Millions of visitors walk through the gates of London’s Winter Wonderland each year, but there’s one woman who’s often roaming the area to check on all her hard work – Suzy Griffiths. She has been at the helm of the event for well over a decade taking it from a small market event to an epic tourist attraction. Here, Suzy, 44, who lives in the capital with partner Tom, tells us what it takes to be ‘Mrs Christmas’ bringing joy to those who flock to her ultimate festive event…
“When I stroll around the grounds of Winter Wonderland I don’t focus on the 150 twinkling market chalets, 70 funfair rides, 80 carefully curated market stalls or the UK’s largest outdoor ice rink. Sure, those are all the elements that make up the event and come together to create that special feeling, but I prefer to enjoy getting myself a fried dough churro (I have far too many of them in December and call it my Winter Wonderland diet) and people watching.
I can spend hours sitting on a bench watching the child-like joy on adults’ faces, the rosy cheeks and wide eyes of the children, the Christmas spirit as old friends unite or couples enjoy quality time together after a busy year. Or even just smelling the cinnamon and taking in everybody’s nostalgic excitement.
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Seeing children excitedly watching their parents’ faces on a ride is one of my favourite things – you won’t hear a better laugh in your life. It's the one time of the year where we can all be unashamedly giddy and it’s what I love the most about Christmas.
There’s even a chance to spot a few celebrities. The great thing about Winter Wonderland is that the stars can blend in with the crowds and go pretty unnoticed by wearing a bobble hat and scarf. Rihanna visiting in 2019 was a pinch me moment. She was very low key in a black rain mac, but apparently loved the bratwurst.
And it’s an honour that the Beckhams take a trip most years. They are just like any other family when they visit, enjoying the rollercoasters and atmosphere. There have been so many famous people and I’m so bad at remembering but Robbie Williams, Simon Cowell and Eva Longoria have all made appearances.
I didn’t know for a while that this was my calling in life. My first job was working as a Fashion Photographer’s Assistant, and I ended up at an Alexandra McQueen Fall/Winter Paris fashion show in 2002. It was set in a very cold and damp dungeon on an island in the middle of the Seine in Paris – wolves paced back and forth at the back of the catwalk. It managed to transport everyone there into another world and I was completely transfixed by the whole experience.
From that moment, I knew that I wanted to produce events that made people happy and allowed them to fully immerse themselves in the moment, not thinking about anything else. I worked at the Chelsea Flower Show for a few years which was amazing, followed by various festivals, before finding my forever home at Winter Wonderland.
I joined the team in their second year putting on the event – it’s now in its 15th year. It felt unique and special even back then despite it being just a very small market – nothing like what it has grown into today. Nowhere else in London had anything like it, but we’ve now started a bit of a trend.
My role has always been fun and interesting with a constant stream of different things to do. It’s a 365 day job, and I never stop planning the event. I’m always thinking about what we can do next and I can get moments of inspiration anywhere, from during my commute to while taking a shower. I feel particularly inspired by festive films – the town in A Nightmare Before Christmas is magical.
During the year I travel around the world looking for new ideas, exciting cuisine and the most thrilling fairground rides. I like going to Germany and Holland – they’re unrivalled on their love of Christmas and the German Christmas markets are truly on another level. It’s that image of a very traditional twinkly festive town market that I try to have in mind when I design the whole event. I spend extra time exercising to make up for all the calories I enjoy tasting the best Christmas food.
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I have to make sure we have the right balance between everything – too many rollercoasters and it’s a fairground, too many food stands and it’s a food court. I have to assess how it’s all going to work with the crowd flow, and what will look good next to each other. Around October my full time base is Hyde Park and I watch as my vision comes to life part by part. All my hard work becomes a physical sight.
Watching the giant wheel go up in 2019 for the first time after only seeing it on paper beforehand was my proudest moment. We had to work very closely with the manufacturer to get it to our specifications. At 70m, it’s the biggest travelling ferris wheel in the world, and what was important to me was that every pod was wheelchair accessible with wide gangways, which we managed to pull off. Nobody should be left behind, especially at Christmas. There have been things that we’ve tested out that haven’t quite worked. We tried to get a log flume but we realised that Brits aren’t really going to be up for that in December climates!
As well as the construction, I’m also managing thousands of employees, so it doesn’t feel like I’m ever not working towards the end of the year. I don’t mind because I get a warm, fuzzy glow from the atmosphere. To keep myself alert, I often take a ride on one of our rollercoasters – it works better than coffee, and it’s also a great stress reliever. It’s hard to be sad after screaming as I’m tossed upside down.
The camaraderie on site is second to none – because we're there for six weeks, you get a much stronger bond with everyone. Lots of freelancers manage their year so that they can always come back and work with us at Winter Wonderland, which is touching. We all celebrate our success with a few mulled wines on closing night, which is always fun.
You think I’d get completely sick of Christmas, but I get just as excited. I’m in the mood all year for it, and I just have to wait for people to catch up so it is socially acceptable to express aloud. I’ll get a lot of phone calls around the opening of the event, from friends I haven’t heard from in a while. I don’t mind them using me for a few free tickets because it’s nice to see people I love at my workplace. It was really hard not getting to do the event last year due to Covid-19, so we couldn’t be happier to be back doing what we do best in a safe way.
I’m usually so tired after Winter Wonderland that actual Christmas day is just spent sleeping, so it makes more sense to postpone the full festivities. In fact, I have a ‘Fake-Mas’ with my family in February when I’ve just about recovered.
My mum looks after me and lets me be a kid again, and I hope I do that for the people that walk through our famous Winter Wonderland gates. It’s a place where adults and children alike can believe in the magic of Christmas, even if it’s just for a few hours."
You can purchase tickets for Winter Wonderland 2021 here.
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