A SANTA Claus in Edinburgh’s busiest grotto has quit days before Christmas and slammed the attraction for herding as many children through the door as possible.
Mike Daviot, 55, who spent a week working at the attraction in East Princes Street Gardens before resigning, said he had to see as many as 30 families an hour.
The professional actor said disappointed children were given just one minute with Santa himself after making their way into the grotto and had to listen to a “bland and formulaic” script which Santas were forbidden from deviating from. And some parents have complained about the experience and the quality of gifts children received.
The fresh criticism of Edinburgh’s Christmas festivities comes amid a string of protests over rising costs, censorship on its Facebook page and Friday’s terror on the Star Flyer ride when part of a seat broke off and plunged towards crowds.
But organiser Underbelly rejected claims the attraction represents poor value for money and said the time spent in the grotto “compared favourably” with other grottos.
Mr Daviot, who said he left his post voluntarily after he was told he would be investigated for breaking rules, branded the grotto “expensive, tacky and disappointing”.
He said: “It’s nothing more than a cattle-herding exercise to keep the visits as short as possible so they can get as many people through the door as possible and make a lot of money.
“The kids are only getting about a minute in the grotto and if they ask a question which isn’t in the script you are supposed to ignore them. We’re not really meant to converse with the children at all.
“Essentially, what Underbelly is doing is providing a substandard service to make as much money as possible.
“And, seemingly for politically correct reasons, we were not allowed to ask children if they had been good even if their parents were saying it.
“The script is incredibly basic: ‘Hello. What’s your name? What would you like as a present from Santa? What do you want for
“When families come in I hear nothing but good things, but only because I’m deviating from the script. I was trying to make it an experience.”
Entry to the grotto, which includes a visit to the Christmas tree maze and elves workshop, costs £5 per child, with all weekend sessions now fully booked.
But many families said the grotto was not worth the price. Maria Heath, 53, from the West End, said: “The process is somewhat conveyor belt. Our daughter got a paint by numbers book which she is as likely to use as I am my new exercise bike.”
But Michelle McMahon, 24, from Wester Hailes, defended the grotto, despite admitting daughter Chantelle was not impressed.
She said: “I don’t remember the gifts being fantastic when I was young either. I don’t understand what people expect – surely they are aware it’s not the real Santa in there?”
Mr Daviot, who was one of three Santas working at the grotto, said he was also reprimanded for letting children sit on his knee.
He said: “All of the advertising said children would get to sit on Santa’s knee – that leaves Santa in the
incredibly difficult position of trying to explain that they can’t nicely.
“I eventually came to this decision that very young children – under a year old – could sit on my knee at the parents’ request.”
Some parents said their children were disappointed they did not receive their gifts from Santa himself and were critical of the standard of the gifts.
Claire Bertie posted on the Evening News Facebook page: “I love Edinburgh Christmas but was disappointed with Santa, £5 for a bouncy ball that’s not even given by Santa.”
Leanne Shaw also described the experience as a letdown. She said: “I think it was really hard for kids not actually receiving the present from Santa as this is what they look forward to and the present was rubbish considering the price.”
A spokesman for the Underbelly defended the attraction, describing the grotto as a “sensational success” from the moment it opened. He added that more than 4,700 parents and children had visited Father Christmas this year.
Branding Mr Daviot a “bad Santa”, he said: “Father Christmas is always very busy in his grotto and certainly so at Edinburgh’s Christmas. In East Princes Street Gardens, he can see up to 30 children in an hour, which compares favourably to many grottos elsewhere in Edinburgh and the UK.
“Like many busy people, Father Christmas has to stick to a script sometimes to make sure he remembers what to say. But Edinburgh’s Christmas encourages Father Christmas to vary what he says as much as he can for each and every individual.”
The spokesman said it had been hoped that children would be allowed to sit on Santa’s lap, but organisers had been advised by an independent child protection expert that in “today’s environment” – and in line with other grottos – it would not be appropriate.
He said: “We were very disappointed by this but we were right to act on the expert’s advice.”
Mr Daviot was given a formal warning on December 12 for contravening company “guidelines” for allowing children to sit on his knee, before choosing to resign, he said.
Festivals and events champion Councillor Steve Cardownie said he planned to meet with Underbelly to discuss any concerns raised.
He said: “Underbelly is new to these celebrations and there is always going to be teething problems. I will be raising issues to establish if there any weaknesses and if they can resolved.”
Mike Daviot’s slams Edinburgh’s Christmas organisers
“Given the ever increasing number of complaints being made by members of the public about the exorbitant cost and disappointing nature of Underbelly’s presentation of ‘Edinburgh’s Christmas’, I feel moved to add an insider’s perspective on the mismanagement that appears to be rife within the organization.
“I was, until last Tuesday, one of the people employed to be Santa Claus in Santa’s Grotto in Princes Street Gardens.
“Underbelly are selling 5 slots per every 10 minute block, every hour. The working day is 10am to 7pm. That’s 30 families per hour, with no slack built in to the programming. So, two minutes per family. In and out, lickety spit, with no place for improvisation or ‘grace notes’ to make the experience more intimate and friendly.
“I quickly discovered to my cost that digressions from the bland, formulaic script were being reported to management by the female elves working as Santa’s helpers. We were, in fact, being spied on.
“In addition to strict adherence to their soulless script, it was stipulated that children can not sit on Santa’s knee. This we were informed would be made absolutely clear to members of the public. That very obviously was not the case, as around 75% of parents who came into the grotto clearly expected and wanted their child to sit with Santa for a photograph. I politely rebuffed requests as best I could for a couple of days, but it became increasingly awkward as more people openly resented the rule and felt short changed. You would, at £5 PER CHILD for a two minute (absolute maximum) visit!
“Combined with the dreadful working conditions – no changing space, nowhere to store personal property and clothes, no toilet on site for employees – all this has finally persuaded me to leave a job I actually sorely need in order to have enough money to see me comfortably into January.
“I am a professional actor of thirty years experience, but I am one of the many who didn’t get a pantomime this year and money must be earned. So it is with great reluctance that I walk away from paid work. But, the situation has become intolerable.”