Review: The Candy Cottage Of Christmas Magic At Rockefeller Center Will Leave A Sour Taste In Your Mouth

Like many, I'm a sucker for the holiday season. As soon as the clock strikes midnight on Halloween I'm ready to swap out my pumpkins for gingerbread houses and candy canes, which is why when I learned about the opening of The Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic at Rockefeller Center, my interest was immediately piqued. What could be better than a sugar-centered experiential adventure through one of New York City's most storied locations to spend the holidays? 

The Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic officially opened its doors to the public on Sunday, November 5th, but I previewed the experience ahead of its official launch. I imagined a sprawling cottage with steaming cups of hot cocoa, candy cane straws, gingerbread cookies, and chocolate bonbons, but the experience that awaited me was nothing short of a disappointment. It should be said that previews are the way to work out kinks, to figure out the aspects of a restaurant or performance that can be improved, essentially to iron out the wrinkles. I can only speak to my own adventure at the Candy Cottage, but the guests who joined me had resoundingly similar feelings. 

What is it?

The Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic at Rockefeller Center is an interactive holiday experience for both children and adults. The experience is broken into three parts. You begin at the Candy Cottage, where Cottage Keepers in holiday flannels, festive winter caps, and red aprons embroidered with names like Cinnamon and Caramel welcome you into a small but well-decorated wooden room (that is ADA-accessible) with shelves of candy in mason jars and lollipops branching out from faux snow-covered surfaces. 

Guests are asked to stand in a circle where they're told a brief tale about how the Candy Cottage came to be, which includes an opportunity to pluck one or two candies from the wall (more on this later), before embarking on the second part of the experience: the scavenger hunt. The hunt is meant to take you around Rockefeller Center Plaza, which is, in and of itself, a Christmas wonderland during the holiday season. 

After you complete the scavenger hunt, you're invited to return to the cottage in specified timed intervals for the final portion of your experience, featuring a farewell greeting. The Candy Cottage is the first project from We Are Smile Studio, an immersive theatrical experience company founded by creative producer Vance Garrett and Tony award-winning theater and film producer Arielle Tepper. 

Location of The Candy Cottage

The Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic at Rockefeller Center is located in one of the most magical parts of Manhattan to visit during the holiday season. As soon as the iconic ice skating rink opens in late October, the plaza starts to transform into a Christmas wonderland with holiday gift shops and pop-up restaurants that are punctuated by the late-November lighting of the storied Christmas tree. 

When I arrived, I assumed I'd be greeted by vibrant signs announcing the Candy Cottage or pointing me in the direction of Christmas joy, but the Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic is somewhat hidden along the Rockefeller Center Channel Gardens. There, the shops celebrating the holiday season are mostly indistinguishable from one another. Once an attendant in Rockefeller Center pointed me in the right direction, I found a spirited Cottage Keeper named Butterscotch standing by a small roped-off area in front of an enclosed glass storefront.

My anticipation started to build as to what awaited me inside, but my hopes were quickly dashed when Butterscotch informed me that the experience begins promptly at 20 minutes on the hour and I was a few minutes late. Fortunately, (perhaps because this was a preview and the experience wasn't yet fully booked), I was able to return for the next showing and spent the half hour wandering around Rockefeller Center trying to imagine where the scavenger hunt would take me.

How much does it cost?

A trip to the Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic at Rockefeller Center varies in price depending on the day of the week you visit as well as the proximity to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. For standard admission, the least expensive tickets available are $25 per person most Mondays through Thursdays (unless it's a holiday week). If you purchase VIP admission tickets Monday through Thursday, which provide you with flexible entry into the cottage within two hours of your ticket time and a "Candy Cottage Christmas collectible," the cost is $50 per person.

On Fridays and throughout holiday weekdays, standard tickets are priced at $35 per person, but VIP tickets remain at $50 per person. The priciest time to visit is on Saturdays and Sundays where you'll pay $45 per person for a standard ticket and a whopping $60 per person for VIP tickets. Listed ticket prices don't include the cost of an additional booking fee, which is determined based on the cost of your ticket.

Visiting the Candy Cottage may seem like a bargain depending on your group size and your budget for New York City holiday experiences. But as one preview-goer noted after the scavenger hunt was over, "That was the most money I've ever spent on a lollipop."

Candy without the magic

When I entered the Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic, the first thing that struck me was the size. Vance Garett, one of the company's founders, is credited as a producer for the famed interactive theater experience Sleep No More, which spans several floors of a renovated warehouse, allowing guests to wander for hours through an immaculately designed set with a pristine level of detail. Because of that storied pedigree, as I awaited my experience outside the Candy Cottage, I imagined wandering through room after room of candy creations and being mesmerized by the design and sweet offerings, but that's not what happened. 

The Candy Cottage makes a strong attempt at transforming the surprisingly small space by paneling the walls with wood to evoke the feeling of being inside a magical forest, but because it's so petite, the wonder starts to fade fairly quickly, as there's not enough room to actually take in the beauty given the number of guests squeezed inside. 

While the cottage is filled with vibrant Christmas decorations hanging from the walls and the ceiling, when the Cottage Keeper leading my experience encouraged guests to pluck "one or two candies" from the wall, I discovered subpar chocolates wrapped in foil and ordinary lollipops — all resembling candy I could purchase in bulk at my local drug store. Still, the experience was just beginning — perhaps magical sweets awaited me during the scavenger hunt.

A scavenger hunt without the hunt

After a short presentation from a spirited Cottage Keeper named Sprinkles (who was doing her best, as were all the Cottage Keepers I encountered), I received a map for the scavenger hunt. When I stepped back into Rockefeller Center Plaza, I discovered that each location of the hunt was clearly labeled. I may be old-fashioned, but the wonder of a scavenger hunt is deciphering clues to determine the next step of your journey. Instead, the map spoiled some of the fun.

A little deflated, I headed to Apotheke, a candle shop where my map instructed me to find the smell that most reminded me of Christmas. Apotheke is even smaller than the Candy Cottage and certainly not a place to take children — every item is glass and priced luxuriously. I headed to a festive-looking candle display and smelled each candle, starting to feel a little more Christmas spirit. "This one," I exclaimed excitedly to the shopkeeper while holding up my map to indicate that I was on the Candy Cottage scavenger hunt. She smiled and said, "Actually, that's not the right candle." Then the shopkeeper pointed out the correct candle and rewarded me with a sticker anyway. 

The next stop was Catbird, an upscale jewelry store. The map told me to find a sweet charm and to make a wish on it, but before I could, a saleswoman spotted my map and pointed to a tray of bracelets, indicating they were the right choice. 

Seasonal treats will cost you

I was already feeling skeptical when I arrived at my next stop, La Maison du Chocolat, but I held out hope because the map promised a holiday drink. I was excited to be served a delicious hot cocoa (preparing myself for it to be small) but when I entered the upscale chocolate shop, it, like all the other stores participating in the Candy Cottage scavenger hunt, had no outward indication that they were a part of the experience. 

I waited online at the beverage bar while regular shoppers made purchases, then discovered that if I wanted to enjoy "a delectable treat" as my map advertised, I had to pay $9.50 for a hot chocolate or — and this was the only sign that I was in the right place — $6.40 for a Candy Cottage Mocha, which is an espresso-based drink that is absolutely not kid-friendly. 

I decided not to pay for either drink because I was sure other goodies awaited me, but I asked the barista for a sticker so that I could complete my map. Perhaps noticing my disappointment, after helping several paying customers before me, she handed me the sticker and offered me two free tiny chocolates. Finally! I'd gotten a proper treat, and surely there would be more treats at future stops ... but there weren't. At every location on the scavenger hunt, you have to purchase any of the foods or goods in the selected stores. That, or you're encouraged to dance or to take selfies. 

A defeated return to the candy cottage

After wandering around Rockefeller Plaza, entering shop after shop where nothing awaited me — and failing to understand what I was meant to do at Radio City Music Hall — I decided to return to the Candy Cottage, harboring the tiniest hope that the third part of the experience would make up for the humdrum that preceded it. I was one of the first guests back, so I waited behind the rope with Cinnamon, who was ever-enthusiastic, until my fellow scavenger hunters arrived to join me. When Cinnamon asked a group of adults and children how they enjoyed their experience, one father stared blankly back at him and said "Next question." I laughed and was slightly relieved that I wasn't the only one who failed to experience the Christmas magic.

I soon discovered that everyone returning to the cottage was surprised that nothing was included in the experience and that the scavenger hunt didn't have any clues, riddles, or elements of surprise. Once we were let back into the Candy Cottage, while some of the lighting was different, it was hardly "transformed" as the Cottage Keepers had advertised. Instead, it looked almost identical to the way we left it. The closing cottage experience was as brief as the opener, but it included the highlight of my experience: a beautiful display of candy snow — likely made out of tissue paper — that was blown into the air to create the sensation of being in a winter wonderland. 

Is it worth it?

The Candy Cottage of Christmas Magic is an excellent concept, but the execution is painfully lacking. Constructing a scavenger hunt around Rockefeller Center sounds like the perfect holiday affair, but the plaza will become even more crowded as the season continues, so moving from place to place amid all the visitors will be somewhat impossible. Even if it were easier to get from shop to shop, because nothing awaits you at the different establishments unless you pay for it, the entire experience seems more like a failed commercial exercise. 

For an experience billed as a Candy Cottage, the amount of candy provided — and the quality of said candy — is certainly not up to par. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, the scavenger hunt lacks any whimsical or magical element. You don't have to solve a riddle nor do you discover a message from Santa Claus. Since all the stops are spelled out for you, your spirits quickly wane and you begin to question the ticket price when there's nothing waiting at each place.

I'm told that new maps are being printed to give scavenger hunters a better sense of the activities and that shopkeepers are considering new ways to participate, but the Candy Cottage I experienced wasn't worth returning to. Before I departed, Sprinkles handed me a Christmas-themed poker chip and told me to scratch it for a secret message. Back on the street, I used my thumb to reveal the phrase: "A token of Christmas magic."