Brothers guilty of festive theme park rip-off

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Two brothers have been convicted of misleading thousands of customers into visiting what they claimed was a Lapland-style theme park.

Victor and Henry Mears had denied eight charges brought in connection with their disastrous Lapland New Forest theme park.

But they were found guilty on all counts yesterday, after a jury at Bristol Crown Court heard a catalogue of complaints from a string of disgruntled customers.

Victor, 67, of Selsfield Drive, and Henry, 60, of Coombe Road, both Brighton, could have made more than £1m from up to 10,000 advanced ticket sales for the theme park.

Judge Mark Horton adjourned sentencing until March 18 for the preperation of pre-sentence reports but warned the brothers they could be jailed.

Addressing barrister Rossano Scarmardella, who represents Henry Mears, the judge said: “In this case this jury have found that your client and Mr Victor Mears have promised by deceit to satisfy dreams and have delivered misery by way of disappointment to thousands of people.

“I am bound to say that this court is considering in this case whether a term of imprisonment may follow.”

Visitors were offered a winter wonderland with snow-covered log cabins, a nativity scene, husky dogs, polar bears and other animals, as well as a bustling Christmas market. But instead of the promised magical festive treat, they experienced fairy lights hung from trees and a broken ice rink.

Within days of the attraction opening in November 2008, hundreds of disgruntled visitors to the park on the Hampshire-Dorset border complained to trading standards officials that they had been ripped off.

Less than a week later, the attraction closed, with its owners blaming the media and sabotage by “New Forest villains” for the decision.

The brothers were convicted after a two-month trial of five charges of engaging in a commercial practice which was a misleading action and three of engaging in a commercial practice which was a misleading omission.

With visitors charged £30 a ticket and with up to 10,000 advance bookings online, the Mears brothers were set to gross £1.2m.

Victor Mears was the company’s sole director but was being assisted by his younger brother, who was managing Lapland and who was responsible for the promotion of the event.

The advertising for Lapland New Forest hinted at the winter wonderland waiting at Matchams Leisure Park near Ringwood, Hampshire.

“The attention to detail of our theme park will truly wow you,” it said. “As our show is being staged for the first time our website can only begin to hint at our wonderland.”

After paying £30 a head, visitors found a collection of garden sheds with miserable-looking dogs tethered in place. The “magical tunnel of light” turned out to be a row of trees with lights strung across, the ice rink was closed for repairs and a “bustling” Christmas market was virtually deserted.

Children at least had the consolation of a visit to Santa.

But they had to wait for up to three hours in snaking queues and near-freezing temperatures before they could see him.

And even then, Santa did not hand out the gifts personally. The unwrapped presents were distributed from a nearby hut.

One disappointed customer, Thomas Parham, spent £150 on tickets to take his wife, her parents and their two young children, aged eight and six, to Lapland on the first weekend it opened.

Mr Parham said he first saw a “very elaborate” advert in his local newspaper.

But the reality was somewhat different. Mr Parham said that next to the closed ice rink there was a funfair charging £5 a ride.

“Given that we had paid £150 to look at some chickens, pigs and dogs in pens, the idea of having to pay out further money to go on some rides seemed a little harsh,” he said.