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Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

Does Lapland in the UK have to be a disaster?

Archie with Father Christmas
Lily and Archie meet Father Christmas

Lapland New Forest. Closed, after an avalanche of complaints. And Lapland West Midlands failed to even open. So when Jane Wakefield took her children to "Lapland" in Kent, it was with some trepidation.

My five-year-old Archie begins questioning the Lapland experience long before we set off.

On reading his personalised invite from Santa, his first question is: "We're going to Lapland so I presume we are going on a plane?"

Lapland UK, just outside Tunbridge Wells (flying time - zero, driving time - 90 minutes), seems well prepared for critical five-year-olds.

An information board at the entrance explains the "flight" will be one of the imagination, travelling down the magical pathways that elves have used to get around for centuries, and which have been specially opened up for the lucky children invited to come.

Elf with children
An elf leads the way to the magic wood

And there is a convincing attempt at magic as we enter a "magic" wood via a large wooden door and are led through a Narnia-esque woodland scene that turns from green to white.

The place itself is extremely picturesque with Christmas trees sprinkled with fake snow and wooden chalets built around an ice-rink. Even my cynical son buys into the illusion that he has been transported to the "real" Lapland.

We are greeted by people dressed in traditional Sammi costume, some with husky dogs, although others are in tackier Rudolph costumes.

The children are divided into small groups for a series of activities, including helping the elves make rocking horses and decorating gingerbread men.

Saint Nick

The organised schedule and small groups of children seem to be a large part of the success of Lapland UK - no relation to the troubled Dorset attraction which closed last week.

Lapland UK
Archie helps the elves make a rocking horse as he waits to see Santa

But the highlight of any trip to Lapland, real or fake, has to be the visit to Father Christmas. The three-hour queues at Lapland New Forest troubled many of its visitors, but ours is a slick and well-oiled procedure.

Rather than stand in line, children enter a room packed with activities to wait until their names are called. Then an elf leads them by the hand not to a standard Santa grotto, but through the woods and down a path to a little wooden house for a very personal audience with the man himself.

He wears red and white, but in the style of traditional Sammi clothing. His beard looks real and he speaks in what, to the untrained ear, sounds like an authentic Scandinavian accent.

My children, sitting on a reindeer skin-covered bench to give him their Christmas wish-list, believe 100% they are talking to the "real" Father Christmas.

But I am not allowed to take photos. Instead I can pay 10 for one of theirs, on top of the 75 admission I have already shelled out. For each of us.

Behind the scenes

I very nearly spoiled the illusion myself by arriving nearly two hours early in order not to miss our allotted entry time.

Nativity scene at Lapland, New Forest

A walk around the perimeter of the site revealed a few elves and a Father Christmas striding towards the staff canteen. Luckily none were smoking - something which distressed children at Lapland New Forest - and a couple actually hid in order to avoid us seeing them off-duty.

Enthusiastic elves are an important part of any Christmas experience and at Lapland UK they deal with tears and tantrums, tell the odd joke and even help tentative skaters around the ice-rink.

The attraction pushes an eco agenda, working closely with the Forestry Commission and selling itself as the "green" alternative to getting on a plane and leaving behind a large carbon footprint.

Hence the gifts included in that hefty admission charge come in hessian rather than plastic bags - although a cuddly husky isn't quite the traditional "age-appropriate wooden toy" promised on the website - and the trip begins with a lecture on recycling from an "eco-elf".

But niggles aside, a lot of thought has gone into transforming this corner of south-east England into a winter wonderland.

Although the whole real/fake debate has completely confused two-year old Lily, who on the way home asked the whereabouts of her "real" daddy.

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