Even the reindeer were unhappy’: life inside Britain’s worst winter wonderlands

Polystyrene snow, MDF grottos, stomach-churning rides and Santas with scratchy fake beards: as Christmas nears, ’tis the season for winter wonderlands. At their best, these immersive Christmas markets and fairgrounds delight visitors of all ages, while providing a reliable source of income for their owners. Britain’s biggest winter wonderland, in Hyde Park, London, has pulled in more than 14 million people since it launched in 2005, with entry starting at £5 and attractions ranging from £5 to £15.

But visitors to lesser attractions often complain of poorly thought-out productions and inexperienced organisers. Well-documented holiday horrors include Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s Birmingham attraction, which in 2014 was forced to shut down after a day following hundreds of complaints about cheap toys and long queues, and a New Forest Lapland whose owners were sentenced to 13 months in jail for misleading the public in 2008. “You told consumers that it would light up those who most loved Christmas,” the judge told them in his summing up. “You said you would go through the magical tunnel of light coming out in a winter wonderland. What you actually provided was something that looked like an averagely managed summer car boot sale.”

Punters may bear the full, wallet-emptying force of disappointment, but those working behind the scenes are often affected by poor conditions, low morale and inadequate or unpaid wages. We spoke to people who have worked at winter wonderlands over the years about their experiences and why many of them would never set foot in one again. Whether due to trauma or a lingering sense of guilt, almost all asked us not to use their real names

‘We only saw misery’: the elves

Jack: I graduated in 2002 and, with no idea what to do next, I decided to stick around and look for temp work. I laughed very hard when I realised an agency was taking applications to be one of Santa’s elves and applied half-seriously.

After a short phone interview, I got the job – I really could have been anyone off the street. The wonderland was at a massive conference centre, which seemed very impersonal. My main job was to welcome people in groups of 20 to 30, along with another elf. We had to act as if we were on a jet liner taking visitors to Lapland, with projected images of clouds behind us. We gave the families a speech to try to get the kids excited and then pretended the room was airborne. The whole thing was pretty embarrassing and ended after a few minutes with the “landing” and rows of blank faces staring back at us.

Lucy: For a couple of years, while I was a student and needed the money, I worked as an elf at a winter wonderland in a shopping centre. It was horrendous – we were essentially employed just to make sure that people didn’t jump the queue or try to sneak in for free. Christmas is meant to be a time for happiness, but we only saw misery – exhausted parents, insane children and short tempers all round. We had to endure everything from being shouted at to being made fun of – once a colleague even had a drink thrown on them.

The Santas had it great, though – they were paid more than us to endure a few minutes at a time dealing with excitable kids, before we ushered them all outside again to unwrap their disappointing presents. The whole thing was bleak.

 

The New Forest Lapland.

The New Forest Lapland. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Jack: Sometimes I would also chaperone the kids to see Santa. But there were so many kids that we had 10 different Santas lined up together – if any of them still thought Santa was real, this made sure the fantasy fell apart. The whole experience was like being in a sausage factory, with a bell ringing every three minutes to bring a new group through. It was so dispiriting and fake and I was horrified to think how much families with four or five kids were spending. After a few weeks I realised I couldn’t be part of it any more and quit. I never made it to Christmas.

‘The kids were already crying’: the Santas

Matt: If you are a man of a certain size and not averse to putting on a costume, Santa work is decent money each year. I’ve put in more than a decade doing stints and I really enjoy what I do; usually it brings the kids real excitement and it earns their parents some goodwill. But sometimes you have a nightmare job and it makes you question your life choices.

A few years ago, I was booked by a pretty large winter wonderland just outside London. It was a couple of weeks of solid work and even though it was a new event, it seemed too good to pass up. As soon as I arrived, things started to go wrong. It was a few rides and a tent with a chair in the corner for me to sit on and see the kids, surrounded by a few reindeer that looked unhappy. Families began pouring in and there weren’t enough staff to deal with the chaos – the elves were struggling to keep the groups in line, while parents kept wandering off to find managers to shout at.

It was such a tense atmosphere that a lot of the kids were coming to me already crying and there was no way we could make it any better for them – the illusion was ruined. After that first day, the person running the show was nowhere to be found. I never went back. I don’t think the place lasted a week and I was never paid.

Tony: My business was hired to erect a tent for a winter wonderland at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate in 2014. It was a miserable operation – just half a fairground with a few reindeers. It was very tacky. Straightaway, people were complaining that they had been ripped off and, after two days, it was shut down for a “revamp”.

We didn’t think it would reopen, so we went back to take the tent down and suddenly the fire doors to the grotto burst open and Santa came out in his full regalia, ripping off his white beard and shouting: “Fuck this – I’m not taking any more of youse! I’m off!”

It was very funny and surreal. I don’t think the organiser was a crook – he was just totally out of his depth. A lot of these events are just fairgrounds with a bit of sparkle on the machines, but it takes a huge amount of effort to put on something good. Putting tinsel on your dodgems isn’t quite enough.

I never even got my skates on’: the performer

I used to be a pretty good figure skater and the group I trained with would often get booked for Christmas performances. We would usually do a stint of themed winter wonderland gigs in full costume, which was welcome cash for the Christmas season. They would generally be pretty depressing shows, though, performing to half-empty tents on fake ice where we could often see members of the crowd walking out.

 

One year, we were set to do a series of shows at a winter wonderland up north – we had our transport and accommodation booked and headed to the venue. When we got there, there was no one at the site – it was just a tent in a field. We called the organisers but they never picked up and we weren’t sure if we had got the dates or the place wrong. It was only when we searched on Facebook that we saw all the angry comments from customers saying it had been cancelled without any notice. They hadn’t even bothered to tell us, so we went straight home without even getting our skates on.

I spent the day hiding’: the stately-home worker

Sarah: I was between jobs five years ago and decided to do some temping before I found something more permanent. That is how I ended up working at a historic house largely staffed by volunteers who all had a very strange attachment to the place. They treated it as if it was theirs to run and, as a consequence, they hated the manager whose job it was to actually look after it.

One year, an events planner convinced the manager to put on a winter wonderland. The problem was, it is a centuries-old property and so can’t hold fairgrounds or attractions. The person who put on the event neglected to mention that to customers, though, and they were inevitably furious and disappointed. All they had were sweets and a few people dressed up – supposedly as Frozen characters, but the costumes were so cheap you couldn’t tell who they were. The volunteers also kept egging on the customers to complain so the manager would get into trouble.

 

Reindeers.

 Photograph: Jetra Tull/Alamy

There had always been rumours that the place was haunted and I spent that day hiding from angry visitors with an old volunteer who was dressed up as Father Christmas. He used to say the spirits of the house spoke through him and when I went to lock up at night once everyone had left, I could swear the doorstops were moving in the dark. I didn’t last long after that – the volunteers would secretly hold seances, too, and it used to creep me out.

‘It’s worse than some clubs’: the bouncer

Dan: I’ve worked security for years at all sorts of events and little compares to the experience of being at a winter wonderland with an alcohol licence. The combo of Christmas parties, pints and rides usually means that fights break out, as well as people throwing up and needing to be taken home. Once I saw a group of parents fighting because they thought one of the kids had pushed in front of the others in a queue. It is ridiculous – worse than some nightclubs. I just wish people had a bit more self-control.

‘Never again’: the organiser

Rob: I’ve thrown many successful events in my career but none have been harder, or gone worse, than the winter wonderland I agreed to put on with an ex-friend of mine a few years ago.

He had an agreement to put on a fair with a grotto and all the trimmings for a couple of weeks and called me in to help as a business partner. I don’t have many contacts in that area, so I called around and right from the off it was a total mess. Lots of the contractors we had agreed to use would either cancel at the last minute because they had better offers, or they would turn up and do a half-arsed job. Meanwhile, the tickets were selling very well.

It was clear we weren’t going to be ready to open on the advertised date but greed got the better of my mate and so he let people arrive – inevitably bringing on an onslaught of complaints. We had no choice but to shut down a few days later because local papers were picking up the story and everyone was demanding their money back. Needless to say, it ruined our friendship and we made no money from the whole thing. I’ll never do an event like it again. 

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