The Santa Experience at Marwell Zoo

What do you look for when you take your children to see Santa? With the myriad of opportunities available these days, I like to think it’s getting easier to find one that speaks to all your child’s needs, whatever they are.

For us, it’s important that there’s no pointless hanging around and even less that there’s any queuing. Oscar’s Autism isn’t massively sensorially based, but he does need to be able to move as much as possible and queuing just makes no sense to him (I often wonder if he’s really British at all ūüėČ Joke!), to the point it can make him anxious. He also struggles to concentrate for long periods of time on one thing, preferring lots of small activities to one big one.

So when we were invited to come and meet Santa at Marwell Zoo the description they gave to us ticked lots of our boxes straight off. No queuing, no pointless hanging around and plenty of activity. It sounded too good an opportunity to pass up.

Meeting Santa at Marwell Zoo is a real event. We’re not talking just chatting to a big man in a red suit and white beard, it’s a whole experience. We were well prepped as to what to expect and couldn’t have had a better time. We arrived at the zoo before our allotted time, which gave us time to go round beforehand. I think Oscar would have been heartbroken if we’d gone all the way to the zoo and not seen the animals, Santa or no Santa, so we were really grateful that our ticket included entrance to the zoo. However, it doesn’t have to be, if you’d rather just visit for the Christmas experience.

But first, giraffe

But first, giraffe

We made our way round the park in a loop, ending up at Marwell Hall and ready to start our Santa Experience. The visit was broken into sections, which while very clear, flowed brilliantly:

Join the elves in Magical Marwell Hall and warm yourself with a glass of mulled wine or blackcurrant and a festive treat.

We were welcomed to the perfectly beautiful Marwell Hall, by a team of elves, all dressed to the nines and all who seemed to have been thoroughly briefed on Oscar’s Autism and his needs, which was a wonderfully thoughtful touch. We got our drinks and Oscar had a mince pie before taking a real shine to one of the elves’ outfits. Mistletoe really earned her Nice badge that day by removing her shoes, apron and hat and letting Oscar try them on. Baring in mind this is the boy that doesn’t really do dressing up, he had a whale of a time! He was so happy, it bought a tear to my eye and we hadn’t even seen Santa yet!

Oscar takes a shine to Mistletoe the Elf's uniform. So she gives it to him to wear!

Oscar takes a shine to Mistletoe the Elf’s uniform. So she gives it to him to wear!

My little Elf

My little Elf

To amuse the children while we waited for everyone to arrive there was a touch screen Naughty and Nice list for the children to check, which I though was a really clever touch, especially as the children could find their own names on the Nice list and their favourite super villain on the Naughty list!

Be charmed by Mrs Claus whilst she reads the enchanting tale of ‚ÄėThe animals that saved Christmas‚Äô

I had explained to the staff beforehand, that Oscar was unlikely to sit and listen to a story. They¬†couldn’t have been more understanding and suggested that we skip that part of the experience if we wanted to. However, on the day we decided to give it a go. The staff¬†were prepared for him to leave at any point, which was very reassuring.

Mrs Claus was waiting for us in a gorgeous ‘woodland grotto’ complete with trees, snow, toadstools and tree stump cushions. She proceeded to read a beautiful Christmas story, set at the zoo and based around the animals, which was a clever touch. And blow me if Oscar didn’t sit with the other children and listen to part of the story. OK, he didn’t make it the whole way through, but by allowing him to move around as and when he needed he lasted for at least 3/4 of the story. It blew my mind!

You're not seeing things. Thats Oscar. Sat on a carpet. with other children. Listening to a story. Regardless of how long that lasted it happened and I couldn't have been prouder. The fact that Mrs Claus was wonderful and read such a cute story may have helped!

You’re not seeing things. That’s Oscar, right in the middle. Sat on a carpet. with other children. Listening to a story. Regardless of how long it¬†lasted, it happened and I couldn’t have been more proud. The fact that Mrs Claus was wonderful and read such a lovely¬†story may have helped!

Create your own Christmas cone tree

If Oscar had surprised me in the previous two sections, how he reacted in the craft based activity amazed me. We were lead into yet another beautifully decorated room, laid out with everything needed to make ice cream cone Christmas Trees. I expected him to just choff the sweets and ignore the craft, but I need to stop underestimating my boy. He sat and happily made a beautiful tree. As did mummy! The elves then wrapped them in cellophane and ribbons and when we were ready lead us to the main event!

Every family was assigned a table to make Cone Christmas Trees. Such concentration!

Every family was assigned a table to make Cone Christmas Trees. Such concentration!

Family Savage. A rare photo indeed!

Family Savage. A rare photo indeed!

Meet Santa in his sparkling grotto and receive a special gift

We had agreed with the park beforehand that Oscar would be the first child to go and see Santa, to avoid any prolonged waiting and they were as good as their word. The whole team knew Oscar was to go first and again their communication was much appreciated. We were lead¬†into another room, where Oscar was shown a curtain to pull back to reveal Santa’s grotto. It really was magical! After a quick peek he ran into the room and whilst he didn’t seem blown away by the fact that the big FC was sat there on a throne, he did go and chat with him, after having a look around the room.

Who's through there?

Who’s through there?

I really feel the ‘Santa’ can make or break an experience like this and Marwell’s Santa was fab. He¬†spoke to Oscar like you would expect, but I got the feeling he’d also been briefed on Oscar’s needs as he didn’t seem phased by Oscar’s apparent lack of interest. He didn’t ask for a hug or for Oscar to sit with him (although at one point Oscar chose to go and sit next to him) and he didn’t seem upset when Oscar’s most pressing question was “Where’s the presents?”. Love him. He didn’t mean “wheres my present?” (well not completely), it’s just you very rarely see Santa without presents in books and films do you? And he’s a literal thinker my boy. Santa happily handed over a gift, which we let Oscar¬†open immediately. And when Santa asked for high five, Oscar happily obliged. It was fantastic!

Oscar chose to go and sit with Santa. Even if he didn't want to look at him!

Oscar chose to go and sit with Santa. Even if he didn’t want to look at him!

Hey dude! Oscar meets Santa

Hey dude! Oscar meets Santa

The only thing I wished I’d done differently was taken the boy camera. Much of the experience was dimly lit and my iPhone photos just don’t do the day justice. We did however purchase two of the official photos of Oscar meeting Santa, which I thought were great value. Both were printed and framed in a carboard sleeve as you would expected, but we were also given hi res digital copies. All for ¬£10.

Oscar opens his first Christmas present of the year (a light sabre and a Star Wars sticker activity book!)

Oscar opens his first Christmas present of the year (a light sabre and a Star Wars sticker activity book!)

My boy is too cool for school. Who wants to hug Santa when you can High Five!

My boy is too cool for school. Who wants to hug Santa when you can High Five!

Thoughts

Would I go back? Totally. If the staff were as understanding and well briefed as this time, I’d be there in a shot. Oscar loves Marwell and has done for years. Who wouldn’t want their child to meet a real childhood icon in their favourite place in the world?

We had such a lovely day and we really did make a whole day of it. Although I do fear it’s kind of ruined shopping centre Santa’s for us for life ūüėČ

A day well spent!

A day well spent!

 

 

 

Thank you so much to Marwell for the invitation to meet Santa.

I was not paid to write this review and as always all opinions are my own.

Our day out with Thomas the Tank on the Watercress Line

If you follow me on social media at all, you can’t have missed how excited I was when I recently won a Family Ticket for The Watercress Line’s Day out with Thomas event. If you haven’t heard of the Watercress Line (or to give it it’s full title The Mid Hants Railway – The Watercress Line), it’s a beautifully restored and maintained vintage steam and diesel railway line, running trains all year round from Alton to Alresford in Hampshire. If you haven’t heard of Thomas the Tank then where on earth have you been for the last century?

The competition was run on Instagram and asked you to share photos of your child playing with their Thomas toys. Seeing as how Oscar is such a big Thomas fan, I had plenty to hand and entered a few. This is the one that won and quite right too. I love it!

The IG photo that won the competition. The original caption said ""I'm working on one side of the table, he's working on the other. It's lush"

The IG photo that won the competition. The original caption said “I’m working on one side of the table, he’s working on the other. It’s lush”

We started to explain to Oscar where we were going and what we were doing two days before the Thomas experience even started, which was a massive mistake. Once he heard, he wanted to go NOW, NOW, NOW! School boy error on my part perhaps, but it did give him time to get his head around the idea. We used videos on the Watercress Line website, showed him pictures and talked him through what we might see, In his mind he had it all sorted. He was going to drive Thomas, I was going to ride in Clarabel and Ben was going to set the points.  And he told us all that with words, dontcha know!

Oscar marching up to the station as early as we could have possibly got there!

Oscar marching up to the station as early as we could have possibly got there!

A Day out with Thomas

A Day out with Thomas was running for a week this summer and Oscar’s excitement made sure we were stood on Ropley station platform, tickets in hand, at 9.30 on the first day it started. He was beside himself and to be honest so was I. I mean how often do you get to introduce your child to their idol? I’d seen photos of what to expect, but I wasn’t quite sure how authentic it would feel. I’ve heard of other ‘experiences’ that promise the world and fail to deliver, but I needn’t have worried. When Thomas puffed down the track my little boys screams of “It’s Thomas, he’s here” and how hard he jumped up and down told me all I needed to know. As did the fact that Oscar’s excitment¬†made Ben well up ūüėČ

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Just look at how perfect this Thomas is! It blew all our minds!

Thomas himself gives short trips up and down a small piece of track (well he is only a tank engine!) and when he arrived on the platform we started to walk straight to Annie and Clarabel (the carriages for those not in the know!). However, Oscar had other ideas. Despite all our prep, he was adamant he was there to drive Thomas. We told him over and over that he couldn’t, but it took quite a long time for him to understand (and a few tears). It was no ones fault. He just got an idea in his head and when that happens it takes some effort to change that.

We finally got him to ride in Annie and Clarabel, instead of in Thomas, but bless his heart if he wasn't just a little disappointed!

We finally got him to ride in Annie and Clarabel, instead of in Thomas, but bless his heart if he wasn’t just a little disappointed!

Riding while standing and looking out of the window is so much fun for my guy.

Riding while standing and looking out of the window is so much fun for my guy.

After a couple of rides in Thomas’s carriages, we went over the bridge (Oscar loves bridges) to check out the other attractions that were available. We got to ride actually in Toad the Brake Van (which went some way to compensating for him not getting to actually drive a tank engine. You know, at four years old ūüėÜ) and then took a ride in the carriages of a real steamie. Oscar insisted it was Neville, but to us it looked like Donald or Douglas. Oh yes we know all the names ūüėĪ.

We actually got to ride in Toad the Brake Van! Photo by Mid Hants Railway Watercress Line

We actually got to ride in Toad the Brake Van! Photo by Mid Hants Railway Watercress Line

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Just look at these beauties! Neville or Donald and Douglas, they were superb.

We rode up and down the line a few times, which despite the few small delays we experienced Oscar loved. And I mean loved. I don’t know if it was the movement or the look and feel of the coaches but he seemed to just be happy to be on the train. We stopped off at various stations and at one he convinced us to add another train to his collection.

Diesel 10 joins the crew

We bought this TrackMaster toy from one of the stations. I was happy to see the toys cost no more than you would pay in any other toy shop.

Boy on train playing with toy train

Diesel 10 came along for the ride!

Oscar just had the best time. Once he got over the idea of riding on the footplate¬†he really¬†enjoyed so much about this day. He found so many opportunities to mix his two favourite things, Thomas and movement. We went on so many rides on the train but also on the small fair at the side on the tracks at Ropley. He’s not one for colouring and such, but was happy to look round all the activities laid on in the station buildings.

Boy lying on train seat

Feeling the movement from another angle – that’s my little seeker for you.

We loved it

It was such a wonderful family day out and very thoughtfully aimed at small fans of Thomas, but I can’t tell you how much Ben and I also got out of it too! For me it was the vintage details that won the day. The stations were beautiful in themselves but also helped create a feeling of being ‘on Sodor’!

vintage rail platform sign and the bunting

The signs and the bunting – gorgeous!

Vintage toilet lock

Even the details on the loos at Ropley were beautiful! Spend a penny anyone?

The staff were also very helpful and all obviously proud of what they were doing. Oscar knew exactly who this was. He waited patiently to speak to him then told him “Fat Controller, Fat Controller, Thomas is in the station”. Proud! I really felt for the chap playing the Fat Controller – it was such a hot day and he stayed in that outfit throughout! What a champ!

Oscar chatting to Sir Topham Hatt

Oscar chatting to Sir Topham Hatt

I¬†would also highly recommend taking a picnic as we did. Not because there isn’t food available (there absolutely it) but having our own food with us mean we could eat whenever we liked, wherever we were, including¬†half way down the line!

boy and mum on train

Hungry boy half way between stations.

All characters aside we all loved the engines, especially Ben. I think at times he was more excited than my actual little boy! I already know we’ll be going back. Not just to the Day out With Thomas (which I imagine we will be doing every time now!) but just to ride the trains and surround ourselves with the history and the magnificence of the¬†engineering.

Oh and I’ve just noticed the Santa Experience. Oh good lord!

 

 

We would like to say thank you so much to The Watercress Line for our competition prize of a free Family Ticket to Day out with Thomas.

I was not asked to write about our time at Day out with Thomas, I just like to share the things we love.

I’m not sure when the next Thomas experience is scheduled for, but you can contact The Watercress Line via their website or Facebook¬†