Just a short drive from Oxford, award-winning Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 300 years of history. And this Christmas Blenheim Palace is transformed into a fairytale, quite literally, with its Alice in Wonderland-inspired experience, twinkling light trail and impressive projected light show which use the palace’s grand facade as their canvas. Join me and the Museum Kids on a tour of Blenheim Palace at Christmas.
Alice in the Palace
For 2019, the state rooms at Blenheim Palace are transformed into an Alice in Wonderland themed experience. Having watched the film with childhood measles, I’ll forever associate the story with my febrile state – and Alice in the Palace captures its slightly hallucinogenic plot perfectly.
Perception is played with throughout. Giant stacks of cards dwarf us at the entrance, and the self-guided tour begins by stepping into the pages of a larger-than-life storybook. We walk through a hall of mirrors to find a video Alice shrinking from life-size to small enough to fit through the tiny door in the skirting board.
After that, each room becomes curiouser and curiouser. We meet the genteel white rabbit, looking a little too relaxed in the upholstered armchair for someone who’s late already. The shimmering Pool of Tears really captures Museum Boy’s imagination, as he wonders whether its mirror-like surface resting on the historic rug is indeed water. There’s a pipe-toking caterpillar astride giant mushrooms, flamingo croquet and a grinning Cheshire cat. Museum Girl is absolutely terrified by the Queen of Hearts, slowly turning to survey the room littered with giant strawberry tarts.
The Long Librarymakes a giddying finale, with its lengthy table dressed with toppling teacups, all ready for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Giant peacocks and rambling roses line the room, some still dripping tell-tale red paint, whilst projected cards dance over the ceiling.
The decorations are dizzying, not just in number but also with their attention to detail – even the Christmas trees are decorated faithfully to the Alice theme, with metallic playing cards and soft mini-characters. The colour schemes cleverly enhance the historic interiors, such as the muted silver mushrooms and coral pink tree decorations which pick out perfectly the tones in the wall tapestries behind.
There are three simple children’s trails throughout the rooms – find the white rabbits, spell a word with the letters or count the cards helping Alice. Our children aren’t able to do three trails at once, so focused on looking for the white rabbit in each room. But there’s so many other eye-catching elements to each room that there is plenty to encourage them to linger.
You don’t need to know the Alice in Wonderland story to enjoy this experience. I hadn’t yet introduced the Museum Kids to Alice yet they still were enchanted by Alice in the Palace. Each room has a short introductory text which gives context to the room. Museum Girl fell completely in love with this new-to-her character – and was thrilled sitting with the real Alice at the end. She was so taken with her that in the Chapel afterwards, she added to its wishing tree her hope that ‘Alice is real and can come and live with us’.
Unfortunately our visit wasn’t quite as fairytale as the decorations. Despite being marketed as a family experience, the countless props in easy reach of little hands make it difficult to negotiate with young children. Museum Boy gently touched two of the accessories – one the oversized table in the centre of the room, and the other a teacup on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party table, both without barriers. The reaction in both instances from room hosts was so disproportionately aggressive towards my son that I had other parents approach us to say how disgusted they were on our behalf, and Museum Boy fled the Palace in tears. Later, in the Chapel, one of the hosts apologised, citing opening weekend nerves. I hate to think that the installation is not robust enough to stand up to the usual wear and tear to be expected from tens of thousands of visitors. Hopefully these anxieties have been addressed so that the welcome is as magical for families as the rest of the experience.
Christmas Market and vintage fairground rides at Blenheim Palace
The East Courtyard is home to a small selection of vintage fairground rides. This carousel took Museum Girl’s fancy, whilst Museum Boy had his first go on a traditional Helter Skelter. There is also a merry-go-round for the little ones and boat swings. You can purchase ride tokens in advance (5 ride tokens for £10) or on the day from the token booth (£2.50 per ride token). Each ride costs 1 token. There’s a few food stalls here, including a mean-looking steak and frites van.
Inside the Great Court is the Christmas Market, with 50 designer-makers and artisan food producers housed in traditional chalets and food trucks. There’s plenty of present ideas from handmade wooden toys to tequila designed to pair perfectly with tonic. Foodies will find lots of choice – we particularly enjoyed the locally produced sausages and delicious churros, cooked to perfection all the way through (I’ve had a few soggy innards in my time!) I like the way the market lines both sides of the paths, giving an intimate feel without feeling claustrophobic. It’s one of the nicer Christmas markets we have visited. Their cashpoint came in handy when we bought more than we intended!
Illuminated Trail at Blenheim Palace
After dark, a sparkling trail winds its way through the historic Blenheim Parkland, with hundreds of thousands of lights across 18 impressive installations. Despite driving rain and muddy conditions, the whole Museum family was enchanted throughout the mile-long route, which took us about an hour and a half to complete.
Each installation had a different look and feel to the last, from the quiet but monumental Cathedral of Light with its hundreds of thousands of pea lights, to the futuristic UV strings and smoke filled Laser Garden. The accompanying music varies from belting Christmas chart toppers to beautiful choral chanting in the Fire Garden. The pacing of the first half of the trail was spot on; after the first half there seemed to be a longer gaps between installations. On the return route we caught an energetic Father Christmas panto-type show which was captivating enough for Museum Girl to want to stand through it twice, in the wet!
It is somewhat embarrassing to admit I can’t show you pictures of every installation. It’s either a huge accolade or a blogger fail – Christmas at Blenheim Palace is so visually stunning I ran out of battery before we finished the Illuminated Trail, round about the Vines. This is the first press trip I’ve run a full battery to empty through taking so many pictures – and hopefully the last, thanks to the purchase of two spare camera batteries.
Two installations make particular use of the gardens and its features. Thanks to vibrant neon lights, the boathouse is turned into a penguin hut, whilst the swollen Cascades froth ever-changing lights, their deafening roar adding to the spectacle.
The spectacular finale is much more impressive than I’ve captured in these photographs. Near the beginning of the trail you catch the light and sound projections on the historic Palace facade, and even at a distance they are exceptionally eye catching. But as the trail loops back towards its conclusion you step onto the formal terrace with a perfect view of the show. It works even better in this context, and ends the light trail on a real high.
On our visit the trail was sold out, with over 6,000 people expected to tramp the trail that night. Despite being busy we didn’t feel rushed. We were able to go at our own pace and at times we had some of the light installations to ourselves. Perhaps the rain makes people less likely to linger, but with such a long trail it’s easy to spread out.
Blenheim’s Illuminated Trail is an extremely well produced, and on a par with the perpetually-sold-out Christmas at Kew. Indeed, many of the same light installations can be found at both places, such as the Cathedral of Light, the Fire Garden or the Vines. So if you’re looking for an impressive light trail, and haven’t secured tickets for Kew, this is a great alternative with tickets still available.
Tips for visiting Christmas at Blenheim Palace with kids
- Book as soon as you can, as the most popular time slots sell out quickly.
- Allow one hour for Alice in the Palace.
- Allow 1 hour 30 minutes for the Illuminated Trail.
- Wrap up warm and wear waterproof clothing as on busy days you may need to queue outdoors for Alice in the Palace, and the Illuminated Light Trail is exposed throughout.
- Wear sturdy waterproof shoes as the paths on the trail are uneven and poorly lit.
- Visit the stables afterwards for Alice themed dressing up.
- Annual Pass Holder can visit before 4pm for FREE.
- Don’t forget to convert your ticket to an Annual Pass for free re-entry to Blenheim Palace for a year. You could even get a Christmas 2020 visit out of your ticket if you time it right.
- Take extra batteries!
Disclosure: We visited Blenheim Palace in November 2019 with Museum Girl (5) and Museum Boy (7). We were given free press tickets to Alice in the Palace and the Illuminated Trail in return for an honest review.
Christmas at Blenheim Palace runs daily until 5 January 2020, closed 25 December 2019. Alice in the Palace is usually open 10am-7pm, and the Illuminated Trail from 4.40pm-10pm but check the website as opening times vary. Advance booking essential.
Alice in the Palace tickets £27 Adult; £25 Concessions; £16 Child (5-16); Family £67.50 (2+2). FREE under 5s and carers. Booking fee applies. Blenheim Annual Pass Holders get free entry to Alice in the Palace before 4pm and the Christmas Market.
Illuminated Trail prices from £18 Adult / £12.50 Child (5-16); Family £58 (2+2). These are advance, off-peak tickets, on the day and peak tickets cost extra. Blenheim Palace Annual Pass holders receive £1.00 off their Trail tickets. Booking fee applies.
Children under 5 and carers go FREE for the Illuminated Trail and Alice in the Palace.
Car parking must be booked in advance. FREE before midday, £10 after.
For more information visit their website: https://www.blenheimpalace.com/christmas/
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