Santa is getting mighty busy in the run-up to the big day, so if you haven't booked your annual family visit to the big man in red, well then you'd better get your skates on ?
Ah the annual visit to Santa - I've certainly become an expert on this one over the years. It all started when my first-born was an infant (yes, someone actually suggested I book well ahead for Santa's Cottage in Bangor, Co Down - that was where she went every year, and it was the best one, in her opinion). My son didn't even know who Santa was, nor could he get his little bald head around the fact that on a single day he was given more presents than he had been given all year. (For the record, I simply queued up in my local shopping centre on a quiet Saturday morning that year for a quick pic with the big guy in red - the expensive advanced booking would have to wait until my son could at least say Santa.)
So, after ten years of motherhood, here is my best piece of advice to any parents starting the Santa visit trail: start small. You need to set the bar low and work your way up as the years go on, so that one year's visit doesn't pale in comparison to the one the year before. Maybe then you'll have hit all of the following great ones by the time they stop believing (did I really say that?).
These Santa experiences truly are magical - each will get even the Scroogiest of grown-ups into the spirit. So grab your little ones (or someone else's so you have a good excuse - we won't judge), stick the Christmas FM on the radio, and get ready for some festive fun - Just be sure to book ahead - dates are going fast!
The Santa House Express, Palmerstown House Estate
Located at the five-star Palmerstown House Estate in Johnstown, Co Kildare, the Santa House Express is a truly magical experience. As you make your way up the long drive, you'll be greeted with fairy lights and little magical messages until you finally reach the house, which is decked up to the nines. Grab a supper before you board your train, which whisks you to the home of Mr and Mrs C. By far the best bit of this experience is the actual visit with Kris Kringle. In fact, there are a few Santas in residence, but your little ones won't know that. The upside to this is that you're not rushed through the meeting, with an elf knocking at the door after just a few brief minutes. I reckon we had a full 15 minutes with our Santa - and he was brilliant. He even remembered me when I was a little girl, and recalled giving me a Barbie way back when - nice touch, Santa! My ten-year-old proclaimed as we closed the door behind us, ?How did he know that?? Hmmm - maybe that actually was the real deal! It must be said that Mrs Claus with her storytelling and all the elves were fantastic too. And the light show outside the house as we awaited our train back to the main entrance was spectacular. Be sure to pick up a hot chocolate with all the works (marshmallows and whipped cream if you please - diets can wait ?til January!) and homemade mince pies from the cart before you go, and have a wee gander at the stables filled with deer, lambs and a worried-looking turkey, santashouseexpress.ie.
The Forest Train, Avondale Park
I had the pleasure of visiting this little gem last year, and my kids were properly in awe. And so were mum and dad. You arrive at Avondale at your pre-arranged time slot, board your train, and are taken to wake Noodle the lazy elf in his cottage so he's not late for work making your toys. Then you re-board your train and journey deep into the forest to a secret location to meet Santa. While you wait, the elves will ensure your kids are well entertained with stories, songs and games. And afterward, a hot chocolate beckons in the seating area before the journey home. Open every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from December 4-23, 11am to 8.30pm. Tickets: €15 per child, €10 per adult, with all children under one year at €5, theforesttrain.ie.
Christmas Island, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow
Begin your journey on the North Pole Express which takes you to the island, where you'll meet Mrs Claus, have a photo taken on Santa's sleigh and mix with the elves. You'll then depart the island via Santa's sleigh boat and head to Mr Claus? grotto. Keep an eye out for Rudolph along the way. There's even an adventure mini golf onsite if you still have energy to burn. When booking your ticket, you also have the option to donate €1 to Saint Vincent de Paul and for every €1 donated, Christmas Island will match it. Genius, christmasisland.ie.
Causey Farm, Co Meath
An oldie, but a goodie (and one I visited when my kids were just beginning to enjoy the whole big grotto experience, so it's a good entry point). Follow the Bethlehem trail to the stable where Mary and Joseph cradle their new arrival amongst the lambs, donkeys and cows; visit Christmas Cottage to experience an old Irish Christmas and make your wish as you stir the pudding; help Mrs Claus pack Santa's bag for his journey; catch the elves in their workshop and play with some of the finished toys; all before meeting the man himself. Dress warmly, as you'll be outside for a good part of the experience, causey.ie.
If you're planning on popping into one of Dublin City's many great Santa grottos - we love Arnotts? new Santa Q system, whereby you collect a ticket and can shop and catch all the festive atmosphere instore and receive a text message when you're fifth in line to meet the big man himself; and Powerscourt Townhouse Centre's magical atmosphere - treat your happy little ones further with The Westbury's Festive Afternoon Tea, €45 per person or €55 to include a glass of champagne. Available until January 4. To book, ring 01 646 3311. Better yet, book an overnight and catch the Gaiety Theatre's Little Red Riding Hood pantomime. The Enchanting Pantomime Experience includes one night's accommodation plus breakfast the next morning for two adults and two children, a copy of the classic fairytale book, special children's surprises, and tickets to the show. The evening concludes with a children's nighttime feast of hot chocolate and gingerbread served before bedtime in a fairytale tee pee, from €455, 01 646 3333, doylecollection.com.