Christmas sweaters. Mall Santas. Icicle lights.
If those words make your eyes roll and your heart grow cold, the North Pole Experience is probably not for you.
But if you haul out the artificial tree and fire up the holiday tunes well before Thanksgiving - like, um, this girl I know - this will top your list of the most wonderfully Christmasy things you've ever done.
The North Pole Experience is a visit to Santa's Workshop, which as it turns out can be reached directly through a secret portal near Flagstaff. Participants board a trolley at the Little America Hotel, blast through the portal and arrive at Santa's workshop within just a few minutes. After a fast-moving 90-minute stay, it's back on the trolley and back to Little America.
Things like this often sound so great and end up being so disappointing. Timing is off, staff aren't trained, aggressive demands to buy, buy, buy overpriced souvenirs are unrelenting.
The North Pole Experience, NPX for short, is as fun and believable as a Christmas-crazy kid hopes it will be. Intense attention to detail through the 8,500-square-foot, multiroom space - directed by interior designer Trisha Murel of Embellishment Boutique in Lakeside - make it all feel impressively authentic.
Murel "is in charge of all the props - the sleigh, every single bow on every single tree, all the writing on the chalkboard," says Morgan Vanderwall, who handles public relations year-round for NPX.
The knobs on a kitchen cabinet, for example, are shaped like oversized peppermint candies. A wooden "SC" monogram adorns a shelf. My son, who was 5 years old when we went before Christmas last year, was thrilled to find a bookcase filled with Santa's "Naughty" and "Nice" books. He also was delighted to see the elf from "Elf on the Shelf" hiding in most every room - he excitedly (and loudly) pointed out each one to the enthusiastic and endlessly patient elves who lead kids through their visit to the North Pole.
Not just any old elf wins a slot on the 50-person NPX staff, Vanderwall says. Only the best are picked from a rigorous audition process in which elf hopefuls must show off their singing, dancing and acting skills.
The North Pole Experience was the brainchild of Scott Pace, a former toy inventor who bought an ownership stake in Greer's Molly Butler Lodge in 2007.
The real visionaries were his twin girls, who as 5-year-olds dreamed up the idea of visiting the North Pole and seeing Santa's Workshop.
Dad took it from there, and the North Pole Experience opened in Greer in 2009. Attendance has grown 100 percent every year, including last year when it moved to Flagstaff, Vanderwall says.
Because it was the first time in a new location, there were some glitches. For example, technical challenges meant Mrs. Claus had to serve store-bought cookies rather than bake them herself.
Those elves worked it from the moment we boarded the trolley, enthusiastically leading the kids in holiday songs and guiding them over the portal from Flagstaff to the North Pole. Once kids arrive and learn the secret knock for admission to Santa's Workshop, different groups of elves lead them through each step in the process.
The first stop was the toy workshop, where elves beckon kids to help build toys for good girls and boys. One elf patiently encouraged my son, who is not keen on sitting for any reason, to help him put football gear on a teddy bear. When she saw that wasn't catching Quinn's fancy, she pulled out a foam rocket - and within seconds had him fully engaged in putting it together.
As a cool aside, the foam rocket launchers made in the workshop were invented by Pace's Chasco Toys, which he sold to Poof-Slinky Inc. in 1998.
Next up was a visit to Mrs. Claus' bakery, where young visitors gather around an enormous table to enjoy sugar cookies (this year they'll be freshly baked right there, Vanderwall says) and "snowman soup," otherwise known as hot chocolate. Quinn ate the cookie, something he usually rejects, and asked for seconds of his snowman soup, something he would never try before. Best of all, my normally reluctant singer, who is prone to bouts of public shyness, was belting out "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" so loudly that his voice drowned out about 20 equally excited kids.
Jammed into a corner, my brother - who, let's be honest, was dragged here by the women in his life - nudged my sister-in-law and shouted incredulously, "Is that Quinn?"
The next stop, a visit to Elf University, was the only dud of the evening. The elf "teacher" talked too long about what it takes to be an elf and asked kids too many rote questions. It felt, well, like school - but not a school kids would clamor to attend. My own kid got squirmy within minutes, and soon the room was alive with fidgeting kids and shushing parents.
(Apparently I'm not alone in my criticism. Elf University is being retooled with a new script and a more kid-friendly vibe, Vanderwall says.)
The final stretch of a NPX visit was a four-part adventure on the way to meet Santa. Stop one was writing a letter to the man in red, with the help of some very patient and encouraging elves. Next up was a library (those "Naughty" and "Nice" books that so captivated Quinn were in this room) where kids can look around and listen to a story while they wait.
Stop three, for us, was a real highlight. Kids get to see Santa's sleigh, which is beautifully crafted and finished, topped with a flashing Believe Meter and as big as a RV. Even the eye-rolling tweens in your party will get a kick out of the vast on-board instrument panel complete with dials, buttons and meters galore.
Rounding out the room is a communications center where the elves sit on Christmas Eve to communicate with Santa and a chalkboard that cleverly tracks the favorite treats of each reindeer. Blitzen loves peanut butter, in case you were wondering. And Rudolph is wild about muffins.
Finally, one by one, each family was called in to meet with Santa. Quinn had plenty of time to describe the Lightning McQueen Hawk (a toy car that converts into an airplane) he wanted, which took a lot of explanation. Then all of us - Quinn, my husband and me, my brother and sister-in-law and my mother - were all invited for a photo session with the big guy himself.
We sat. We smiled. We posed. And then something incredible happened, the antithesis of what you might expect at a secular, highly commercial Christmas event. Sparkle the Elf stepped out from behind the camera, walked across the room and handed us - just handed us! - a CD of our photos with Santa.
No list of photo packages to buy. No prepurchase proofs to consider. Just something for us to take home.
It was like a tiny Christmas miracle.
The North Pole Experience may be a bit much for the jaded or the preteen members of your family.
Everything about it is assertively happy and upbeat. But from start to finish, it is so well done that the vibe is far more theme park than traveling carnival.
If you love the Christmas season and all that comes with it, or if you have kids in your life who still can feel the magic of the season, it doesn't get much better than this.
Do it right and you'll leave the North Pole Experience with more than a complimentary CD - you'll take home your lost sense of wonder.
If you go
• What: North Pole Experience
• What to expect: Kids get to make toys at Santa's Workshop, meet Mrs. Claus, sing holiday songs while eating cookies and drinking "snowman soup" (hot cocoa), attend a class at Elf University, see Santa's massive sleigh, and have a private meeting/photo op with the big guy.
• When: Nov. 22-Dec. 27. Tours run late in the week and on weekends early in the season and ramp up to daily on Dec. 12. More days may be added based on demand. Fridays and Saturdays starting Nov. 22 and Christmas Eve were "selling quickly" on the website.
• Where: Trolleys run round trip from the Little America Hotel Flagstaff.
• Ticket price: Nighttime trips depart from 4 to 8:15 p.m. and cost $55 for adults and $49 for children under 18 years old. Daylight trips depart from 1 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. and cost $42 per person. Infants 17 months and under are free.
• Reservations: Visit northpoleexperience.com/buy-tickets
Contact reporter Jill Jorden Spitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4177.