Winter blunderlands: Putting the grot into grotto

The temporary closure of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's 'Magical Journey' Christmas attraction continues the tradition of festive wonderland disasters

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It is hard to imagine anything more gloriously British than a scandal over the disastrous opening because of rain of a "winter wonderland" at a Sutton Coldfield golf course that had been designed by a flamboyant television presenter celebrated in the Nineties for his use of MDF, and forced to close because of complaints about a broken-down "magic" train, swearing Santas, and elves who stood around "smoking and moaning about working hours".

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, of Changing Rooms, hair, and leather trenchcoat fame, had promised that his "Magical Journey" would be "the most amazing Christmas experience that Planet Earth has ever seen". But the hostage to fortune's park at the Belfry Resort shut down on Sunday after several visitors decided that it wasn't so great. Organisers have apologised, blaming bad weather for hampering preparations, and have rejected claims of swearing or smoking. The site is due to reopen tomorrow.

Such disasters have become a satisfying festive tradition. Unless you are among those who paid £75 for a family of four (children's tickets to Magical Journey – £22.50 each at weekends – include a toy, which may or may not be tacky, squashed and/or wrapped, according to customer reviews), there is surely nothing to tickle one's inner Scrooge more than reports of a "winter blunderland". What cheer in the experience that puts the grot into grotto, and ends with photos in the media of disappointed five-year-olds, muddy car parks and reindeer excrement.

Rewind a year and the reports were familiar. Parents who had paid similar amounts for tickets to a wonderland at a park in Milton Keynes were dismayed to discover underweight Santas in Poundland costumes, reindeers with no antlers and an ice rink without ice.

"I took my granddaughters to see Santa, something we do together every year, and I was so disappointed," a visitor from London wrote in an online comment. "My little Anais asked, 'Nanny have we been bad?' I said no, of course not, why? 'Well why didn't the real Santa come to see us?'"

Anyone who has travelled within German sausage-throwing distance of Hyde Park in London during the past few years will have realised the potential value in this sort of thing. Winter Wonderland there attracted 2.5 million visitors during its six-week run last year and has grown like a big-boned Christmas goose since its launch in 2007. Entry is free but an ice rink, Ferris wheel, rides and multi-storey mulled wine palaces have brought in millions for organisers, sponsors and the Royal Parks, so far without any sign of disaster.

But, like a hapless Changing Rooms viewer armed with a glue gun and stippling brush, cutting corners can so easily lead to tears. Back to 2012 now and a garden centre in Abingdon for the start of a day from hell for three innocent children. Ryan, Amy, and Katie, then aged six to 10, were visiting Santa in his grotto when the man behind the beard told them that – spoiler alert, kids – Father Christmas was not real. He then discussed in detail the Sandy Hook school massacre, which had happened days earlier, while they trembled on his knee.

Garden centre Santa got the sack, but when the family went to the nearby Hungry Horse restaurant as a treat to make up for the festive trauma, the children told a Christmas balloon artist that they had written a letter to the real Santa. "That was a waste of time," he told them, according to the children's mother. "Santa is my best friend, we went skiing last weekend and he told me that he doesn't bother reading letters because he has got better things to do." The restaurant apologised. "The girls are really emotional – they've been all up and down since it happened," the mother told the Daily Mail afterwards. "We're trying to get them excited about Christmas again. At the moment, they just don't want anything to do with anything which involves Santa."

We end this Christmas trip at what remains a benchmark moment for winter blunderlands everywhere. The year: 2008. The place: Ringwood, Hampshire, and a Lapland-themed park in the New Forest. The organisers, two brothers from Brighton, had promised the thousands of people who bought tickets log cabins, a nativity scene, husky dogs, and a "tunnel of light" leading to Santa's grotto.

They found garden sheds, dogs in pens and fairylights thrown at trees that had been sprayed with a thimble of fake snow. Some visitors were so aggrieved that violence broke out. "Santa got attacked, one of the elves got smacked in the face and pushed into a pram," a security guard said, seconds after resigning. "I was punched in the forehead in the ticket office by an irate customer. I was ashamed to work there, really, really ashamed."

Within days the attraction was shut and Victor Mears, 67, and Henry Mears, 60, were arrested for misleading customers. At Bristol Crown Court almost three years later, they were sentenced to 13 months' imprisonment. Their convictions were later quashed after it emerged that a juror had been texting her fiancé during the trial. There was no retrial.

In a warning to all would-be wonderland hosts, the judge told the brothers during the trial: "You promised... [an] amazing snow-covered Lapland village which was - in your own wonderful words - 'Where dreams really do come true' and 'Where we have prided ourselves on attention to detail'. "What you actually provided was something that looked like an averagely managed car-boot sale."

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