There are precious few years when children fully embrace the magic of Christmas, and at four years old, my son is firmly in that bracket.
So it was inevitable he would spend the entirety of our trip to Mission Christmas at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard wide-eyed and grinning from ear to ear.
The venue has done what any sensible tourist attraction does at this time of year, and transformed into a fairy light-covered, tinsel-strewn festive extravaganza.
But this is far from your average Santa’s grotto. Mission Christmas: The Clausometer Catastrophe invites families to step inside the secret world of Santa’s sub-station, where a crew of elves are poised to jump into action in case old St Nick runs into problems.
Sure enough, trouble hits when he flies over the dockyard and drops his clausometer, which he needs to help guide his sleigh.
Young guests are tasked with solving clues to help find the all-important gadget, and ultimately save Christmas.
It’s a slightly convoluted premise, which older children may follow a bit more than little ones, but there’s plenty to keep everyone entertained.
Our enthusiastic host explains the task at hand, before inviting young guests to become honorary elves for the day by taking on an elf name and graduating from the Elf Academy.
My son, re-christened Peppermint Sleighbells, collects his cap and scroll for an utterly adorable elf graduation ceremony, before we embark on our mission.
We’re led through a series of festive scenes by our theatrical guide, who presents us with clues from Mrs Claus and the mischievous elves to help find the clausometer.
Luckily we don’t linger too long in any one section, which helps hold the children’s attention. There’s plenty of laughs along the way and activities for the youngsters to immerse themselves in.
While a dockyard may not be the most obvious venue for such an attraction, it’s all very well thought-out. There are nautical references and fun ship-building facts dropped in throughout the experience – with HMS Reindeer playing a key part – to nicely tie the activity to its setting.
After succeeding in saving Christmas, the session culminates in a one-to-one visit with the main man.
Each family is led into a beautifully-decorated grotto, where children get to meet Father Christmas and receive a gift and complimentary photo.
Santa is charming and my son is completely starstruck. He makes him feel very special as he asks what he wants this year (“dominoes” – old school), gives him a high-five (“too slow” – classic) and sends him on his way with a gingerbread man soft toy with a stripey scarf (now named Scarfey).
It’s a wonderful hour of feel-good festive fun, and something a bit different from your average visit to Father Christmas.
Back in my day, it was a quick trip to see a budget Santa at a shopping centre, complete with flimsy gift, but not any more – the game has been upped.
Nowadays, there’s an array of elaborate light trails, winter wonderlands, immersive shows, ice rinks, markets and grottos to choose from – and that’s just in Kent.
Families really are spoilt for choice, but if you’re looking for something a bit different, and in impressive surroundings, Mission Christmas ticks a lot of boxes.
For more information and to book tickets, visit The Historic Dockyard’s website.
Mission Christmas: The Clausometer Catastrophe runs from November 25 to December 24.