It’s 2.39pm on a cold but sunny Thursday in November, and my senses are being attacked from all sides. Neon lights are flashing. Adrenaline fiends scream from fairground rides. The air is thick with the smell of oil and the shrill blare of vintage Black Eyed Peas. It’s been five years since I last visited Winter Wonderland, one of London’s most popular Christmas attractions. Or tourist trap, depending on who you ask. To be honest, I didn’t see myself coming back. There are people for whom Christmas doesn’t begin until you’ve visited Hyde Park’s festive labyrinth. I’ve always felt the opposite: Winter Wonderland is a commercial hellscape I would rather avoid.
When Winter Wonderland began in Hyde Park in 2005, it took the form of a small and relatively innocuous winter funfair. Following a financial injection from a number of major events companies, it grew into what it is today: an expansive village of rides, games, shows, food stalls and German-themed markets. Year after year, the event has got bigger, with throngs flocking to its ice rink and its London Eye-style wheel. It’s now one of those things you just have to do in London at Christmas, as synonymous with the festive season as mince pies and office party hangovers.
For a lot of people, however, the mere mention of Winter Wonderland prompts a heavy eye-roll. To its critics, it demonstrates Christmas at its most capitalist. It’s for millennials (ugh), for families (ugh), for groups visiting from out of town for their girls’ day out (ugh). Describing someone as “the kind of person who enjoys Winter Wonderland” is, more often than not, a derogatory put-down. While lovers queue up to hard-launch their relationships with pictures taken beneath the event’s glowing neon arches, others see the whole thing as basic – or at least a bit cringe. As the Instagram artist Niall Gallagher (aka Times New Roadman) declared in his recent snarky painting: “Breaking news: Couple photos at Winter Wonderland won’t save your doomed relationship.”
When I think about Winter Wonderland, I, admittedly, have these feelings too. My only previous visit came during my first winter in London five years ago, and it felt like a rite of passage. The recently fallen snow had begun to thaw; my overwhelming memory of the day is grey slush. The prices were shocking, but entry was free, so it didn’t feel like we’d lost anything by going.
But Winter Wonderland has changed a lot since then. Guests attending at peak times now must pay to get in, in a move ostensibly designed to stagger entry times and reduce queueing. Still, the systems have strained under the pressure. Annual videos show fights breaking out among ticket holders, with punching punters fuelled by gluhwein or, as confirmed in a 2021 Vice report, their own personal flurries of, ahem, “snow”. On TripAdvisor, attendees complain about crowding and cost (“£10 for cheesy chips!”), arguing that the place has lost its charm and feels commercialised beyond recognition.
So it’s with some trepidation that, in the year of our lord 2023, I head back to Winter Wonderland. It’s an “off-peak” time, so the queues – thankfully – are minimal. Our tickets are scanned, before security guards open bags and pat down coats thoroughly. Given the videos I’ve seen explaining how best to sneak booze into the confines, such a regimented check isn’t surprising.
When we get inside, it’s relatively quiet. Families mill around in black puffer jackets pushing prams; friends and students enjoy their days off. I worry that by avoiding peak times, I’m not having the proper Winter Wonderland experience. Later, though, I see a TikTok video declaring: “The Winter Wonderland queues this year made me feel like I was back at Reading Festival standing on my feet with no air getting shoved for two hours straight.” I regret my decision less.
On-site, we make a beeline for the map in an attempt to navigate the many areas and attractions on offer. Christmas songs serenade us, all interspersed with random un-festive tracks surely meant to evoke a sing-a-long, like “Build Me Up Buttercup”. Everything looks like it’s made of dark wood. Everything smells a bit like doughnuts.
Foolishly, I assume that most people braving Winter Wonderland are here for the rides. However, for some, the food is an attraction in itself – the main attraction, even. TikTok videos – almost exclusively soundtracked by a sped-up version of Wham’s “Last Christmas” – see users listing “what I ate in a day at Winter Wonderland,” with food hauls racking up to hundreds of pounds. There are close-up shots of glistening £22 racks of ribs, obligatory cheese pulls (an internet food video staple), and Frankenfood experiments in which entire slices of cheesecake are covered in chocolate and eaten on a stick like a lollipop.
It’s easy to question how in the country’s capital city – a place with amazing food from so many different cultures – a tourist attraction can be the place considered the pinnacle of casual dining. But while the prices are undoubtedly higher at Winter Wonderland, is this place really that different from artisanal food spots spreading across the country, such as London’s Mercato Metropolitano or Mackie Mayor in Manchester? Those venues simply market themselves with a heavy layer of authenticity. Winter Wonderland, to its credit, has none of that. The capitalism of it all is worn without shame, like a day-glo puffer jacket decorated with sleigh bells.
In Hyde Park, prices are hiked simply for the experience of being there. The rides are gaudy, and often not all that Christmassy. “Welcome to my crazy Bavarian fun house,” one sign screams, alongside cartoons of moustached men in lederhosen and winking blonde barmaids holding pretzels. Commercial brand partnerships are rife too, with the ice slide sponsored by a ski holiday company, and Lidl backing the ice rink.
Overwhelmed by choice, we sip mulled wine (£6.20) in the rapidly setting sun. We raise our voices when the volume is quickly turned up to blast what I think is a heavily remixed version of Ace of Base’s “The Sign”, with added festive bells. Again, it is the middle of a Thursday afternoon. If Winter Wonderland is so determined for us to party at these hours, I can only imagine what those weekend evenings would be like.
But no matter how sceptical you are, it’s hard not to get caught up in it. Despite a life-long fear of fairground rides – nobody will ever convince me of the safety of something that transports from place to place, is bolted into the ground and thrusts you in the air – I find myself on a rudimentary VR experience called Dr Archibald: Master of Time, and quite enjoy myself. Days later, my friend asks me, concerned: “Did we really spend £9 on that? That’s very unlike us.” Clearly, the power of Winter Wonderland compelled us.
So yes, this attraction is expensive and crowded – just like an awful lot of London experiences. The loathing Winter Wonderland evokes is something different, though with an underlying class snobbishness. Skating at Somerset House is seen as chic. Skating at Winter Wonderland is seen as basic. The difference is the stereotypical groups who attend, despite everyone being at these places for the same reasons: the act of something Christmassy with loved ones, and maybe grabbing some cute pics along the way.
In hindsight, only once on my trip to Winter Wonderland did I give into my snarky side. It happened when I spied a stall selling “Old English Hot Dogs”, a sight so triggering that I rushed to send a photo of it to my group chat. But now, when I look back at the picture, I realise I did what the Winter Wonderland overlords wanted me to do all along. This is a place where everyone is taking photos of everything all the time. And everything has been designed for that exact purpose. I thought Winter Wonderland was something to mock, but maybe the joke was on me all along.