Last weekend we visited Marwell Zoo for a very special reason…to see Santa! We’ve visited the zoo many times before and we’ve visited Santa every year but this was our first time visiting Santa at Marwell.
If I’m honest, we weren’t too sure what to expect and how enjoyable it would be. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of it sounded lovely…a story by Mother Christmas, decorating a Christmas plate in the Elves workshop, seeing Santa and exploring the zoo. Like I said the idea of it all sounds lovely; however, both Bug and Mimi can be rather shy, especially when it comes to seeing Santa and prior to our trip we were unsure about how much enjoyment they would get out of the visit.
Well, it was a huge success. Probably our best visit to Santa EVER and one we would happily repeat every year!
We arrived at the Zoo for 10am (when it opened) to make the most of our visit. While this review is primarily about the Christmas experience, we will share some details of the zoo a little later. Tickets for ‘Christmas at Marwell’ cost £25 per adult, £28 per child (aged 3 – 14), £15 per toddler (12 – 36 months) and £7 per infant (under 12 months). At first, this seemed quite expensive to us. However, upon reflection, having now visited and after discussing it with many of our friends and family, we feel this is actually good value. I’ll now explain why.
Value for money?
To visit the Zoo in the Winter season it costs £15 per adult and £11.50 per child (3 – 16 year olds) and children aged 2 and under are free. Therefore, if you take this into consideration the Christmas experience is an additional £10 per adult and £16.50 per child. Then it costs the £15 per toddler and £7 per infant. (Note: if you book onto the evening sessions you are provided with a return day ticket to the zoo.) For this you are not simply seeing Santa. It really is an entire ‘experience’ lasting 60-80 minutes which has been carefully planned and carried out to ensure the children have a magical visit.
I will tell you about these experiences shortly but it is also worth noting, the gifts from Santa were of good size and good quality. Being the first gift from Santa this year, the children were not disappointed. Not only that, they got to take home their keepsake Christmas plate which we will treasure forever!
We travelled to Marwell Hall by land train (free) and the children thoroughly enjoyed this. As we approached Marwell Hall we told Bug and Mimi Santa was staying here and even they were impressed by the grand building which had been carefully and suitably decorated, it seemed like the perfect place to meet Santa.
We were greeted by a very excitable Elf who asked the adults their name and then referred to the children by theirs (nice touch!), we were then offered refreshments. The children could have squash or water and the adults were offered mulled wine! We were all also offered a large reindeer cookie (which was delicious).
This part of the experience is described as ‘the magical winter forest’ however it’s basically the entrance room where you wait until all the families have arrived and Mother Christmas is ready for you. I was a little disappointed and had expected a ‘magical winter forest’. However, having said that, the refreshments were a lovely touch and the children happily ate their cookies. They had pretty decorations up and tried to make it seem magical.
There was also a lovely interactive screen where they could search for their names on the Naughty (fictitious characters like Simon Cowell and Darth Vadar) or Nice list – thankfully they found theirs on the Nice list!
The Nut Cracker read by Mother Christmas
When ready, we were taken to the ‘fairy glen’ which was elegantly decorated and waiting for us was Mother Christmas and another friendly Elf. There were lovely cushions for the children to sit on and benches if needed. The room was set up beautifully and Mother Christmas looked and acted the part perfectly.
When everybody was sat ready, she proceeded to read the Nut Cracker. I was very impressed by this particular stage not just as a mother but as a teacher too. Mother Christmas didn’t just read the story; she brought it to life for the children. With words, song, actions, props and puppets! It was amazing to see my two shy children watching entranced and even joining in with the actions! Having this element to the experience was just perfect. It allowed the children to slowly adapt to their surroundings and it brought them out of their shell a little, all preparing them for a visit with the main man!
After the story had finished, we were welcomed into the Elves Workshop, another beautifully decorated and very colourful room.
We took our seat at one of the long tables and started to decorate our Christmas Eve plates with special pens and stencils. While we worked, happy Elves wandered around and held friendly conversations with all the children. Again, this really helped in making the children feel comfortable and preparing them for a visit with Santa. Very discreetly, an Elf collects you when it is your time to see Santa (no long queues or waiting to be had). In fact, we were happily decorating our plates and were oblivious to this until it was our turn to see him. Once we had finished up, they gave us a special bag to take our plates home in and let us know if we cooked them in the oven (not preheated at 160 degrees for 90 minutes) our plates would last many washes!
As we entered the room where Santa was the children were quite blown away. Either side of Santa were wooden tree type stools for the children to sit on and he asked them whether they had found their name on the Nice list and what they were hoping for this Christmas. Much to our amazement, our little ones (although still a little shy – who wouldn’t be meeting Santa for real?) answered him and happily answered his questions, even better, they smiled for a photo! A first for our family!
Santa then gave them their gifts and immediately their smiles grew when they saw the size of them!
Throughout our visit with Santa a photographer discreetly takes photos, something we did not notice except for the one posed image (where they smiled!). The photographer captures images of them talking to Santa and accepting their gifts. As you leave Santa you can then view these on a screen in the next room and purchase them. 1 photo is £7, 2 for £10 and 3 for £15.
I feel that this room could have had a little bit more care and thought put into it. Every room so far had been so beautifully decorated but then as soon as you left Santa you entered the final room where is was simply a screen and a till. Now, they did have a person in a penguin costume; however, my 2 were extremely uncomfortable with this so we had to ask the penguin to leave us alone (sorry penguin!). I just felt the entire experience had been so magical that it abruptly stopped when we left Santa’s room. Seeing as it is the final room before leaving the building it would have been nice if it could have felt a little more special.
We’ve visited the Zoo many times before and it never disappoints. Not only is there a huge selection of animals but there are also many suitable play parks and interactive displays for the children to enjoy.
When the children were babies in their prams we loved to visit as it made for a more interesting walk, when the children started to learn to walk we loved visiting because it was somewhere safe for them to practice their new skill, and now the children are older they can run free safely and learn about all the amazing animals. We love Marwell Zoo and would recommend it time and time again for families with young children.
So how suitable was Christmas at Marwell for families with young children?
We had a magical experience and loved every aspect of it. In my opinion, older children would not get as much enjoyment out of it and much younger children (infants) wouldn’t either. It felt perfectly suited to my children (aged 2 and 4) and would be something I feel we could do for a few more years too. Like I previously said, all of the different ‘rooms’ and interactions really helped the children feel comfortable in their surroundings so when it came to visiting Santa they weren’t as shy and could get more from the experience. It was definitely our favourite visit to Santa and then we got to spend the afternoon exploring the Zoo. So are Santa and Safari animals a perfect mix? YES, they certainly are!
Big World Little Explorers were the guests of Marwell Zoo but all opinions are our own.