Friday 19 January 2018

Where's the best place to go this year to visit the man in the red suit?

Visiting Santa gets you a lot more bang for your buck than in previous years, writes Aideen Sheehan

Grotto fabulous: Sarah and Tom Kelly and their children Emma and Liam
Grotto fabulous: Sarah and Tom Kelly and their children Emma and Liam

For children, Christmas would not be complete without a visit to Santa. But for parents it can be difficult to choose from the vast range of options when it comes to the man in red.

The days when Santa was only available at a couple of department stores with queues out the door are long gone, and venues are now going all out to offer the best visiting experience, with online booking becoming the norm.

Smart Consumer took a look at the options and selected some for which we've heard personal recommendations.

Powerscourt Avoca, Co Wicklow

Very popular Santa in a lovely setting and Avoca has now introduced prebooking to prevent lengthy queues. However, even if they're not visiting the big man, kids can inspect farm animals free of charge in Powerscourt Stables.

Ailwee Caves, Co Clare

At €33 for a child and €15 per adult, this is far from cheap, but fans rave about the experience which can last a full day. As well as entering the caves to meet Santa and visit his post office, there's free face painting, puppet shows, a mini funfair and Christmas market and a Birds of Prey centre.

Rathwood, Co Carlow

Santa visits only started at this garden centre and lifestyle store on the Carlow/Wicklow border four years ago, but they've become so popular it's vital to book early in September if you want a sought-after weekend spot, with virtually all December dates now sold out.

It costs €15 per child including the gift and hot chocolate, and €10 per adult.

Arnotts Christmas Grotto, Dublin

Popular city centre festive tradition where, unusually, it's free for kids to visit Santa and discuss their present wish list at his brand new Christmas grotto.

There is no present and the queues are long. The walkway to the grotto is filled with entertainment including chill-out bean bags, colouring areas and entertainers.

Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Rathfarnham

Many devotees have made a visit to the lovely DSPCA headquarters in the hills of Dublin part of their Christmas ritual that also benefits animals. The costs are adult €5, child €15. Bookable online.

Winterval Festival, Waterford

This well regarded Santa arrived by Viking longboat last month and has taken up residence at the 13th-Century Medieval Museum, where kids get to see elves at work in the post room and toy factory, visit the snowy garden and meet both Mrs Claus and her husband. There's a gift for every child and a photo. Cost per child is €15 at weekends and €12 on weekdays.

Turoe Pet Farm, Co Galway

Popular Santa where children can also feed the animals in the stable nativity scene and enjoy a bounce in the inflatable city.

Cost for entry to pet farm is €12 per child, €6 per adult. Santa visit plus gift €6 extra per child.

Fota Island Believe, Cork

Wedding planner Peter Kelly aka Franc has created a festive event at Fota Island resort featuring a Christmas market, a train journey through the woods to Santa's grotto in a snow-filled woodland.

Child €20, adult €12.50, babies under one free.

'It was like a little pantomime, I'd highly recommend it'

Sarah and Tom Kelly and their family are among the many repeat visitors to see Santa at Rathwood this year.

The garden centre and lifestyle store in Rathwood, Co Carlow, will welcome 44,000 visitors to their Santa, with many booking months in advance to get one of the coveted slots.

Having loved it last year, Sarah says they'd been determined to return again this year, though they'd had to choose a date in November as December was almost fully gone by the time they booked.

Their three-year-old daughter Emma and Liam, who's one, were enthralled by the visit which lasted over an hour.

It started with meeting Mrs Claus in her house who told the kids a story.

"That was like a little panto in itself because it was all interactive, and Liam was just watching it in awe," says Sarah.

This was followed by a train ride through the forest, meeting the Bridge Elf and being led along a walkway lit by fairy lights to Santa's cabin.

The presents were very age-appropriate with Emma getting a good-quality jigsaw and Liam getting a set of cars.

The visit took more than an hour in total and Sarah says she'd highly recommend it – and though they live nearby, they knew others who had come from Dublin to enjoy it.

Rathwood has only been running its Santa visits since 2009 when they welcomed around 5,000 visitors, but word of mouth has seen it multiply to nearly 10 times that many this year.

It has taken on 100 elves for the festive season to ensure families have a great experience.

Irish Independent

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