So much has already been said about Willy’s Chocolate Experience in Glasgow, an obvious and apparently cheap knockoff of the Willy Wonka universe, that saying anything about it just feels like piling on. Yes, the “sad Oompa Loompa” compared to a Manet painting made me laugh more than it should have, although I’ve never thought of the woman in the original painting as sad and the woman playing the Oompa Loompa, well, in that picture she just got caught at a bad moment. She described the experience as “trying to be the sprinkles on shit” but that’s something I want to focus on: she was trying her best to take something bad, something that was far beyond her control, and make it enjoyable. She also said,
I didn’t want to let the people around me down. The actors I was working with are amazing people, and this has got nothing to do with them. So I just thought, I’m going to make the best of this.
I’m sad the whole thing was such a poorly planned fiasco that even the company that organized it has admitted they should have cancelled the whole thing instead of trying to make the best of it, and I get why the adults were upset. Paying £35 per ticket to go into a poorly decorated warehouse with a bouncy castle is ridiculous. I even understand that the kids were upset that it wasn’t all I’m sure they were told it was going to be and that in the end all they got was a handful of jellybeans and a small cup of lemonade.
I also have memories of going to something like it when I was a kid, only in my case it wasn’t nearly as terrible for several reasons. I was, I think, only four or five, and my aunt took me to the Cain-Sloan store downtown. I don’t remember if she told me why we were going—if she did I don’t think I understood that it was something special. It helped that there was nothing to anticipate. When we got there we joined a small group that was led through an Alice In Wonderland-themed tunnel. It used pictures from the 1951 Disney film, which I hadn’t seen and I didn’t know the story at that time. What I remember is that we went through a dark room decorated with pictures of things the cartoon Alice sees as she descends down the rabbit hole and a woman in a department store uniform recited a script, saying, “She fell and fell and fell.” I thought, who is she? Because I’d missed the entire introduction. Also I was only four or five and experiencing sensory overload. The woman’s performance wasn’t especially dramatic but I think she was probably just a cashier who got roped into being a tour guide/narrator and did the best she could.
Then we were led into what, in my memory, was probably an employee break room poorly decorated with paper cutouts, and folding tables scattered with pages from coloring books, loose crayons, and a few cups of candy. I think both Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny came in, but they stayed up on a stage at one end of the room and we weren’t allowed to actually talk to them.
I recognize now that it was bad but I had an okay time. Maybe it was free—a promotional event to boost sales—which would have kept the complaints down. I also think that, as a kid I didn’t have the critical awareness to recognize just how bad it was. I didn’t have any experiences to compare it to so I was just able to take it in and enjoy it.
I don’t know if parents putting on a positive attitude in front of their kids would have helped save Willy’s Chocolate Experience. Maybe even the youngest, most unaware kids saw it for the trashy money grab it was, but when I’ve done things with friends’ kids I’ve tried to be aware that, when you’re young, everything is new. Kids grow up so fast and will have most of their lives to be cynical, sarcastic, and bitter. During that brief time when the world is still new and strange then I’m glad some adults try to be the sprinkles on the shit.