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New Forest's Winter Blunderland boss faces angry customers
4:43pm Friday 18th February 2011 in News
AROUND 20 angry customers came face to face with the boss of a ''rip-off'' Christmas Lapland attraction at a creditors' meeting today.
Disgruntled creditors demanded answers from Victor Mears the sole director of Lapland New Forest Limited during the meeting at Southampton's Novotel Hotel.
He said he was suffering from a terminal illness and blamed the adverse publicity for the park's failure.
''I'm retired,'' Mr Mears said. ''I had this idea in my head for a long time and this site became available.''
He added: ''I did not intentionally deceive anyone.
''I had this idea having run grottoes and Christmas shops over the years.
''I did have that idea, it's brilliant, it's fantastic.
''I had the chutzpah to go and do it.
''It was a success by mere virtue of the fact that people spent over a million pounds on it.''
An HM Revenue and Customs official told Mr Mears he was in breach of duty for his record-keeping because he paid large amounts of cash for goods and services without receiving any receipts for the payments.
He added: ''I have the greatest sympathy with the pubic here. I feel I have been treated shabbily. I don't believe I am the architect of that.''
Anita Saunders took her son Alfie to Lapland on his fifth birthday, November 30 last year.
Her father Tony, from Totton, said: ''It was a washout, a total rip-off.
''All we could see was a hoarding and a muddy old field. There were a couple of reindeer in the field that looked so bad my grandson asked if they were dead, they were so lifeless.
''There were some dogs tied up in a pen. We queued for an hour to see Father Christmas and in the end we gave up.
''If we had paid a fiver we would have felt conned. Even the fairground rides were £2.
''I would like to see Mears have his assets taken away from him. I believe he lives in a grand house in Brighton so he can't be short of money.''
The firm was set up in August last year to run the Christmas theme park on the 40-acre site.
Advanced orders for tickets were taken from September 22 and the park officially opened on November 29.
It was supposed to run until December 24 but closed on December 5 after more than 2,000 visitors complained. Violence flared, Santa was punched in the face and elves were pushed by angry visitors who had waited hours in the cold.
Many visitors complained that a ''magical tunnel of light'' turned out to be a line of trees with some lights on them and log cabins resembled B&Q sheds.
Reindeer and huskies were also penned up or tethered almost out of sight.
Around 5,000 customers have since written to Dorset Trading Standards about refunds for the tickets which cost between £25-£30.
Around 42,000 advance ticket orders netted the firm £1,261,056, £343,011 was refunded to credit cards but the rest of the customers are unlikely to see their money.
The firm claims it spent the remainder on rent, fake snow, lighting, hiring an ice rink that broke, buying toys, wrapping paper and developing and marketing the site.
Some customers have written to the company's mailing address in Brighton and have had letters returned unopened.
Dorset Trading Standards is continuing to investigate and said it will take any appropriate legal action.
Peter Bacon's family paid £370 for 17 tickets and have not got their money back.
''We were all excited because the whole family was getting together which is very, very rare,'' said Mr Bacon from Southampton.
''Christmas Winter Wonderland, Lapland, what a thought, the whole family being together.
''They ought to be locked up, we are just one of thousands, it's terrible really.''
Grandmother-of-five Pam Traynor from Winchester bought 18 tickets for £450 to visit on Christmas Eve, by which time the park had closed.
She was refunded by her credit card company but she said: ''They could easily set up a company and it all could happen again.
''We don't know how they could set up a company and not have something in place.
''I know a lot of people who haven't got their money back who paid with a debit card or cash.
''It must have been so disappointing for the children. I wouldn't have put my grandchildren through it and wouldn't have taken them anyway.''
Kevin Hellard and Trevor O'Sullivan of Grant Thornton were appointed joint liquidators at the meeting which heard the company's assets may be as little as £20,000.
Mr Hellard, a partner in the firm's fraud investigation division, said: ''I am sure that ticketholders are anxious to learn how much they are likely to be paid back from the company.''
He added: ''This company has a very substantial shortfall to creditors which arose in a matter of weeks. The conduct of those involved with the management of the company needs to be scrutinised.''