My dad has many fond memories of Southern California in the 1950s and 60s, especially of its various amusement parks. One such was a theme park a little further out from the greater Los Angeles area than say Disneyland. Roughly 80 miles east of LA, nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains sits Santa’s Village, a holiday themed amusement park turned “adventure park” in recent years. From 1955 to 1998 this piece of the North Pole enchanted guests. Until 2014 it sat abandoned, victim to fire and vandalism. The current owners have revitalized Santa’s Village and turned it into a unique outdoor playground, and last weekend we went for a little “Christmas in July” visit.
Opening just a few weeks before Disneyland, Santa’s Village was a joint venture of Glenn Holland, a group of investors and the Henck family. Holland was inspired by North Pole, New York, a small Christmas themed amusement park that first opened July 1, 1949. Holland rallied together investors and broke ground on land leased to them by the project’s general manager, J. Putnam “Putty” Henck. Guests were greeted by a massive candy cane that stood outside a pink roofed lodge, through which they would enter a wonderland where they could meet Santa Claus, along with other holiday characters such as the Easter Bunny, explore a massive gingerbread house, take a ride aboard a reindeer drawn sleigh, ride a monorail aboard a giant bumble bee and more. Holland’s idea was so successful he would go on to build two more Santa’s Villages, with plans for more. In 1958 a location in Santa Cruz opened, (closing in 1979), and in 1959 one in East Dundee, Illinois opened (and after being closed for a period of time, reopened in 2011), becoming the first franchised theme park in the United States.
By 1978 things on the amusement park scene weren’t the same as they were in the 50s, and Santa’s Village went bankrupt. The park’s general manager, “Putty” Henck purchased the original Santa’s Village, as his family already owned the land, expanded the park, and dubbed it “Fantasy Forest at Santa’s Village.” Henck’s incarnation of the village lasted until 1998. When it shuttered he stated that he thought families didn’t “have the time to come up here” anymore, citing that “[e]very McDonald’s, every pizza parlor, every mall has a kiddie place. Most of our people have to plan an eight-hour day, two hours up, two hours back, four hours here.” Upon closure many of the rides were actioned off, but just a couple years later new owners arrived, and went to work restoring many of the buildings. However it never got off the ground, and in 2003 a massive forest fire swept through. While the fire damaged much of the area, many of the buildings at Santa’s Village survived, however the idea to resurrect the park never came to fruition. The land was later leased to a logging company, and the once bustling holiday town was left to decay.
In May of 2014 Bill and Michelle Johnson arrived as the latest pair of Santa’s helpers and turned the 153 acre park into what it is today, which while not the candy colored dreamland of the 1950s, it still has the same heart. “We knew from history that the original Santa’s Village model was not sustainable,” they state on their “About Us” page, and they have adapted to cater to a different audience, while also still understanding the rich history the original park had to offer, and also being in tune with the natural surroundings and animals that live around them. “The idea was not to go carnival rides, but more to the outdoors,” Michelle Johnson explained, as the park opted for a more “Old World Christmas” and rustic look for the park, which now offers mountain biking, hiking, zip-lining, fishing, ice and roller skating (depending upon the season), climbing, ax throwing, shooting gallery, and archery. Gone is the candy-colored paint schemes, replaced with a more muted, down-to-earth color palette. Santa is back, and with an outfit that falls in line with the new setting, plus there is a whole new cast of characters for guests to meet, including elves, a royal family, mushrooms, and more! Many of Santa’s friends help in way of entertainment too, with story telling and a puppet show. Other entertainment includes a magician and summertime concert series. Looking to get married? Santa’s Village makes for a unique and charming wedding venue!
As guests explore the village, they will spy that the bumble bee monorail track still looms over the winding pathways, with plans to revamp it as a suspended bicycle adventure. Those who remember the bumble bees will find some scattered around the park, including a restored one that is a photo opt near one of the gift shops, and a faded one with its original cartoon paint job tucked under a tree.
Sadly, Santa’s Workshop Exploritorium, which showcases the history and future of the park, was not open during our visit. However in the main entrance building there were display cases with some vintage items on display, including a green version of the vintage hat I wore for my visit.
As mentioned, my dad did visit Santa’s Village during the 1950s and 60s, and I am lucky enough to have a couple of photos of him there, and I chose to recreate one. While I couldn’t find the exact mushroom he leaned on and my aunt sat on (in my research I learned some were removed and sold) I chose the whimsical one outside of Santa’s House.
Curious to know what Santa’s Village looked like back in the 50s and 60s? I have a handful of postcards in my collection that show the colorful treatment many of the buildings originally had.
Vintage Santa’s Village Hat: Antique Station, Orange, California
Dress: Rummage sale
Necklace: Match Accessories
Santa’s Village Guest button: Found by my dad
Shoes: Buffalo Exchange