Family day out: Willows Activity Farm Santa Spectacular
‘How would you like to see Santa?’ I said. My four-year-old’s eyes lit up. ‘And Peter Rabbit?’ I thought she was going to explode with glee. Sorry Santa.
With a month to go until Christmas itself, I was ready to start getting in the festive mood, and being invited along to review Willows Activity Farm Santa Spectacular, just outside St Albans in Hertfordshire, was the perfect recipe.
Somewhere I’ve always heard great things about, there’s plenty to discover year-round but as I realised after six fun hours exploring, adding Santa, huskies and elves to the mix makes it a family day out that’s hard to beat.
For starters, I’d forgotten just how quick a journey it is from our home in west London if there’s no traffic – which there wasn’t bright and early on a Saturday morning.
Secondly, although there were plenty of families along to check out the festive events (not to mention a small horde of bloggers), it never seemed busy.
Perhaps because there’s simply so much to see and do. We ran out of time to hop on board the tractor ride, for Minnie to get her first taste of ice skating (‘later,’ she insisted), to check out the soft play or to explore more than two of the playgrounds. In our defence, we did still fit in quite a lot.
The Christmassy theme started from the beginning as we headed in to watch the 3D sleigh ride film, Minnie’s first experience of 3D. She took a bit of convincing not to keep ducking – although it was realistic enough that I ducked once or twice myself – and kept trying to catch the sparkles in the area, apparently just in front of our nose, with enough giggles as we chased some errant presents for Santa to prove she was having fun.
Next stop was the Create-A-Cuddle workshop, to make our own husky toy… except round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should we meet but Peter Rabbit? Actually the cucumber frames and Mr McGregor’s garden came later, but there was Peter, exactly as if he’d stepped out of Beatrix Potter’s stories, ready to wave a furry paw and give a hug. Frankly, I think Minnie’s day would have been made if we had stopped there.
But her own toy husky (complete with her choice of pink satin heart) topped even that. She barely let the cuddly dog go all day, as you’ll see from the video, although she was persuaded to put the newly christened ‘Honey the husky’ down for a few minutes to write a letter to Santa. Hopefully Santa is an avid Octonauts fan, as he might be a bit baffled by the request otherwise.
If you visit before December 14, you’ll receive a reply too which is a lovely touch – ours, hopefully, is winging its way from the North Pole.
Then after a brief wander around the farm to nervously cuddle a guinea pig, feed a goat and sternly instruct a happily nibbling rabbit to ‘boing, boing, BOING’, Minnie got to see the real-life version of her new toy, Mischka, an Alaskan Malamute puppy, who’s bigger than most average dogs.
And before we headed over to Santa’s Grotto, we stopped off for elf school – two of Santa’s elves, Berry and Twig (trained for 150 years to reach that important position) were passing on a few essential tips – knowing you ‘elf-abet’ and how to tiptoe in order not to wake sleeping children. I’ve never heard a few dozen small children be quite so quiet.
Diploma in hand, we refuelled in one of the cafes – where Minnie only stopped eyeing up ice cream (on the coldest day of the year so far) when she saw the enormous cookies on offer to follow her kids’ meal box – before it was finally time for the man in the red suit himself. Wandering through the grotto, with a polar bear to cuddle and a huge advent calendar to open, we barely seemed to wait two minutes before it was time to see Santa.
Minnie, inevitably, got an attack of the shy and flatly refused to pose for photos – in the end, she could just about be persuaded to tell Santa what she wanted and was finally tempted to venture into the room properly when he produced a golden key to unlock the toy shop, complete with magical tinkling noise, with free rein to pick any toy she wanted.
Well, any toy I didn’t veto. Although there was so much choice and lovely gifts that having that included in the ticket is a definite bonus – the optimistic small boy in front asking for a remote control car was doomed to slight disappointment though.
Along the way we’d been filling in our elf passport too, getting stamps at various points, noting down the numbers and names of Santa’s reindeer (top tip, if you’re missing any, keep your eyes peeled in the grotto) which can get you some magic reindeer dust to sprinkle on the lawn on Christmas Eve.
You might think that sounds like a full day out. To be honest, that pretty much is a full day out – but the Santa Spectacular is only part of what we found. Along with the indoor play areas of Cotton Tail Village and several outdoor playgrounds, there was Peter Rabbit’s Adventure playground to discover. Twice.
Scampering through logs, exploring the tree house, rearranging Mrs Tiggywinkle’s home and laundry, jumping and playing with Jeremy Fisher’s musical entertainments in the ‘pond’, everything led back to Mr McGregor’s garden where the giant radishes were to be found. Transporting them to the wheelbarrow and replanting them, before repeating the whole process kept Minnie and a few new friends (part-way through a birthday party) entertained for an impressive amount of time. Which gave me time to take some photos.
Then suddenly the sun was starting to set and we hadn’t even been on the fairground rides – also included, which was another nice bonus, not least because I never seem to have the right change on me otherwise. Spinning round in teacups and watching Minnie gleefully drive a car, accompanied by her husky in the passenger seat, it was a lovely end to the day.
Once I persuaded my indignant four-year-old that yes, we did have to go home.
Need to know
Willows Activity Farm Santa Spectacular runs until December 24, open 10am to 5.30pm. Last entry is at 4.30pm and Santa’s Grotto closes at 5.15pm.
Tickets cost from £12 for adults and £33 for children on the door but you can save up to 25% if you book online, depending on the date. There’s also family membership from £33 per month.
There are also different seasonal events on throughout the year – various areas were shut for the winter season, but would give you plenty more to do during the summer when Santa is taking a well-earned break. Do get a map on entry: we didn’t have one and there’s a lot of farm to explore without something to refer to.
The only extras we had to pay for were food, although if we’d managed a photo with Santa that would also have been priced separately as were extra costumes for the husky toys, so you don’t constantly need to find change for rides and play areas.
There are two main cafe/coffee shop areas as well as additional kiosks and places to buy food from Easter to October, plus picnic areas. A kids’ meal box, including a drink, plus an adult meal, a giant smarties cookie, a mince pie and a coffee cost around £15.
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Disclosure: Our entry and two meal vouchers were provided free for the purposes of review. All opinions and small children preferring giant rabbits to Santa Claus are my own.
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