Winter Wonderland is celebrating its 10th birthday in Hyde Park. Hordes will fill its festive enclosure at weekends and after dark until New Year's Day. But what's it like on a weekday morning in November? Not as quiet as you might expect...
❄ I wasn't expecting queues, not on an autumnal weekday morning. But when I turned up at the gate closest to Hyde Park Corner I had to wait in line for six minutes while the jobsworths ahead checked over those hoping to get inside. Anyone with a bag had it scrutinised, not just for anything bomb-sized but a proper poke/squeeze/empty in the search for liquid contraband. Bottles of half-drunk water were located and chucked unceremoniously into a bin. Men without bags were asked to stand with their arms outstretched for a pat down, at least in the line I ended up in, and I felt more humiliated than festive by the end of it. I walked round later and observed that procedures at the other two entrance gates were less draconian - bags checked, but everyone else waved straight through without the need for prodding. The inconsistency of approach was irritating, and suggested that the prime purpose of the 'security' perimeter is to ensure quarantine for the drinks-peddlers inside.
❄ Whoa it's big! An attraction which started out as a few stalls along a path has mushroomed into a full-blown entertainment corral covering 350 acres, and walking round the perimeter took absolutely ages. I was quite convinced at one point I must be nearly back to where I started but I was barely halfway, as a quick check of the map confirmed. Do pick up a map from one of the kiosks, they're free, and it's only with one that I managed to gain any sense of how the sprawl of paths and attractions was laid out. But it's pretty much the same layout as last year, if that helps.
❄ Who are the people who come to Winter Wonderland on a Tuesday morning in November? Students, rather than schoolkids. Young-ish tourists. Retired couples. Groups of mates with the day off work. Mums with pre-schoolers in strollers. Pickpockets. And yes, redundant bloggers.
❄ What I genuinely wasn't expecting is that, even on a Tuesday morning in November, the whole place is open. Every burrito stall, every hook-a-duck, every MDF chalet serving themed drinks, the lot. Even when there was no hope of sufficient punters turning up, bratwurst still sizzled on oversized grills, innumerable lights flashed on silent rides and staff behind makeshift counters waited to pull unwanted pints. The whole complex is vastly over-resourced during daylight hours, simply so that it's primed for an evening bombardment. And this is why a weekday daytime is the best time to come, assuming that you're coming to have a go at things, and not simply for the social experience.
❄ Winter Wonderland is stacked high with three kinds of things - experiences, refreshment and merchandise. There's a heck of a lot of each. But essentially you're walking round a giant fairground, which I suspect is why the whole place works. Travelling fairs visit most other big towns and cities during the rest of the year, but central London sees nothing comparable until WW turns up for a six week blowout before Christmas. Where else, and when else are you going to get your house of mirrors, ghost train and rollercoaster fix? No wonder people come.
❄ Bring cash, assuming you intend to spend money (and there's not much to do here if you don't). This isn't an especially card- or contactless-friendly environment, being in the middle of a Royal Park, so assume it's still 2007 and stock up on coins and notes appropriately. Cash machines are provided, but they all charge £2.95 per transaction, and you could nearly buy a tray of chips for that.
❄ Ah, the smell of the blazing brazier, how evocative is that? Just don't huddle up with your mulled wine too close for too long, else you'll get back to the tube smelling like a bonfire.
❄ The paid-for attractions are the real moneyspinners for the organisers. Turn up on spec at the weekend and they'll likely be booked out, which forces people to pre-purchase online and fork out at least £3 extra for the privilege. But turn up on a weekday daytime in November and you can walk onto the observation wheel, have the ice rink almost to yourself, and dine alone in the vast Bavarian bierkeller. The amazing Munich Looping in the centre of the site - the world's largest transportablerollercoaster - only runs once it's gathered enough squealing punters, which was yesterday was only three or four times an hour. And over at Bar Hutte they're standing outside almost begging groups to come inside to try the karaoke chalets, at least before the office crews turn up after work for a blast.
❄ Food's not cheap, but neither is it ridiculously expensive, at least as fairground fare goes. Eight quid's a lot for a cheesy hotdog, but not unheard of in the world of event hospitality, while most pubs in Soho also charge a fiver a pint. It all adds up though, especially if there's a lot of you and you end up on the beer plus associated snacks. The food choice is, if anything, too wide. Tucked in amongst the more generic meatshacks and sweet vendors are genuine streetfood vans, vegetarian burgers, halal options and fish and chips, for starters, so it could take some time to decide which one 'main meal' option is going to be your choice. You couldn't possibly eat even a fraction of what's on offer, although when it comes to churros, waffles, iced doughnuts, giant pretzels, mini pancakes and Haribo, some attendees are clearly up for giving it a good go.
❄ The most astonishing food offer I found was on a faded menu pinned up outside a VIP restaurant at the back of the Bavarian Village. Sausage and cheese starter for four, £44. Wild goulash ragout, £38. Steak, £65, or £155 to maybe share. Red berry compote, £12. Glass of rosé, £250. Bottle of Dom Perignon, £1500. I never expected to find the Knightsbridge audience living it up in wintry Hyde Park, or maybe this is where bankers come after work before getting blokey on the coasters.
❄ It's amazing how many ways there are to dress up a bar. One looks like a windmill, one looks like a Viking hideaway, one looks like a circus tent, one is topped with a statuesque pyramid, two rotate like a carousel, and one is even an attempted recreation of an East End boozer. It's almost a licensed Las Vegas in plywood. And it works. The rotund blokes plonk down outside Santa's pub, the Netflix couples hunker down in the Viking tent, and the late teens stop at the one with the loudest music. Every gimmick to make you swap your cash for alcohol is being tried.
❄ You do not need a floral coinbag, a Santa hat with antlers or a glittery candelabra, but these are all amongst the bling available in the Angels Christmas Market. Many's the December 25th that'll feature some unwanted gift purchased here in a burst of festive fervour.
❄ Do come if you like Instagramming misplaced apostrophes, you'll be spoilt for choice.
❄ I watched one man win a giant Mickey Mouse on a ball-chucking stall by perfectly slamdunking five footballs past the shifting ice hockey goalies. But as the toy in a bag was hooked down, and handed over to his girlfriend, the lad on the stall picked up a small poster which read "Only 1 Jumbo per person" and held it up silently to prevent him from winning again.
❄ Rather than diving in and embracing the experience I merely walked round agog, without spending a penny. No stallholders bothered me because I was a lone bloke, and Winter Wonderland is plainly for pairs, families and groups. But remember that having collective fun at Christmas can be totally unnecessarily wallet-emptying, if you allow it to be. And if you do fancy a trip to Winter Wonderland, and prefer activity to queueing, maybe try coming during the day, rather than evenings or weekends.