What are working conditions like as one of Santa’s seasonal helpers? Editor-at-large Alexi Duggins signs up for a day of lessons at a legendary elf school, and finds there’s more to it than he bargained for.
Lapland UK is Christmas crackers. This year it’s welcoming 29,000 kids (all invited by handwritten letter from Santa) to its Windsor-based ‘immersive theatrical experience’. There are troupes of reindeer, cadres of huskies and two-and-a-half acres of forest, dusted in the same fake snow they use in James Bond films. There are also 130 elves. To work as a helper here you need some serious elf-esteem.
‘Never, ever break character,’ says Mike Battle, one half of the husbandand- wife duo who run Lapland UK, as he tries to teach eight of us to express our elves. ‘If a parent asks about public transport, say: “We’re in Lapland, silly! You travel by magic pathway!”’
And if they really press us? ‘Just giggle and skip away.’ Before we even arrive, we’ve been laden with fact sheets to memorise. They’re crammed with festive info like Father Christmas’s age (271), where elves come from (pine cones) and a comedy job spec with bullet points such as ‘Line manager: Santa Claus’. But basically they add up to one thing: every second you’re inside Lapland UK, you have to be as cheerily child-like as Will Ferrell in ‘Elf’. And boy, do my fellow trainees know it.
‘Yay!’ they squeal as we’re told our next training task is in the toy factory. ‘I’m so excited my fingers are tingling!’ squeaks one, as Mike unlatches the door. As it opens on to a snowy forest, another screams, ‘Let’s skip!’ And eight adults ecstatically frolic off down a woodland pathway.
Inside the giant wooden lodge that is the toy factory, excitement reaches danger level as we’re taught to assemble a wooden Pinocchio doll.
First, the arms.
‘Because he needs to write at school!’ trill the elves.
Then the legs.
‘So he can learn to skip!’
There’s the hat.
‘Because real boys always wear clothes!’
And then we’re done.
‘No, we’re not! You forgot to smile!’
Christ. Must we learn all this patter? ‘Yep. Families are trusting you with their kids’ faith in Christmas,’ says Mike. ‘We take it very seriously.’
No kidding. As we journey round, the detail becomes overwhelming. There’s an actual, working post office full of the same paper the children’s invitations were written on. And the booking process demands various info so that when sprogs meet ol’ Saint Nick, the tubby presentdispenser is able to greet them by name, mention their hobbies and know who their best pal is.
One problem, though. I’m uneasy about taking the kids to meet Santa.
‘Why? All you do is give Santa an info card you’re hiding in your hat,’ says Mike. ‘Well, that and skipping with them to the gift shop.’
Exactly. Do we have to skip?
‘Skipping is mandatory.’ But… ‘Absolutely mandatory. If you don’t skip, you can’t work here.’
Guess I’m not cut out for this job, then. I just don’t have the elfish gene.
Lapland UK is at Whitmoor Forest, Ascot, SL5 8BD
Here are 4 more of London’s greatest grottos:
Westfield London’s 5D Grotto: 3D visuals and children get to star in their own Pixar-quality animated film
Hyde Park’s Santa Land: Located in Winter Wonderland, it’s free to see Santa and every child will leave with a trinket
London Zoo Christmas Journey: Meet Santa’s reindeer as well as Father Christmas at London Zoo this Christmas
Santa’s Grotto Canary Wharf: See Father Christmas and his elves in this candy-themed grotto in Jubilee Place