A Santa’s Grotto with a difference: Festive Flight School at Surrey Quays, London

Surrey Quays Festive Flight School

Who taught Father Christmas to steer his sleigh? Was it the elves? Or could it have been Santa’s Dad – the Father of Father Christmas, who held the reins before today’s Santa stepped up to the plate? My daughter and I debated these questions on our way to Surrey Quays, in east London. We were off to meet Father Christmas himself, and to take part in his excitingly named Festive Flight School.

Surrey Quays invited us along, and compensated us for our time in writing this post.

Surrey Quays shopping centre

Pausing by Surrey Quays’ community board before heading on into the shopping centre.

Surrey Quays shopping centre

Surrey Quays shopping centre, where the Flight School takes place, is just across the road from the train station, in the heart of the area. The 30-year-old shopping centre teams up with the local community whenever it can. It invited the local youth football team into the centre, partnered with a nearby dementia group on a project to capture older people’s stories, and has links with the nearby Surrey Quays farm, Surrey Docks. This summer, a ‘dinosaur school’ helped entertain youngsters. And until Christmas Eve, Santa and his lively elves will be there, to give an extra dose of festive cheer to families doing their last-minute shopping.

After we went to the Festive Flight School at the weekend, though, I’d say that the grotto was worth a trip even for people who’ve ticked off everything on their Christmas shopping list.

Festive Flight School lunch break

Over the years, we’ve been to lots of Santa’s grottos. So my six year-old knew what to expect: a chat with the big guy, and some talk about presents. But the Flight School sounded extra exciting. How would she learn to fly? Would it be hard?

The Flight School was right in the middle of the shopping centre, overlooked by the Discovery Planet soft play. We arrived at 2.30pm, when the School was just about to open for the afternoon. It runs from 11am each day, but the reindeer and elves stop for an hour-long lunch break at 1.30pm. I heard that it’s important to keep them well-fed, with all the hard work they have ahead of them.

Surrey Quays festive flight school

The Flight School was in the centre of Surrey Quays shopping centre.

And the break certainly seemed to replenish their energy. After we’d been standing in line for a few minutes, next to frosted Christmas trees and under large, golden stars, we heard a gleeful hooting behind us. Sailing down the escalator came Father Christmas, waving with a jolly smile on his face. In front of, and behind him, were two exuberant elves, who shouted greetings. It was a fun, high-octane way to start the show – and it had my daughter beaming with delight.

What happens in Festive Flight School?

After queuing up, a handful of families went into the Flight School together, where one of the elves (who were aptly named Miles and Boggles) gave the trainee sleigh pilots a few warm-up exercises.

Surrey Quays festive flight school

A warm-up session in the Festive Flight School.

After the warm-up session, the families took it in turns to sit in the sleigh with Santa. Before each child went through the white picket fence gate, the elf gave them a little pep talk.

Surrey Quays festive flight school

Final pep talk before being called forward to try out some flying.

The elves took photos of the children in the sleigh before the lesson with Santa began – and they did a great job. A boy in front of us in the queue had a lot of mobility needs. They really took their time with him, making sure he was comfortable, and able to look at the camera. And I saw something I’ve never seen before: a tiny baby, sitting happily on Santa’s lap. For at least a few minutes, until she started to cry. But the Surrey Quays Santa must have baby-charm, because I’ve never known an infant that can go within ten paces of Santa without howling in distress. This baby’s parents even managed to get a smiley ‘first trip to see Santa’ picture.

And then, it was time to climb into the sleigh.

Santa at Surrey Quays was very personable indeed.

Then, it was our time to climb on board. The elves took a quick snap of me in the sleigh along with my daughter, and then I retreated. She told me afterwards that Santa showed her how to press a button and pull two levers to make Rudolph take off, pause at chimneys, and – after a big build-up – land safely.

Festive Flight School at Surrey Quays shopping centre

Surrey Quays Festive Flight School

The levers and pulleys in the sleigh connected cleverly with Rudolph’s reins, and the reindeer’s head tilted backwards, forwards and from side to side in response. Her nose even flashed a bright scarlet every now and then, so there was no doubting who this reindeer was.

Festive Flight School at Surrey Quays shopping centre

Rudolph’s nose flashed red and bright.

After my daughter had safely landed the sleigh, the second elf came along to confer with Santa about whether she’d passed her training session.

Festive Flight School at Surrey Quays shopping centre

Has she qualified to fly a sleigh?

The verdict: she passed! And then, it was over to the gifts, to choose a photo and be awarded with a certificate. Santa’s elf carefully explained that the certificate meant our daughter was on call. An invisible tick would light up, if ever Santa or the elves needed her to help with flying the sleigh. My daughter was so taken with this idea, that the moment we arrived home she insisted we pin the certificate above her bed, so she would know straight away if she was needed.

Festive Flight School at Surrey Quays shopping centre

Our daughter passed with flying colours, and gained a special certificate.

The Surrey Quays festive flight experience was imaginative and special in a way that lots of Santa grottos aim for, but don’t quite manage. The lively, exuberant elves and Santa gave each child enough special attention to make them come away happy and excited. I’d say the Festive Flight School compares well with experiences that have cost us £10 or £15. And that’s before you pay for any photos. There’s no booking involved at Surrey Quays, so it means that you can fit in a trip to the grotto when it suits you, rather than having to book months in advance.

Need to know

Surrey Quays Festive Flight School runs every day until Christmas Eve 2018, from 11am to 5pm. There’s no pre-booking – you just arrive and wait your turn. Queues are shortest mid-week, with Saturday being the busiest time. When we arrived, at 2.30pm on a Sunday, we waited for around fifteen minutes. I didn’t think this was too bad, considering it was a free attraction. I’ve waited longer for some Santa’s grottos that we’ve paid for.

Surrey Quays festive flight school

The Festive Flight School was free, but you could buy gifts if you wanted.

Festive Flight School is completely free, although there’s a charge if you want to buy one of the rather lovely gifts that the elves can make up. They take professional photos of you or just your children with Santa, and you can ask them to put your favourite shot into a sparkly display case, a fridge magnet, or to print it out on glossy paper to go in a frame. All the gifts were good quality, and cheaper than Santa’s grotto gifts I’ve seen elsewhere. Although the pictures taken by the elves were worth paying for, I liked the fact that parents could just snap their own photos if they wanted, to save some pennies in the run-up to Christmas.

How to get to Surrey Quays

Surrey Quays shopping centre is across the road from Surrey Quays Overland station. Canada Water station is also nearby. Parking at Surrey Quays is free for the first four hours. The postcode for SatNavs is SE16 7LL, and the address is Surrey Quays, Redriff Road, London, SE16 7LL. Local buses serve the area. For more information, see the Transport for London website.


If you’re spending Christmas in London with kids and would like to find other free attractions, check out our blog post.

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Festive Flight School at Surrey Quays

1 Comment

  • Plutonium Sox
    December 11, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    Ahh this sounds lovely! What an unusual Santa’s grotto, and a really sweet idea. I bet your daughter will be desperately waiting to be called for duty on Christmas eve!


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