Belfast Winter Wonderland a hellhole, say parents after visiting 'rip-off' grotto in disused warehouse
Santa's elves have been working overtime to redeem themselves at a 'winter wonderland' after a disastrous opening weekend saw parents describe it as a "hellhole".
Opening in a disused warehouse on Ann Street in Belfast on Saturday, Santa's Winter Wonderland invited families to "meet our Christmas characters as you enjoy a journey through a magical winter wonderland, with lots to see and do along the way".
But far from inspiring the Christmas spirit, families described the attraction - in a cold and sparsely decorated abandoned building - as much closer to the Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The venue is to reopen again today from 12-5pm, and the organisers will be under pressure to make a better impression.
One unhappy customer, Teresa Fitzsimmons, left a particularly stinging review on the event's Facebook page, calling it "truly depressing".
"A damp, musty warehouse covered in white dustsheets with a few bits of tinsel does not constitute a winter wonderland," she wrote.
"Stiff adults dressed as a penguin and snowmen, who had as much movement as the Belfast museum mummy, do not constitute a winter wonderland."
Laura, who attended the event on Sunday with her husband and their three grandchildren, added: "We were literally in a state of shock at the abysmal display.
"I doubt I've ever felt let down as much as I have been on this occasion. The look on my grandchildren's faces was heartbreaking, especially the two-year-old, who was handed an advent calendar as his gift from Santa."
A mother from Dungannon told the Stephen Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster that: "It's just really bare and cold. There's a straggly Christmas tree with very few decorations.
"We expected something like elves at a winter wonderland. There was a bubble machine just letting out splodgy bubbles."
With good reviews rather thin on the ground, the mother added that there was at least one enjoyable part of the experience - a friendly Santa.
Jolene Houston said she still had some Christmas spirit left and was not quite put off attending. "Oh, I so hope this has been whipped into shape by time I get there on Thursday," she added.
Despite the attractions inside - including a merry-go-round, an arts and crafts section and a picture with Santa - Jillian Connor said that there had been such a strong reaction because of the price.
"My concern was not a photo nor a merry-go-round, it was the winter wonderland experience," she added. "Certainly, if what you offered was reflected in the price, then you wouldn't be disappointed, but it was a complete rip-off. I, personally, want a refund."
Maurice Little was another very unhappy customer.
"I didn't get an apology whenever I phoned on Monday to complain," he said. "The lady I spoke to told me she had been with her own family and was very happy with everything she saw. She told me she didn't understand what my problem was!"
After the host of complaints, the Crumlin Road Gaol organisers issued an apology, blaming "logistical" problems with both props and materials not arriving on time.
Explaining their decision to continue, they said: "We took a decision to carry on with the opening rather than disappoint the children and cancel the event, which in hindsight was a mistake, and we fully apologise for this."
With tickets priced at £5 per adult and £12.50 per child, the organisers have promised to refund unhappy customers.
They said: "Our aim was to create something positive from a disused city centre warehouse and we hope that this will be fully realised for this weekend's customers. We are in no way trying to diminish the Christmas spirit.
"This is our inaugural event at Christmas, and we were aspiring to build it to something that could be positive about Belfast."
The organisers stressed that the problems at the attraction have been fixed.
And they said that, as a gesture of goodwill, families will be offered one free picture with Santa Claus, which was previously charged at £5.