of Fota Island Resort, where prices range from €200 B&B for two adults sharing a classic king room, or from €640 for two nights in a self-catering lodge (fotaisland.ie).