The annual trip to see Santa, it’s almost a rite of passage for younger members of the family and some of my earliest memories include waiting to see Father Christmas, but such choice. Which is the one you should spend your money on, the one that you should spent time queuing for in Essex?
Obviously I’ve not been to see them all in one night (who do you think I am, the man himself?) so I can only comment on the ones we have seen.
I’m focusing on comparing and contrasting two experiences, one from 2013 at Marsh Farm and the other from Adventure Island in 2014. Other Santa experiences in Essex are of course available.
First up then, Adventure Island…
When you are little it doesn’t get more exciting than visiting Santa, it’s like a massive adventure so what better place to head to this year than Adventure Island.
He’s normally found residing in the North Pole but we found him closer to home on Southend seafront, although judging by Sarah’s coat you’d have thought we were Arctic bound with huskies and all.
Of course, being winter the main Adventure Island is deserted and looks like something you’d find in an episode of Scooby-Doo, if it wasn’t for the glorious sunshine and blue sky for the middle of December. We did get showered with fake snow though, which was quite nice.
Instead we found ourselves entering through the entrance to Feelgoods to be greeted by a giant sleigh and reindeer before we heads under a festive archway and downstairs to sign in with some elves.
Sticker stuck and wristband attached Iz was ready to begin on her journey to find Father Christmas.
Our first step was Southend’s answer to the Polar Express, although thankfully it was less like Westworld with multiple Tom Hanks’. Iz loved it at the front of the train with Sarah so it was my turn to step up to the mark on the following ride, Santa’s Sleigh, which must have hit some turbulence as it didn’t half throw you around.
Iz loved it though – as you can see in the video – and even eagerly fastened her own safety belt, my knees were wedged against the carriage which meant I really was going nowhere. Iz even had fun punching the sleigh’s super pursuit mode, well The Hoff is in town after all.
Post rides we stepped into the entrance of Santa’s grotto, its blinking and flashing lights an trees as we worked our way down the first corridor was almost like the stargate scene from 2001 Christmas special.
Twists and turns took us on a winding sparkly journey that included the sights and sounds of a toy factory, Nar…I mean Wardrobia and a post office.
But this was no ordinary post office, it was one run by Santa’s elves and you also had the opportunity to write a letter to Santa and pin it to his wall. Isabelle certainly didn’t need asking twice and thoughtfully penned him a letter with her name and covered it with crayon kisses.
It was only then a short wait to be ushered through a door by a helpful elf. Iz then knocked hard and loud on a wooden door before a warm voice ushered her to come in.
As she entered Father Christmas was sat in the corner, he was surrounded by piles upon piles of presents. Chatty all the way round this is where naturally went all sheepish, although she did get to mention a double buggy, Buster’s Bones and Doggie Doo – thankfully I didn’t have to explain the concept to jolly St Nick.
After a not totally successful photo with Santa – Iz didn’t really want to play ball – she was handed a large present from the pile and we waved our goodbyes but not before promising Santa that we’d leave him out a mince pie and a little tipple come Christmas Eve.
Before heading home there was time for one more trip on Santa’s Sleigh, by this time the Polar-ish Express was being pushed round, something about the wrong sort of fake snow on the line apparently.
We bought our Santa snap – normal photo not snow globe or key ring format – and then us grown ups claimed our free mulled wine which certainly warmed us up on the walk back to the car in the fading daylight across the now chilly seafront.
And of course no seasonal visit to Southend seafront would be complete without an ice-cream. This Christmas lark, you could say that Isabelle has it licked.
At £17 for three of us it wasn’t a bad shout and certainly wasn’t as wallet or distance busting as say Marsh Farm – which we did last year when it was cheaper and in the week as Iz was at nursery.
The rides were a nice touch – you could have gone on them as many times as you wanted to – and all the elves we met were jolly and friendly. They even helpfully warned us of the 30 minute wait to see Santa as we slowly snaked through the different rooms, but then it was a Saturday and there was only a little bit I standing around and plenty of visuals to take in.
The only thing that could have improved that would have been times slots, which we’ve had at a previous grotto visit, or multiple Santa’s, which we had at Marsh Farm which kept the queue coasting through.
All in all though it was a fun experience, at less half price of Marsh Farm, which we might have looked at again were it not exactly the same as last year.
We were there for a total of two hours and felt it represented good value for money, we got a free hot drink and Iz’s gift was like a playdoh set.
The only additional costs were paying for parking on the seafront and buying our picture, which was £10.
There was no obligation to buy but you weren’t allowed to take pics in Santa’s room. You had the option of both at Marsh Farm last year.
And so to Marsh Farm…
For Christmas 2013 we headed down to see Father Christmas at Marsh Farm, besides seeing Santa there was a full day of activity – both Christmas and farm yard related – to welcome us and keep us busy.
You’d think that explaining to a jolly fat bloke what presents you would like would be easy, well it is, it is just deciding where to do it is the oh so fiddly part. London, when taking into account the train was too costly and the end of Southend Pier (the longest pier in the world at 1.33 miles just so you know) wasn’t enticing enough for the price.
So, after much deliberation we decided to go and visit him and his elves at Marsh Farm as its package included not just meeting the bearded chap, but decorating a gingerbread man with Mrs Christmas, painting a tree decoration, getting to choose and stuff your own make a bear (after being given a token by Santa), travelling to meet him on a ‘train’ and visiting the farm and its menagerie of animals.
And my wife, daughter and I got to do all this for £30, which took the best part of the day and we thought it was all rather good value for money. In that you also got access to the whole of Marsh Farm as well, so we pretty much made a whole day of it!
The other great thing is that Marsh Farm actually has its own reindeer, so even they were drafted in for supporting roles, minus funny ears and silly costumes of course. Unfortunately the last time I was at Marsh Farm it was synonymous with rain dear rather than reindeer as we held Isabelle’s third birthday on the day back in August when we had that torrential rain. We had a wet but fun party but it was certainly a marked contrast to our return visit with Iz mostly walking round with her sunglasses on…not something I thought I would be writing with less than two weeks until Christmas Day (which is when we went).
Thirty quid sounds steepish, but then all things considered that includes entry to the whole of Marsh Farm – we went midweek and it was a lovely day and was a whole day affair, a marked difference from the two hours we spent at Adventure Island.
The cuddly toy was great, think like build a bear but not, clothes and accessories were of course optional extras as were photos, in key rings and snowglobes (we went with the latter as you’ll see) but you were able to take your own pics when meeting Santa as well, another one up on Adventure Island.
Looking back at the video a year later and comparing it against this year’s attraction, although it is further to get to I think we’ll be making a return visit to Santa at Marsh Farm next year as there is just much more to do and to experience.
Marsh Farm’s Santa experience really is the full ticket and the only reason we didn’t do it again this year was because it didn’t look like it had changed so we wanted to try another experience.
Adventure Island may have been much cheaper and closer – parking was a further £3 mind and you couldn’t take your own pics of meeting Santa and they were an extra £10 or three for £20 – but the experience just wasn’t as immersive or as long.