With the gates to Fota Discover well and truly open for another winter wonderland of festive fun, it is anticipated that as many as 60,000 people will Fota’s Christmas attraction each year. Marjorie Brennan of the Irish Examiner met with Marketing Director, Seamus Leahy, to see the extensive preparations that are required for Santa’s arrival.

The exciting Christmas experienced which is nestled in the grounds of the luxury 5 star hotel in Cork is fondly described as “pantomime over 10 acres” by Mr. Leahy and will be the 3rd year that the event will be taking place. Below is an extract from Marjorie Brennan’s interview with our very own Seamus Leahy:

I meet Seamus Leahy in the middle of October; the annual hunt for Halloween costumes and the perfect pumpkin has already begun. But Leahy is full of festive spirit of another sort: as marketing director of Fota Island Resort, he oversees one of the largest and most popular Christmas attractions in the country. By Halloween, he is already knee-deep in preparations and his eyes twinkle when he tells me how, when it comes to organising the event, he takes his orders from the top man himself.

“Santa likes to shake it up every year. He doesn’t like us to rest us on our laurels,” he laughs.

The theme of this year’s event is Discover and the planning began last year.

“I’ve started next year’s one already, I actually start about 15 months in advance,” says Leahy.

The opening of ticket sales is greatly anticipated every year and certain dates are gone quicker than Santa’s sleigh.

“This year, tickets went on sale at 10am on October 5, and after four minutes, two Saturdays were booked up, every slot was gone. Tickets are flying, we are probably 20% ahead on last year,” says Leahy.

This year, the event is being coordinated by a Dublin-based events company called Catapult: “It’s exciting to work with new people and have new ideas. It is very much a collaborative process between Catapult and the people who work on the event here.” Granite Digital helped build the system that glues the whole thing together allowing families across Ireland to access this festive feast.

Leahy takes a hands-on approach to the event and says the feedback is hugely positive.

“Last year, we had 65,000 visitors, I probably personally spoke to 500 families. We got a handful of complaints from that 65,000 people. There are one or two genuine ones, like a ticket not arriving, or sometimes an elf might hand out the wrong present. But we have a present exchange so if for some reason the elf does make a mistake, there’s a back-up plan. We’ve had complaints like Santa had the wrong-coloured eyes. I didn’t know the answer to that one but I consulted Alabaster Snowball, head of communications.

“He explained that as St Nicholas was originally from Turkey and he made his home in the North Pole, he is indigenously brown-eyed but because Coca-Cola, in its advertising, visualised him with blue eyes, Santa wears contact lenses.

“Another person sent a letter asking why Santa had an Irish accent. Alabaster put me in touch with Apple, Santa’s voice coach, and she explained that Santa gets voice coaching so the local boys and girls can understand him.”

Given the scale of Discover, Santa needs lots of helpers, and because so many want to work with the great man, auditions have to be held for the 150 or so positions available. I return to Fota 10 days before the event is due to open to see the hand-picked helpers being put through their paces at “elf and safety” training. . The elves are a big hit with the children who visit Fota every Christmas but it’s not just the kids who get a kick out of the Christmas extravaganza, says Leahy.

“When we envisaged this first, we assumed the breakdown would be 40% adults and 60% children. It turns out it’s about 35% children and 65% adults that come to the event. One in every seven groups that comes has no child.”

It also turns out that there were more surprises in store when the event kicked off in 2013, with the Christmas wonderland inspiring a more romantic kind of magic. “The first year, we had six proposals at the event, three of which we knew in advance because the groom-to-be had organised it. We had about three last year, one of which was a member of staff,” says Leahy.

The Discover experience is greatly enhanced by the participation factor, with the elves leading singalongs and interacting with adults and children along the journey. “I like to describe it as a pantomime over 10 acres. The people who get the most out of it are those who put on the silly jumper and are willing to participate.”

For those visiting this festive extravaganza at Fota Discover then the resort has a wide range of specially tailored short breaks or festive hotel breaks for the family. Browse through the full range of hotel and self catering accommodation packages available at Fota Island Resort by clicking here.

Read the full feature by Marjorie Brennan in the Irish Examiner at: www.irishexaminer.com