Underbelly reveals Edinburgh Christmas festival expansion plans for Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh’s Christmas festival is to expand to a new site below the castle and bring an ice rink back to the New Town under plans to revive the lucrative event this year.

Edinburgh has staged a Christmas festival since 1999. Picture: Tim Edgeler

Organisers Underbelly will run fairground rides, attractions, stalls and bars in West Princes Street Gardens for the first time under a shake-up aimed at spreading out crowds attending festivities estimated to be worth nearly £119 million to the economy.

A new family-friendly area will be created around the Ross Fountain as part of efforts to reduce the impact of the event on East Princes Street Gardens, where the festivities have been focused since the first festival in 1999.

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Underbelly said vaccine passports would not be required to access any part of the gardens as the capacity of sites would be below the Scottish Government’s threshold of 4000 for outdoor events, which is expected to take effect from the beginning of next month.

Edinburgh Christmas festival attracted an official attendance of 2.6 million people in 2019.

The city’s festive ice rink, which was controversially ousted from St Andrew Square following protests from businesses about its impact on its historic garden, will be making a comeback after a three-year absence.

It will run along the west end of George Street, between Charlotte Square and Castle Street, after the idea was backed by local businesses.

Around 80 stalls and bars will be run by Underbelly for 12 hours a day in the two historic gardens, George Street and on The Mound precinct during the six-week festival.

Popular attractions including a giant ferris wheel and a “star flyer” ride will make a comeback beside the Scott Monument.

Underbelly said around 75 per cent less space in Princes Street Gardens would be used compared to the 2019 event, which featured 138 stalls and bars.

It attracted criticism when temporary scaffolding was erected without planning permission and the park was unable to be properly restored until the summer due to its poor condition.

Underbelly, one of the biggest producers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, has had a contract to run the city’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals since 2017. A new tender is expected to be issued within the next few months for the winter festivals from 2022-23 on.

Underbelly, who will lodge formal plans with the city council today, said the changes for this year’s Christmas festival were designed to focus on creating a “safe environment” for visitors and had also taken on board “feedback” from previous years.

Only the upper section of the east gardens will be used this year, while the “red blaes” area in the west gardens will become home to attractions including a Christmas tree maze and Santa’s grotto.

Underbelly directors Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam said: “The team has been working tirelessly to create a bespoke Edinburgh’s Christmas programme that not only provides unforgettable memories and experiences, but also makes visitors feel safe and at ease at all times.

“It’s been a very challenging couple of years for everyone, but our proposed plans are designed not only to support economic recovery of the city centre, driving footfall to both the east and west ends, but to also bring much-needed cheer and happiness to residents and visitors.”

A spokesman for Underbelly added: “The last independent survey concluded a £119 million in economic impact for Edinburgh businesses, and the custom that Edinburgh’s Christmas helps bring to the city centre will be hugely important for its post-pandemic recovery.”

Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “We’re sure the ice rink will be a fantastic attraction for all the family and support footfall to the West End. It’s been a difficult period for everyone and we’re all looking forward to a great festive period.”

Donald Wilson, culture convener at the council, said: “It’s great to see this kind of recovery from the pandemic. In these difficult circumstances it’s been challenging to come up with something that’s safe and enjoyable for everyone and a great deal of partnership working has gone into this.”

Amy McNeese-Mechan, culture vice-convener at the city council, said: “Teams across the council have been working extremely hard, in partnership with Underbelly, to make sure visitors to Edinburgh’s Christmas will feel safe and comfortable, while enjoying all that’s on offer.

“Organisers have taken on board comments about overcrowding in past years, with a view to providing a safer, more relaxed event.

“Things will be spread out a bit more around the city centre, which should hopefully help distribute more widely the important financial benefits as businesses look to recover from the pandemic.”

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