Lapland: the far-from-wonderful wonderland
It was supposed to be a fun-filled day out for all the family in the run-up to Christmas.
They were expecting a snow-dusted Christmas village, an ice rink, a magical tunnel of light and a jolly Santa giving out presents.
The advertising for Lapland New Forest hinted at the enchanting winter wonderland waiting at Matchams Leisure Park near Ringwood, Hampshire.
"The attention to detail of our theme park will truly wow you," it said.
"As our show is being staged for the first time our website can only begin to hint at our wonderland."
No wonder the paying customers were disappointed.
After paying £30 a head, visitors to the theme park found a collection of garden sheds with miserable-looking dogs tethered in place.
The "magical tunnel of light" turned out to be a row of trees with lights strung across, the ice rink was closed for repairs and a "bustling" Christmas market was virtually deserted.
Children at least had the consolation of a visit to Santa.
But they had to wait for up to three hours in snaking queues and near-freezing temperatures before they could see him.
And even then, Santa did not hand out the gifts personally. The unwrapped presents were distributed from a nearby hut.
One disappointed customer, who took his whole family to Lapland New Forest after being attracted by the elaborate advertising, felt he had been duped.
Thomas Parham spent £150 on tickets to take his wife, her parents and their two young children, aged eight and six, to Lapland on the first weekend it opened.
Mr Parham said he first saw a "very elaborate" advert in his local newspaper.
"I went on to look at the website of the attraction, which was a very elaborate, enticing affair. It seemed like a wonderful day out for the whole family," he said.
"We drove down this pot-holed lane, it was rather dilapidated, with some scrap cars in a pile down the side.
"There was nothing there at all to say we were at the right venue and there were very few members of staff we could see.
"We asked members of the public the way to the attraction, which was not marked at all, apart from one handwritten 'Lapland' sign on a traffic cone.
"We did find that the attraction was not manned by an elf, which was stated on the website, but a man collecting ticket stubs."
Mr Parham said the first attraction they came to as they entered the theme park was the tunnel of light.
"It was only once we had reached the end of a line of fir trees I overheard someone from another party say 'Is that it?'.
"I would have expected something more elaborate than a line of fir trees with a string of fairy lights in the daytime, which is not exactly a fabulous view.
"There was not much to distinguish the tunnel of light from the rest of the wood apart from some snow."
Mr Parham, from Crewkerne, Somerset, also described his disappointment with the promised log cabins that turned out to be a series of garden sheds.
"On the roofs of the sheds were white polystyrene slabs with a dusting of snow on the top," Mr Parham said.
Instead of a selection of Christmas-themed food stalls, he found "distinctively average fast food vans".
"They advertised mulled wine but when we inquired we were told by one of the elves they didn't have a drinks licence," he said.
Mr Parham said the Christmas market was a large canvas tent with two trailers inside selling festive wrapping paper.
And the huskies were tethered to pens in a muddy enclosure.
"There were pens with geese, chickens and I believe there was a lone donkey and a sole reindeer," Mr Parham said.
"Living in the country, my children were not over-impressed with seeing pigs and chickens."
Mr Parham said there was a three-hour queue to see Father Christmas and his family did not bother waiting.
"When we arrived we were expecting to get some 'magic dust' to put in a letter to Father Christmas, which we would give to an elf and he would give to Father Christmas," he said.
"None of that materialised. We didn't queue for three hours - having heard some of the comments of people that had made it to the front, we decided it was not worth it.
"We went to a hut which was dishing out presents and the children were able to choose an unwrapped small gift which was of pretty poor quality, I must say."
Mr Parham said that next to the ice rink there was a funfair charging £5 a ride.
"Given that we had paid £150 to look at some chickens, pigs and dogs in pens, the idea of having to pay out further money to go on some rides seemed a little harsh," he said.
"We were saddened. The children were disappointed and we felt we had been duped."
Some visitors had travelled hundreds of miles for a day out at Lapland New Forest and were left bitterly disappointed.
Anita Saunders took her whole family for her son's fifth birthday and bought 10 tickets expecting a "fun day out".
Mrs Saunders, from Lyndhurst, Hampshire, likened the theme park to a "concentration camp" with lines of people shuffling along.
"It just sounded fantastic. It seemed magical. It seemed fantastic for the children. The animals, the tunnel of light, the Hollywood special effects," she said.
"The pictures on the website were colourful. There was reindeer, snowmen, log cabins - it just really looked like the real Lapland."
Mrs Saunders took her son, daughter, husband, her sister and husband, their two children, and her parents.
"The website promised us that we would be greeted by an elf upon arrival," she said.
"We actually saw no elves when we arrived, we actually saw a couple of chaps in high visibility jackets milling around and we were pointed in the direction of the long queue."
Mrs Saunders told of her shock when she finally got inside Lapland New Forest.
"I think it was pretty much disbelief," she said.
"I think when we walked through we were expecting to walk through something fantastic but we were bitterly disappointed.
"I imagined we would walk into a tunnel and come out of the tunnel into a magical Christmas village," she said.
"The reality was that we joined a very large queue. There was nobody to direct us, so we just followed everybody else in front of us."
Mrs Saunders, who later complained to trading standards, described the queues of people as something out of a movie set concentration camp.
"Everyone was just shuffling around with their heads down," she said.
"The reality was that there were a few fir trees with coloured patio lights shining out from underneath them."
Mrs Saunders said the Christmas village - with promised snow-covered log cabins - was a series of "B&Q sheds".
Inside the Polar Post Office were two teenage girls dressed as elves offering broken pens, snapped crayons and envelopes for the children.
"Inside the Gingerbread Cottage they were giving out a gingerbread man, taken out of a plastic packet," she said.
"A girl came along and spread some very watery icing over the gingerbread man and the children were given a small amount of Smarties or sweets to stick on the gingerbread man," she said.
"We were given a plastic bag to put the gingerbread man in.
"By the time we left, the icing had run off and the sweets were just a gooey mess in the bottom of the bag."
Angela Barnes said: "It looked so wonderful and exciting and was something I had not been to before."
Mrs Barnes, from Southsea, Hampshire, added: "The 'magical tunnel of light' attracted me, as did the 'bustling Christmas market'."
But her illusions of a wonderful day out were quickly spoilt.
"I thought it was an introduction to what was going to get better. I didn't realise I was properly inside the attraction," she said.
"I was sad because I persuaded my husband to go because I got excited by these things.
"I felt I had dragged him along to something that was a waste of money. I was looking forward to seeing the 'magic tunnel of light', which on the website looked stunning but it just didn't exist."
Mrs Barnes described the nativity scene as an "advertising hoarding" and added: "It was across a muddy ploughed field. It was painted with sandy mountains, three camels and a star.
"I was expecting something much more 3D."
She described the Christmas market as five stalls selling nothing more than "tacky paper and cards" and the skating rink as "two large puddles".
"I thought it was going to be a really first-class ice rink," she said.
Summarising her visit, Mrs Barnes, who later complained to trading standards, said: "You could have walked around the whole park in half an hour.
"I am just sad as it was a waste of a day. A big part of an event like that is the excitement in the weeks before.
"It wasn't so much the money, it was just the sheer disappointment and the fact we had been misled."
Mrs Barnes and her husband had watched families queue for more than three hours to see Father Christmas.
"It was just heartbreaking to see these people in the cold with their children, who they had promised could see Father Christmas - so they had little choice in waiting," Mrs Barnes said.
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