The best Christmas grottos across the UK – & which Santas give the best gifts

SANTA is definitely on the nice list this year.

Despite Covid restrictions and social distancing, Father Christmas is still making dreams come true in grottos across the country.

This year, we sent families who deserved a little treat to review a selection of festive experiences.

Here, they give their verdicts.

Christmas at Shrek’s Adventure, London

Included in standard ticket price, adults from £21, children from £18.40, 30 per cent discount when you book online

Sumayyah Hassan, three, is in remission for leukaemia, and spent three months at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, during the first lockdown, after complications with her medication.

Sumayyah, who has received support from Clic Sargent, visited the fairytale venue with her mum, Amira Baliram, 31, who is her full-time carer, and grandmother, Sabira.

Amira said: “It was like being in the middle of a movie. You go on a tour with Shrek and lots of other fairytale characters, like Cinderella, and along the way you have to solve puzzles.

“At the end, each family meets Santa in private. Although we had to socially distance and wear masks, it felt like a slice of normality after everything we’ve been through this year.

“It was a really magical experience and she loved Shrek so much she asked me why she couldn’t turn green herself.

"Sumayyah was given a bag of gifts which included keychains and a little Shrek, which she calls her ‘Shrek baby’.”

Sumayyah said: “I felt like I was in the north pole.”

Santa – 5/5
Gift – 5/5
Overall experience – 5/5

Santa's Tea Party, Celtic Manor hotel, Newport, South Wales

Book online – adults, from £30, children from £15

Ellie Keohane, eight, and sister Abigail, six, have raised more than £1,300 for the NHS by riding their bike 75 miles over 10 days.

The pair, from Newport, south Wales, enjoyed afternoon tea with Santa and their parents, Jonathan, 38, a primary school headteacher, and mum, Katie, 41, a project manager with housing charity Pobl.

Jonathan said: “The room was spectacularly decorated with about 55 Christmas trees, nutcrackers and snow all over the floor; it was magical.

"The afternoon tea was brilliant – a Christmas 'lasagne cake', striped with red, white and green, was Abigail’s favourite.

“Santa called by Zoom. He talked about what it’s been like in Lapland with all the restrictions, and dropped in a few jokes for the adults.

It was amazing to meet the real Santa

"A few children were able to ask a question and my girls asked if it’s true he likes whisky.

"Apparently Daddy is wrong because he said he prefers milk. Even though it was virtual it was still interactive.

“His elves gave out the presents; Abigail was delighted with a horse and carriage set and Ellie got a book of facts which was right up her street.

Abigail said: “It was amazing to meet the real Santa. And we made snow angels on the floor.”

Santa – 5/5
Gift – 5/5
Overall experience – 5/5

Christmas at The Eden Project, Cornwall

Book online – £10 per ticket, plus standard Eden admission

Laura Felton, 28, who runs handmade home accessories shop Jagerpom,lost her great aunt to Covid and could only watch the funeral on Zoom.

She and husband John, 33, a chef, took their girls, Poppy, four, and Bailey, three.

Laura, from Helston, Cornwall, said: “It was so different to a normal day at the Eden Project.

"We spent over an hour in one dome looking at all the illuminations, they were phenomenal.

"There were bands playing Christmas music and a bar, and it was just magical. There was also ice skating outside.

It was so different to a normal day at the Eden Project

“At our designated time slot, we went to see Santa, who did a talk about plants. It kind of went over the kids’ heads really, but they enjoyed the experience.

“They received a cookie, plus a cookie cutter and recipe in a jar. We would 100 per cent go to see the lights again but I’m not sure I would pay £40 extra to see Santa as a family.”

Santa: 3/5
Gift: 4/5
Experience: 4/5

Father Christmas’s Reindeer Lodge, Trafford Centre, Manchester

Book online – £10.50 per child, £5.50 per adult

Visited by Benjamin Grocott, three, mum Alex, 32, and dad Paul, 36.

Alex was made redundant at the end of May from her job as a receptionist for a private health company, and Paul is facing possible redundancy from his job as a building planner.

Alex, from Manchester, said: “The staff, who were dressed as elves and energetic, made this a wonderful experience.

"They gave all the families nicknames – ours was The Silly Stockings – which made all the children laugh.

“They were very careful with Covid procedures, but we didn’t feel restricted.

“The only disappointment was Santa didn’t smile on the photo with Benjamin.

The staff, who were dressed as elves and energetic, made this a wonderful experience

"We’ve shown the photo to family and friends and they have all asked why Santa looked so miserable.

"Benjamin sat in a sleigh in front of Santa, and it was a magical experience for him.”

Santa: 4/5
Gift: 4/5
Experience: 4/5

National Sea Life Centre, Birmingham

Book online – Zoom calls with Santa for the whole family to enjoy at home for £30. Ticket includes free child entry to any Sea Life centre, valid until the end of 2021

Bridey Rose Prince, nine, and her brother Xander, three, haven’t seen their grandmother since July as she is shielding while she has treatment for breast cancer.

They live in Bristol with mum Alison, 41, and warehouseman dad Jamie, 40.

Alison said: “It has been really tough on the kids not seeing their gran.

“Usually she spends a lot of time with them – at least two days a week – so they have really missed her.

“As we were in Tier 3, meeting Santa in person was difficult.

I loved seeing the penguins during the call.

“I was worried that a Zoom call wouldn’t be personal but Santa knew their names and what they wanted.

“The children loved every moment of it. It was such a treat and the gift was a ticket to SeaLife, which we’re all looking forward to.”

Bridey Rose said: “I loved Zooming with Santa and I loved seeing the penguins during the call. I can’t wait to use the gift and visit them and see the penguins for real.”

Santa: 5/5
Gift: 5/5
Experience: 5/5

Santa Express, Great Central Railway, Loughborough, Leicestershire

Book online – £79 for 4-person compartment, £85 for six people

Police officer Emma Prince, 34, has suffered the loss of her grandparents as well as a miscarriage this year.

Emma, husband Mark, 38, a postman, and Oliver, four, from Walsall, travelled on the steam train from Quorn & Woodhouse Station, near Loughborough to Leicester North and back on the Great Central Railway.

Emma said: “It has been a very tough year.

“The Santa Express was just what we wanted, it was brilliant.

“We spotted reindeer and a sleigh out of the window along the way, and had mince pies at a model village.

“Santa had a chat with Oliver about what he wanted for Christmas and whether he had been good, then gave him a Crayola set, which he loved.

“It was a lovely experience and really got us into the Christmas mood.”

Santa: 5/5
Gift: 5/5
Experience: 4/5

Winter's Tail at Chessington World of Adventures, Kingston-upon-Thames, London

Book online – includes meeting Santa in his Grotto, wander through the Toy Workshop and Mrs Christmas’s kitchen plus The Wild Christmas Panto starring The Gruffalo, tickets start at £20

Saaran Shah, nine, and brother Shiv, four, haven’t seen much of their surgeon dad this year as he has been working on Covid wards at the Whittington Hospital, London, but have spread some joy by making wellness boxes for NHS staff.

Mum Sajni, 38, from Stanmore, north London, said: “Christmas at Chessington really brightened up 2020 for our two kids who have missed family and friends this year, and have had a lot of time away from their dad.

“We had a magical experience at Chessington. It was like we were in the North Pole – shimmering snow, excited elves and regal reindeer.

"We had a wonderful time, it was one of the best we had ever been to.

Saraan said: “It was the best grotto ever! Meeting Santa was amazing and he talked to my brother who was so excited to meet him.

We had a magical experience at Chessington

"He gave us some golden tickets and we then went to the workshop and got to choose our gifts. I chose a tangle gift that you can mould and shape anyway you like, and my brother chose Chessington Top Trump cards.

"To finish it off we had some lovely cookies and hot chocolate!”

Santa: 5/5
Gift: 5/5
Overall experience: 5/5

Edinburgh Zoo, Scotland

Book online – tickets starting at £14 per child

Four-year-old Layla, has been in hospital for plastic surgery after shattering her hand in an accident.

Mum Rachael Bashford, 26, a student nurse at Edinburgh University, said: “The zoo has a lights trail which was quite magical. One part, Candy Lane, had massive sweets and lights; it was very impressive, and Layla said she wanted to take it all home and eat it.

“We saw Santa Claus and Mrs Claus in their grotto and Layla got to tell him what was on her Christmas list.

“She got a wee present, a fishing rod set for the bath and a cuddly penguin which she has cuddled in bed every night since.

“It was a great laugh and she really enjoyed it.”

Layla said: “I loved going to see Santa at the zoo with mummy and seeing Mrs Claus. I loved seeing the penguins swimming around with my penguin teddy from Mr and Mrs Claus.”

Santa: 5/5
Gift: 5/5
Experience: 5/5

York's Chocolate Story, York

Book online – Chocolate-making with Santa and festive tour, Adults £20.50, children, £18

Owain Davies, 39, was made redundant as a bookmaker in October, and wife Sue, 37, a cook, from Hull, has been volunteering at a food bank while on furlough.

They took their girls, Cerys, four, and two-year-old Eleri to this sweet experience.

Sue said: “This year has been a tough one like it has been for many people. It has been a rollercoaster and it won’t be forgotten or forgiven.

“This experience was absolutely incredible. As soon as we walked in it was all smiles and it was like entering Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was decked it out beautifully.

“We made chocolate lollies and reindeer noses. The girls were delighted to chat to Santa, who gave them some salted caramel chocolates.

“It was so much better than sitting on his knee for a minute or too.

“The girls loved it and we had a really wonderful time. We are definitely coming back.

Cerys said: “I really liked learning about cocoa and I really, really liked the chocolate!

“It was super duper fun.”

Santa: 5/5
Gift: 5/5
Overall experience: 5/5

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