Santa experiences can be a mixed bag. You book with fingers crossed that you won’t be at the mercy of a sarcastic elf or find yourself in the presence of a Santa with a wonky beard. But when you find a truly enchanting one, it’s a delight for both young and old. We found exactly this just down the road from us.
The Woodland Experience
The Woodland Experience is located on North Ballochruin Farm, Stirlingshire. The private woodland is on the edge of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, about 40mins drive from Glasgow and 30mins from Stirling.
The Woodland Experience has a winning combination of a brilliant location (on a Christmas-tree farm) and the fact it includes a tractor-ride. When we visited the staff were wonderful; engaged and friendly – they gave the impression they had all the time in the world to help our two choose their Elf Names. The shed where you wait has lovely food, burgers and gorgeously spicy pulled pork from local renowned local butcher Skinner of Kippen. You can toast marshmallows, get the kids’ face-painted or have a bounce on an inflatable tractor – there is a small charge for all of these activities. When it was our turn to go the kids’ peered out into the darkness until a tractor arrived (beeping Jingle Bells as it went), festooned with fairy-lights. Each group gets its own Elf to keep you company on the tractor-ride through the woods, update you on Elvish gossip and tell bad jokes. As we bumped along the track it occurred to me that Patrick, our 4-year old, would have been delighted by this ride alone. Peeking out of the forest are naughty elves, slacking off from their festive duties amidst living Christmas trees decorated with outsized baubles.
The tractor arrived in a clearing and we disembarked to follow the Elf along a little path, past Santa’s voluminous washing hung out to dry, before arriving at a wooden cabin. We rang the doorbell and after a suitably exciting wait, Santa himself answered the door. And he was a terrific Santa. The cabin was really lovely, a vintage carousel twinkled in the corner, little stools were dotted around Santa’s chair for the kids to sit on, and a huge messy pile of presents strewn around. Santa told us the elves had had a party the night before and hadn’t tidied up yet. After a long chat (you really never feel rushed), he then called each child forward by name to receive a wrapped present. This was to be placed under our Christmas tree so that Santa would know where to put the presents on Christmas Eve. Then with a sigh Santa complained about the mess and asked if the boys and girls could help him tidy up by taking a toy home. Cue disbelieving looks from all the kids, could they really be allowed to choose anything? Patrick headed straight for a giant dinosaur and Edie a rag-doll. All the presents looked great. The magic continued when Santa asked everyone to do some of their own, we all had to sing Jingle Bells as loud as possible, and when he opened the cabin door it was snowing outside.
Quite hard to return to reality after that but after a bouncy return journey and a few more renditions of Jingle Bells we were back in the real world. Two extremely happy kids and two slightly glowing adults. At £16 a child and £8 for adults it’s not cheap but for a truly rural Santa Experience, I think it’s a real find.
40 mins from Glasgow, 30mins from Stirling. £16 kids, £8 adults. Full trailer £210.
The David Marshall Lodge
Another outdoorsy option nearby is a trip to The David Marshall Lodge just outside of Aberfoyle. We go here a lot with our kids and it’s always a brilliant day out. The Lodge is set in the beautiful Trossachs National Park, there are miles of paths to bike or hike and a kiddie-friendly loop which takes in a dramatic waterfall and a Red Squirrel hide. At Christmas they put on a festive trail along this loop. Along the way you can help locate Santa’s suit which the naughty elves have hidden. Each piece of clothing is found by a native animal so they learn a little about water voles and pine martens along the way. The lodge is also a brilliant, sustainable place to pick up your Christmas Tree. Every weekend in December they have wreath-making and crafts taking place.
Really close to Glasgow is Mugdock Country Park. During the year this is a great place for a cycle or a walk. At Christmas their lovely little cinema is home to a panto (this year it’s Aladdin) which runs up to 28th December. The combination of fresh air and panto is a great one. There’s an adventure playground, loch, two castles, stables and a walled garden to explore which makes it an entire festive day out. Entry and parking at Mugdock are free, panto tickets are £11 adults, £7 kids.
Nestled on the East side of Loch Lomond Balmaha is a great spot for a winter walk and a pub lunch. The National Park’s flagship visitor centre is here too. Take a hike up Conic Hill, it is steep in places but well worth it for the amazing views over Loch Lomond. Trek back down and you will have earned a slap-up lunch at the Oak Tree Pub. The pub does great found and is warm and cosy. At Christmas the entire pub is wrapped in giant red ribbon and throughout December they also operate a Santa’s Grotto, we haven’t visited yet but it costs £7 per child and you get 10% off a meal with each booking.
Caledonia Railways Santa Special
From tractors to trains, the Santa Special is run by Caledonia Railways from Brechin in Angus (about 25 miles from Dundee). This heritage train line is entirely run by volunteers and the 4-mile line between Brechin and Bridge of Dun is a little slice railway history. Our kids loved this experience. We watched the steam train come puffing into the station then scrambled aboard to find our compartment. The train is a museum-piece with vintage signs, I wish they still made train seats as comfortable. An old-school ticket-collector came round to collect tickets, followed by a volunteer with some gifts for the grown-ups, a mini-bottle of wine made the journey all the more enjoyable. We settled back to enjoy the scenery while the kids bounced around on the seats and peeked out the door to check if Santa was coming. Before the big man appeared ,a piper managed to squeeze along the narrow corridor to perform some carols. Santa’s bell was then heard and as he slowly makes his way to each compartment the excitement reached Christmas Eve levels. As Santa chats and gives out presents the train chuffs along to Bridge of Dun station where it stops for 10mins before returning to Brechin.
Adults £10, kids £10, infants £5 (adult & baby under a year £11).
Huge thanks to Jenny for compiling this list!