How the crowds were lured to Lapland New Forest

By Eleanor Williams
BBC News

Image caption,
Lapland New Forest looked nothing like the ads for it seen in local newspapers, visitors said

In the autumn of 2008 adverts began appearing in local papers for a "winter wonderland" in the New Forest.

Lapland promised to be a place "where dreams really do come true" with "Hollywood special effects", a "magical tunnel of light" and log cabins.

Up 40,000 tickets were sold before the Christmas attraction had even opened, netting the organisers about £1m.

Customers paid £30 or £25 per ticket, but what met them when they arrived at Matchams on the Hampshire-Dorset border was not what they had expected.

As soon as it opened on 29 November the complaints flooded in to trading standards. After being opened for only six days out of a planned 26, Lapland New Forest was shut down.

Organisers Victor and Henry Mears, of Brighton, have been convicted of misleading customers after trading standards took them to court.

Santa smoking

The BBC was also inundated with e-mails and phone calls from saying Lapland New Forest was exploiting children and their families and was "a rip off".

One visitor, Dawn Saxby-Willis from Ringwood, said: "I was absolutely stunned at how poor we, the animals and our children were treated".

Image caption,
Brothers Victor (left) and Henry Mears denied all the charges against them

"I took my son to the toilet and he saw 'Santa' having a cigarette break at the side of a Portaloo."

Serena Barker, from Oxford, also contacted the BBC.

She said: "Needless to say, the two reindeer - one with a broken antler - were clearly not enjoying their experience.

"The majority of the huskies were chained up behind a fence whining, others were chained up outside some of the wooden sheds with no-one looking after them.

"The 'Magical Tunnel of Light' was a 6ft net of lights strung between two trees.

"Two fake large plastic polar bears were also hidden behind a chain link fence, the nativity scene was a large picture far across an inaccessible muddy field and the majority of the food was out of fairground vans selling frozen burgers.

"The 'quality toys' broke after getting them home, the queue for Father Christmas was over two hours long.

"The ice rink was broken as was half of the play ground equipment."

In total, Dorset Trading Standards received 5,000 complaints.

Elf slapped

However it was not only customers who were disappointed with the Lapland experience.

Emma Craven, 32, from Bournemouth, worked as an elf.

She was employed through an agency, but only days after the attraction opened the agency withdrew all its workers after Ms Craven was hit in the face by an angry father.

She told the BBC: "When I got there I was thinking 'Oh my God, is this it?'

Image caption,
'Elf' Emma Craven went into work "expecting verbal abuse"

"It was a huge muddy field with a few sheds popped in it and a few little Christmassy looking things.

"For the first couple of days I found myself trying to defend it, but as things got worse and worse you appreciate and empathize with people who've paid such extortionate fees and travelled miles for this event, to be then slapped in the face when they get there.

"It got quite nasty and we were being called 'frauds' and 'money grabbers'."

Children crying

On the third day, visitors' emotions came to head as they had to queue for more than two hours to see Father Christmas.

"The lady and gentleman involved were obviously very upset and their children were very, very cold and were crying, as many of them were," Ms Craven explained.

"She started screaming, 'I can't believe you've done this. Look what you've done to my children. They're crying, their fingers are blue. You're rip off merchants, you're taking the mickey out of us, this is our money you've taken'.

"She ran the buggy into my legs and he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shouted in my face, and with that he slapped me.

Image caption,
The promised log cabins looked more like portable huts, visitors said

"I was just mesmerised, stunned, shocked, and very upset that I was, if I'm honest, a part of this.

"I had a wage to make and this was the only way I was going to make it for the Christmas month. You're caught between the deep and the devil.

"I'd gone in [to work] expecting there to be some kind of verbal abuse but I certainly never expected to be slapped."

Daryl Yarwood, 25, from Christchurch, who also worked as an elf there and said when he first arrived he thought "this doesn't look much like the website".

"We look back on it now and laugh but it's still pretty harsh when people who are skint are taking their families for a day out and are just being really disappointed and misled.

"It was really horrible to see that at that time of year.

"I never want to see an elf costume ever again."

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