The Magical Journey
I couldn’t agree more with the song that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I came across the Magical Journey in October and from the press releases and the information that I found about the event it sounded amazing. The concept of the Magical Journey has been created by none other then Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen and aims to bring back the magic and forgotten charm that Christmas should bring to all little adventurers out there. I am a lover of the great outdoors and the combination of a woodland magical journey and Christmas would be the ultimate mix.
We had chosen the 5:40 pm time slot as we thought the nighttime would make for an even more magical experience. As I type up this review, I have mixed emotions about the event. There was soooo much potential and all the aspects were there to make it the magical and theatrical event that was promised, but i felt that the execution and finer details were not followed through.
The Location and setting
The Magical Journey is set on the grounds of The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield and is truly a breathtaking setting. The grounds are beautiful and my little adventurers were awed from our initial approach as they have some tree glistening with lights. On arrival at the car park you are able to see the woodlands in the distance and it is all lit up with different colour uplights and makes the woodlands truly stunning. The little adventurers (and me being the biggest kid in the group!) eagerly set out to find more about the magical journey.
As we walked into the entrance, you are greeted with a hubble of noise. It wasn’t very Christmassy with no decorations or music. Luckily we had eaten just before getting there and think we would have struggled to find seating. I love Christmas markets but here there was a general lack of the Christmas charm. There was no smells or excitement that you get when you visit the festive markets and the placing of them inside almost shops lost some of the feel of the market you would expect.
My adventurers were excited and I could see them looking around but seemed a little lost at this point as there was little for them to do. I think it’s a shame as first impressions are really important and I felt like we’d arrived in a waiting area for an airport rather then a magical Christmas event. There need to be more engagement and things to get them really excited.
At your allocated time, an announcement is made to join the queue to embark on your magical journey. The journey begins with a little walk through a few rooms, a “museum”, “Mary Christmas” and then the “Elf factor”. The first stop is a museum. The elves that were talking to the group could not be heard for the noise from the arrival hall. I think microphones are needed, as we didn’t even know what it was supposed to be until we found the elf later and asked. The things in display are quite an eclectic mix, the reindeer antlers were good but I think it needs to be a mix of things suitable for younger children too with perhaps some hands on interactive displays.
Then the doors open and you are led onto meet Mary Christmas. I wasn’t really sure where they were going with this. Personally I think they would’ve been better off with her
- Either telling a story about Father Christmas, how they met etc. (following on from one of the displays of the museum),
- The story of father christmas (St Nicholas) & how he got magical powers.
- Doing a Christmassy activity with the children, i.e. decorating gingerbread men, which would have been much more engaging.
Instead there was a poor attempt at humour more akin to cracker jokes then the interaction you would get at pantomimes. The kids were seated on the floor at the floor, however, Mary is stood behind a high table so the little adventurers struggled to see Mary Christmas from the floor. It is here you are told that Rudi is lost and everyone needs to keep their eyes peeled and let Father Christmas know when he is found.
Then it got a little weirder with the introduction of the elf factor. Here the children needed to help choose which toys to be included in Santa’s sack. Maya was chosen here to help and though it was all a little bizarre, she was so excited (especially as her toy was chosen) that we left the room happy. The last toy was a carrot…. apparently others were shown toilet paper… Instead of this “show” I think it would have been much better to have more of an elf circus sketch or an insight to the elf factory; how they make toys…how things are given to people etc., the flight that Santa takes on Christmas Eve.
Next you are led to the magical trains; my kids were excited to be on the carriage looking around for Rudi. We visited at night, the area was poorly lit which we didn’t mind. I think it needed to be more magical, a real station decorated, carol singers to greet and sing to the visitors as they wait to board on the train. The train was not a really a train and again didn’t have the magic or Christmassy feel to it. On other train journeys that we’ve done there is uaully someone talking to the passengers via an intercom speaker, talking through the journey and showing them things. I felt that this was missing and would’ve been nice touch!
We ended up on our own carriage and had an elf join us. The elf sat in complete silence and was such a shame as this could’ve been so lovely and an opportunity to get the children excited. The journey was only for a few minutes (Zayn was very disappointed to be leaving at this point) and you are led to a tent-tipi. Here there are two cold, very bored looking elves who again can’t be heard but explain that there is no fire as Rudi has been lost. Here would’ve been an opportune time to get the children involved, maybe do a little elf dance, or explain a few reindeer facts and what would it would’ve been like if Rudi had been there. Instead, after waiting around for a few moments the kids get to ring a bell and exit.
This leads you onto the woodland walk. I have to admit that we all loved this part. The woods looked lovely and wondering around the woods at night, looking for Rudi and seeking out Santa was fab. But I think an opportunity was lost as my children were really looking for the reindeer. A reindeer model with a red nose at intervals would have been really fun for the kids to look forand get them excited (maybe an red LED in the trees that moves from tree to tree , or the sounds of bells.). That said it was quite magical and they were in awe. I was disappointed at the amount of snow; I had envisaged a Narnia like woodland, basking with snow, as shown in media pictures. There was no snow on the walkway, which confused Maya and she asked a few elves where had all the snow gone on the path, as there was still snow on the trees. You can take as long as you like in the walk area but I think more interaction is needed. We were luckily that the air was still and wasn’t raining, but I’m not sure what this would have been like if the weather conditions were not as favourable.
You then arrive to an empty tent-tipi and join the queue. Again there was no music and it literally is empty, more things are needed here. From here you are led by an elf to see Santa. The walk was lovely as you go past lots of Christmas trees, (none were decorated which was a shame) and you arrive at a log cabin. This was all really nice and Maya was asked to ring the bell and Santa calls you in. This part was spot on and was really magical and lovely for the kids. However, the Santa we saw was too skinny, with a beard that was not the best and the outfit was a little drab compared to what I would expect. On arrival to the cabin Zayn decided to have a melt down and both the Santa and the elves were too keen to get us out. I would’ve expected this to be about 10 minutes given that there were 3 children but it felt that we were rushed out. The elves forget to give Zayn a present and none of the presents were wrapped. However, Maya is in love with her Frisbee, Raihan got given a football sack but seemed way to old for a 3 year old.
After a few minutes you are led to the door and left on your own. You are not told where to go and we were unsure what to do and where to go. So we walked on and arrived to see a few reindeers. We were all looking a little lost and Doc found an elf who said it was finished and had to walk through the photo collection area and to the exit area. It all seemed too much of an abrupt end and our little adventurers were really upset as we hadn’t found Rudi. We then asked the elf and she said oh yeah he’s there in the enclosure. There was real reindeers, but kids were confused as there was no ‘red nose’. Also, the kids also wanted to run back and tell Santa. This led to a few tears as the Santa cabin was just behind the tree and they couldn’t understand how they would let him know. It was a real shame that they didn’t let the story finish and let the children finally find Rudi and have a means of letting Santa know.
You are then able to purchase your photo, I would not prepay for photos as ours were only taken by Santa. I had found that the costs are the same to pay on the day as prepay. I suspect that if you prepaid, you wouldn’t get a refund.
Tips for the day
I would eat prior to arriving at the event, there wasn’t much room inside the igloo-tent area and it felt really felt busy around the food areas. Also the food wasn’t really of festive offerings that you would expect…and some were not suitable for winter weather!
Sensible footwear for the kids: we arrived in the evening and it was very dark outside. We are glad we put the kids in wellies and it was quite muddy outside.
Book an evening slot as I can’t imagine it being at all fun during the day and the parts that were magical would’ve been even less so during the day.
Don’t prebook the photos; as if you don’t like them you may not get a refund. buy them on the day if you want to, given that the costs are the same.
I think you need to get your child really excited when you are in the woodland area as that is the part when the magic will really happen and they will be most excited on the way to see Santa.
Disappointing / what needs to be improved
The cost! I del that it was too expensive for what it is, especially if you have 3 kids and have to pay for all including baby and both parents. Admittedly it was more fun then a normal grotto visit but i don’t think it lived up to it’s billing as “magnificent immersive theatrical version of Santa’s Grotto..promises to be a spectacular and exciting Christmas experience for the whole family.” £20 per child and £12.50 for the adults was too much and if they decided to make it a child focused event then 1 adult should be admitted free. Based on what we saw, I think the experience was probably worth about £30-40 for a family of 5, rather then the £85, had we paid for it.
The elves. There were sooo many of them around but I think they weren’t engaging enough. Doc said that they needed real actors at each part to really get the guests enchanted and engaged, the like of which we had seen in the London dungeons. The elves all seemed a little untrained and not sure what was happening. This could be down to being the first day of official opening, but its not really an excuse.
The first few rooms: are a little weird and just didn’t link in with anything. It’s an opportunity lost, as the audience are ready to be enchanted as they start the journey and I think much better activities are needed here.
Snow: where is the snow?! I expected a good healthy spread across the whole of the woodland area but there was nothing on the floor. This may be because of the rain and mud but when we were there it hadn’t rained for at least a few hours so I would’ve expected more of the white stuff.
The story: in each part the missing Rudi element is mentioned, even Father Christmas mentions it in his cabin but it is as if the ending was never finished. The stage after Father Christmas needs to really be sorted out to give a good finish. I think once the children do find Rudi in the enclosure, there should be a way of telling Santa. Whether this is by Santa phone, or they leave a video message to Santa.
Length of the experience: it is advertised that the session will last more than 90 minutes but ours was over in less then 60 minutes.
So is it all doom and gloom?!
For me as a parent, I would’ve been gutted to have paid so much and having had an idea sold to us that just wasn’t pulled off. I understand that it was the first day we visited but that’s no excuse when the marketing effort has been sooo extensive!
However, bearing all the above in mind, you have to take a step back and see it from the viewpoint of the child. We arrived back home and saw my nieces and our adventurers were soo excited to tell them all about their adventures. Maya and Raihan were retelling how they met Father Christmas, in his cabin, the magical woodlands, searching and finding Rudi. Maya loved the snow and the fact that it really magical and didn’t melt. So from the viewpoint of a 6,4 year old they were won over. I think we sometimes as adults expect too much and forget the fun element. I think there is definite room for improvements and if these are made it could become a great event as all the essential ingredients (concept, setting,context) are there.