I realised something shocking and saddening recently; I realised that we only have three or four more years of having a full brood of believers. What’s the ‘age of discovery’ these days? Nine? Ten maybe? How long before a classmate spills the beans? This flash of insight resulted in a dogged determination to go the extra mile with the Santa visit before the magic starts to dissipate. Gah! Even typing the words is making my heart heavy.
I made a booking for Santa’s Workshop at Aillwee Cave in late September and last weekend, psyched to get our jingle on, we were Burren-bound. From Galway City it’s less than an hour to Ballyvaughan. We made our peace with the bad roads and the Sunday drivers, lobbed on a Disney Podcast (eh, lifesaver!) and away we went.
I had been to the cave on a few occasions with work and spent the trips trying to muster up some enthusiasm about subterranean rivers and stalactites from disinterested teenagers. It was a joy to see the centre transformed into a winter wonderland of which enthusiasm was a natural and inescapable by-product. This was our second year visiting Aillwee at Christmas as a family and it was every bit as magical this time around, in fact probably more so since the four-year-old and the six-year-old have now given themselves over completely to the magic of the season.
A Warm Welcome
On arrival, we were greeted by chipper staff, all suitably attired in elfenwear and smiles. Both children and parents (yes, even the parents) received welcome gifts; each child was given a gorgeous hardback story book called My Visit to See Santa at Aillwee Cave. We’ve read it every night since we came home! The parents received a boxed Christmas bauble; a nice touch.
What’s on Offer?
We arrived an hour before we were due to see Santa so we had time to soak up the festive atmosphere and enjoy some of the additional entertainment on offer. There was plenty to choose from.
- There were two fun-fair attractions for the smaller kids and a Waltzer for those with stronger stomachs. (I pride myself on my stomach of steel but the Waltzer had me feeling queasy. You’ve been warned.)
- A quippy Jack Frost wandered around the courtyard, available for chats, photo-ops and cheeky banter.
- When she wasn’t serving complimentary warm punch and mince pies to the grown-ups, Mrs Clause could be found speaking softly to entranced little ones from a cosy chair within a large fireplace and signing copies of their story books.
- Inside the main building there was an elf-manned face-painting station and a puppet show.
- A quick jaunt on the Christmas train had us at the Burren Birds of Prey Centre at the bottom of the hill. Three bird shows are scheduled daily. This was a high point of the day for all of us. Eagles, falcons and snowy owls swooped so close to heads that squeals and gasps came from the crowd regularly. Children got the opportunity to get up close and personal with the birds and the experts pitched the show perfectly at the little ones. Best of all, the show was included in the price! Yup, free of charge. Gratis. Gomplimentary. Don’t miss it – it really is great!
- Nearby we visited Santa’s Post Office where the kids could write and post letters to the North Pole and we browsed in the Christmas shop which sold all sorts of Christmas paraphernalia and local crafts.
- The on-site farm shop is well worth a visit and stocks an array of foodie delights including a local cheese produced on site.
The Main Event – Santa in the Cave
The obvious highlight of the day’s activities was descending deep into the cavernous tunnels of the cave in pursuit of the man in red. We had a 1.05pm booking and considering the volume of visitors, we were very pleasantly surprised to hear our names being called over the speakers bang on time.
Groups of around ten children along with their grown-ups were led by a chirpy elf singing Christmas songs through the cave, stopping along the way to find giant snowflakes with clues to a festive puzzle. This was as adorable as it sounds and the singing was completely infectious.
Santa himself was a delight. He was, of course, asleep and the gang took great delight in shouting ‘wake up, Santa’ in unison. He looked and sounded the part and spent more than enough time with each individual child while the others looked on, thoroughly mesmerized. Nothing was rushed and each child was left incredulous at the volume of information Santa had in his ‘book’. Bonus points for Santa’s clever punning regarding ‘elf & safety’ and the likes…
My sources tell me that the gifts received were absolutely satisfactory. The baby got a soft rattle toy, the four-year-old got a large rag-doll and the six-year-old got a dart-shooting set, which has been a huge hit, sadly.
Refuelling at the Cafe
We had lunch in the cafe on-site. The menu was limited but it had something for everyone. The staff were fantastic and the food arrived quickly. There was a vast selection of sweet things on offer too. People were circling for tables all the time so be prepared to wait for a seat or arrange to eat off-peak instead. Teas and coffees were complimentary in the cafe. Yet another classy touch, Aillwee!
Final Thoughts and Tips
- Get there early so you can enjoy all of the activities at a leisurely pace. We arrived at noon and left around 5pm so you can easily spend the day there.
- Wrap up. It’s cold. Really cold.
- If you have a baby, bring a sling – buggies/strollers aren’t permitted in the cave itself.
- The only time we encountered queues was when we were trying to get the train back up to the cave entrance from The Birds of Prey Centre after the show. Keep that in mind if you are rushing back up for a Santa slot. (It didn’t help matters that this momma took a chance and left her family in the queue to very quickly pick up some fudge in the nearby farm shop, only to emerge and see the train chugging up the hill and her unimpressed family standing fuming on the footpath – it took most of my fudge to cheer them back up!)
- Initially the price-tag may seem hefty but for an entire day’s entertainment, I think it was worth it. The only other money we spent was on lunch and on a family photo with Santa and we could easily have had someone else take a photo for us and not sprung for the professional one.
- All in all, the entire operation seemed to be extremely well-run. An abundance of staff efficiently kept things running like clockwork.
We had a really lovely family day out and would absolutely recommend Santa’s Workshop at Aillwee Cave to all little believers.
We paid €110 for entry for two adults, two children and a baby. All opinions are entirely my own.
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