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Leona O'Neill: A Christmas visit to Leisureworld toy store in Belfast was like Disneyland for 1970s children

A Christmas visit to the legendary Belfast toy store Leisureworld was a magical experience for children of the 1970s, says Leona O'Neill. What will our own children look back on with similar awe and affection?

Social media posts featuring images of the old Leisureworld toy store in Belfast sent Leona O'Neill on a journey down Christmas memory lane. Footage of Leisureworld in old UTV television reports can be found in Northern Ireland Screen's Digital Film Archive, digitalfilmarchive.net

SOMEONE posted a photograph of Belfast's Leisureworld on Twitter at the weekend and suddenly I was seven years old again.

We might have lived in Derry, but my parents would have taken us to Belfast a lot, and as we were kids of the 1970s, born into the Troubles, going to Leisureworld was akin to visiting actual Disneyland.

I especially remember the store at Christmas, walking up Queen Street as the sun dipped behind the tall buildings, all wrapped up in coats and scarves, my gloved hand in my Dad's.

I vaguely remember a heavily fortified police station and police officers standing in the street, but what hasn't dimmed in my memory is the beacon of pure joy and light that the big Leisureworld sign was on that dark street.

The window displays were like magic to us. A big beautiful Christmas tree, every fabulous toy you could possibly imagine underneath it. Lego models, moving Meccano Ferris wheels, an elaborate Sindy doll house; we could have stood there all evening, if there wasn't a world of adventure inside to embrace.

Social media posts featuring images of the old Leisureworld toy store in Belfast sent Leona O'Neill on a journey down Christmas memory lane. Footage of Leisureworld in old UTV television reports can be found in Northern Ireland Screen's Digital Film Archive, digitalfilmarchive.net

When you're seven years old the ground floor toy store was a vast wonderland. The noise emanating from the place was wonderful.

Outside in the street there very well might have been an actual army helicopter in the sky but the drone was drowned out by the playful whizz of toy airplanes whirling around in circles above your head. All around toys were popping and spinning and beeping and pinging.

There were huge moving Lego statues in glass cases that always had a horde of little faces pressed up against it.

There were full sections dedicated to the glamorous city slicker Barbie and her more country cousin Sindy. There were reams and reams of those creepy doll heads you could practice hairdressing and make-up on and there were always brightly coloured, noisy toys at the end of the aisle you could try out.

Simpler times - there was no Covid back then, so hundreds of children per day would have held the same plastic phone right up to their mouths to chat to a cheery animated American operator on the other end.

There were aisles full of Fisher-Price toys, Meccano sets, vast glass cases with Sylvanian Families figures, the latest games from America - Ghostbusters Slime Challenge, Goonies Monopoly - and every single annual, book and comic a child could ever want.

What stands out for me about the place is the massive Star Wars section, probably because it was there we spent the vast majority of our time trying to convince my little brother that the shop was closing and we had to leave.

He was a terribly indecisive child and spent hours in that part of the shop picking out the Star Wars figures he wanted to add to his collection. He's 43 now and I can still picture him standing there in his little coat at five-years-old looking at a vast wall of characters with wonder in his eyes.

When he was 10 he bought the Millennium Falcon with his birthday money and spent weeks constructing it. It was a feat of engineering for a child so young.

When he finished he flew it around his bedroom manually and cautiously a few times but was terrified of dropping it and wrecking weeks of work so the thing sat stationary on his table and the action simply revolved around it, to keep it intact.

He put it up on top of his wardrobe for safe keeping about 30 years ago. Yesterday I reached up to the top of the wardrobe of his childhood bedroom and found it there, still in perfect condition, not a scratch on it.

I hope the family who owned and ran Leisureworld know how much joy they brought to the kids on Northern Ireland during those times. It wasn't easy growing up here and there were few chinks of light, Leisureworld was one of the brightest of them all. The memory of it still makes me smile.

I wonder what our own kids will look back on with such wonder and delight, and if anything - even Disneyland - will beat the magic of Leisureworld.

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