Theme parks and other visitor attractions are cashing in on the festive season by creating winter wonderlands for family fun
You don’t conjure up images in your mind of rollercoasters covered in snow and children in winter coats queueing for the bouncy castle. But the festive season is nonetheless vital for the UK’s leisure industry. As well as being a popular time with youngsters, mince pie makers and high street retailers, Christmas is becoming a busy time for visitor attractions.
This time of year is an obvious fit for a destination such as Windsor Castle. Until January 2016, the State Apartments are transformed into a festive Regency-themed display, depicting how the Prince Regent spent Christmas. The State Dining Room is laid for Christmas dinner and the Octagon Dining Room is decorated with a yew tree, the first tree to be brought indoors to be used as a Christmas tree in England. In St George’s Hall, there’s a 24-ft Christmas tree, decked with gold decorations and more than 20,000 twinkling lights.
On selected days in December, the castle has a Christmas storyteller and choirs from local schools perform around the tree. In addition, the Royal Collection Trust, which oversees the royal residences, revamped its online gift store last year which, according to their annual report, had a significant impact on Christmas sales.
Similarly at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, visitors have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Mr Toad from Wind In The Willows. The house is staying open late on Thursdays and Fridays throughout December, and there are nativity performances in the farmyard as well as a Christmas market with more than 100 stalls.
Lions, tigers and Santa hats might not be an obvious mix, but for Knowsley Safari Park on Merseyside, the winter season is an opportunity to see these animals in a completely different environment, according to Richard Smith, head of visitor services. During December, the safari park also dishes up a themed Santa breakfast and there are Christmas stalls.
Rachel Scott, Knowsley Safari Park’s head of marketing, adds: “For the first time, this year we will be creating more of a Christmas ambience for visitors with additional events from festive markets for the adults and amusement rides, Santa’s Grotto and Christmas storytelling for the little ones. On top of this we have introduced a new pricing structure for December allowing people entry to the walk-around area for free and just £10 a car for the safari drive.”
It’s still early days for Christmas events at the park, but they are using this year to inform and develop future festive offerings, says Ms Scott.
As the UK’s most visited zoo, you’d expect Flamingo Land to be in its element in the summer. The attraction sees 1.5 million visitors each year, but in December 2014 it doubled its winter revenue by allowing Santa and his elves to take up residence in the Georgian Kirby Misperton Hall, along with more than 140 species of reptiles, mammals and birds, and rides for children.
Stockeld Park in Yorkshire has been running its Christmas Adventure for the last nine years. The park is nestled in one of the county’s most ancient woodlands and is known for its sculpture-filled Enchanted Forest, extensive maze and Nordic ski trail. The winter season, from October to January, attracts more than 100,000 visitors.
Over the festive period, the attractions industry has to work harder to grasp the public’s attention as they’re absorbed in Christmas shopping
The park’s Christmas Adventure was born out of an idea to sell some of its home-grown Christmas trees; it’s now home to Yorkshire’s largest Christmas tree farm. It seemed like the most sensible thing to open up part of the park as a family experience.
Owner Susie Grant says: “The Christmas Adventure took on a life of its own, and we have invested year on year to keep our customers coming back for new and interesting experiences.” The festive experience has grown organically, she says, and has been so successful that the park is also open for Halloween and Easter-themed family activities.
Juliana Delaney, chief executive of Continuum Attractions, a leading operator of UK cultural heritage experiences, says: “Over the festive period, the attractions industry has to work harder to grasp the public’s attention as they’re absorbed in Christmas shopping.”
But in December alone, Ms Delaney says, Continuum’s revenue can increase by up to 30 per cent and she thinks the retail industry can learn from visitor attractions at Christmas. “You can’t replicate an experience on the internet and get it delivered to your door,” she says.