Christmas is all about traditions, and for Londoners nothing marks the start of the festive season more than Winter Wonderland – an extortionately priced fairground slapped in the middle of Hyde Park from November onwards with rides, games, food and tat stalls for punters to trudge round during the winter.
Sneer about it all you like, but even the most cynical among us have spent their fair share of time doing loops around its soggy field. So when Covid-19 meant Winter Wonderland was off the table last year, people were pretty disappointed.
Until now. Despite mounting concern about omicron, Winter Wonderland returned this year ready to rinse customers once more and provide a backdrop for Love Island influencers to take festive selfies for their adoring fans.
On a cold Wednesday night, I arrive at Winter Wonderland with all I need for a fun time: two mates and a Monzo card. There’s a fair few people in the queue and a rigorous security check which involves bag searching and steely gazes from security.
This makes it all the more curious that – upon walking through the gates – the whole place stinks like marijuana. Ah well, perhaps they hid it under their Santa hats?
As we walk through we see couples taking “romantic: selfies in front of rides which make my inner health and safety alarm bells ring, teenagers running around, and people chowing down on hot dogs and exchanging £5 for a shot at hook a duck.
After casing the joint it’s time to not merely observe, but get stuck in. And in just over two hours, I manage to spend about £35. On? Nothing!
Well, maybe not nothing. I got a £5 entry ticket that didn’t exist in the Good Old Days when the attraction was free, a Baileys hot chocolate which cost £8 (worth every penny) and I spent the rest on a series of ludicrous fairground games that shredded my banknotes in exchange for the possibility of winning a toy (I didn’t).
Ah, the ludicrous fairground games... Think shooting corks at piles of sweets out of rifles, with the chance to keep any sweets you knock down. Think trying to shoot a bouncy ball into a bucket without it ricocheting back out to get a heinous stuffed toy. And think throwing hoops at glass bottles while a speaker blares Christmas songs in the background for the chance to win... a heinous stuffed toy.
Is it any wonder that the “winners” spotted sheepishly walking down the escalators of the London underground that night, with huge toys under their arms ready for a rather more inconvenient than usual commute home, looked a bit peeved?
It could have been worse, I suppose – there was a lot of tat on offer like festive baubles, £10 ‘lucky dip’ bags, sweets and more which I ducked, and I also trusted my gut and hatred of thrill-seeking by storming past any and all rides.
It was also undeniably cold, but we can’t blame Winter Wonderland for being in Winter, as much as looming frostbite killed our festive joy de Vivre.
But rather than scowl at my bank balance and consult a financial adviser, I look at it this way: this time last year we were all locked in our respective flats, communicating only over WhatsApp and the odd freezing cold walk around parks that didn’t have strobe lighting and music.
Now we’re roaming around a rather more uniquely-clad park, laughing and joking without worrying about standing two metres apart. Who can put a price on that?