Brothers 'could have made £1m from Lapland theme park'

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The Independent Online

Two brothers could have made more than £1 million by misleading thousands of customers into visiting a Lapland-style theme park, a court heard today.

Visitors to Lapland New Forest were offered a winter wonderland with snow-covered log cabins, a nativity scene, husky dogs, polar bears and other animals, as well as a bustling Christmas market.

Instead of the promised magical festive treat, visitors experienced fairy lights hung from trees and a broken ice rink.

Within days of the attraction opening in November 2008, hundreds of disgruntled visitors to the park on the Hampshire-Dorset border complained to trading standards they had been ripped off, Bristol Crown Court heard.

Less than a week later the attraction closed, with the theme park's owners blaming the media and sabotage from "New Forest villains" for the decision.

With visitors charged £30 a ticket and with up to 10,000 advance bookings online, the owners were set to make £1.2 million, prosecutor Malcolm Gibney told the court.

The two men behind Lapland New Forest, brothers Victor and Henry Mears, faced a jury today accused of eight charges of selling misleading advertising.

Opening the prosecution case, Mr Gibney said the brothers advertised the attraction on the theme park's own website, in newspaper adverts and with flyers - with the aim of attracting as many visitors as possible.

"The website promised a festive scene and set out what sort of things there would be available to see, if they were in attendance," the prosecutor said.

"It was described as being a winter wonderland.

"The event opened on the weekend of November 30 and by the following Monday, December 1, complaints were flowing into Dorset Trading Standards.

"In particular the complaints were that the event did not meet the description set out on the website and the various forms of advertising material."

Mr Gibney said changes were made to the Lapland's website but still the complaints flowed.

"It is fair to say that the theme park attracted a lot of negative publicity and in the event it closed within a less than a week of opening," he told jurors.

The brothers face five charges of engaging in a commercial practice which is a misleading action and three charges of engaging in a commercial practice which is a misleading omission.

Victor Mears, 67, of Selsfield Drive, and Henry Mears, 60, of Coombe Road, both Brighton, Sussex, deny all the charges.

The court heard that Victor Mears was the company's sole director but was being assisted by his younger brother, who was managing Lapland, and who was responsible for the promotion of the event.

"We say as a result of the 'consent, connivance or neglect' of both these defendants that these offences took place," Mr Gibney said.

The court heard that people travelled from as far as West Wales, the Midlands and the south east of England to visit Lapland.

"Some of them travelled many, many miles and they told of their utter disappointment at what they saw, and their anger," Mr Gibney said.

"The only feeling of 'wow' that many of the consumers felt was 'wow, what a con'.

"There were a lot of families with young children that spent a lot of money on what they hoped would be a wonderful Christmas treat."

The court heard that following the complaints two trading standards officers visited the theme park, which was being held at Matchams Leisure Park, near Ringwood, Hants.

However, before visiting they checked out the Lapland's website.

Mr Gibney described to the jury that the eye catching website offered a "snow covered village near Bournemouth" with a "magical tunnel of light", "beautiful snow covered log cabins", a "bustling Christmas market", "wonderful ice rink" and "delicious hot and cold seasonal food".

In bold, Mr Gibney said, the website stated: "The attention to detail of our theme park will truly wow you."

"The website included pictures of reindeer, huskies, donkeys, rabbits and ducklings," Mr Gibney said.

The website boasted: "As our show is being staged for the first time our website can only begin to hint at our wonderland."

Tickets, which were purchased in advance online, were priced at £30 each but was reduced to £25 if four were bought. Children under two would be charged £10.

The outdoor ice rink would cost another £5 for skate hire and there was a charge of £5 for posting tickets bought online.

"It is clear, we say, from the photos this event is aimed at families and young children," Mr Gibney said.

On the way to the park, the two trading standards officers stopped at a local shop and picked up one of the flyers advertising the attraction.

The flyer stated: "Lapland New Forest where dreams really do come true. Lapland has come to Dorset".

It also promoted the "magical tunnel of light" and snow-covered log cabins around the outdoor ice rink.

The flyer also said there would be real huskies, donkeys, polar bears and reindeer and concluded: "All here want to wish you a happy Christmas".

When the trading standards officers arrived at Lapland, they found things a little different, the court heard.

Mr Gibney showed the jury pictures the officers had taken of the theme park, which showed muddy fields and the "lightest possible dusting of snow" covering the log cabins.

Instead of a "bustling Christmas market" they found two food stalls selling German sausages and a choice of turkey or pork and stuffing baguettes.

The ice rink was also faulty, which, Mr Gibney said, the defendants would blame on sabotage.

Instead of a "magical tunnel of light" the trading standards officers found fairy lights strung across trees.

"The officers, having compared the website to what they saw on the ground, were concerned," Mr Gibney said.

"They did not believe the description on the website or on the flyers reflected what the public were buying into.

"It should have been abundantly clear to both defendants that the way the theme park was being advertised misrepresented to people what they were going to get.

"In essence they were saying this was a genuine event they had set up in good faith."