Santa’s Village, my favorite theme park in the entire world, closed the year I was born. This minor inconvenience however didn’t stop me from spending a good deal of my life obsessing over it, tracking down stories, and looking for signs of life, no matter how impossible. I’m not your normal theme park fan; I go deep into stories and personal histories collecting forgotten memories, pictures, and trinkets from independent parks, many of which no longer exist. Santa’s Village has always been at the center of my curiosity. Frontier Village of San Jose and The Lost World, of Scotts Valley have also been on my list of curiosities, but if I had to pick one to bring back, it will always be Santa’s Village.
Now, on a recent Friday in May, after years of waiting, I am happy to report that I finally ventured into the park’s Welcome House and spent a weekend in the actual Santa’s Village. Not only did I visit, I now work for the park, offering my public relations and creative services, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
People that run and own theme parks, especially independent ones, have to be a little on the wild side. They’re dreamers but they’re also hard workers. They’re visionaries, but they also have their fingers on the pulse of every ticket and every customer experience. They walk the grounds seeing the park in all its realms of existence at once, from history, to present, to permutations of what the future could be. I’ve seen this while on the board of the Happy Hollow Foundation, and while interviewing the owners of The Enchanted Forest in Salem Oregon, and Train Town in Sonoma. I've even had the honor of documenting the former cast of Frontier Village as they gather for their annual reunion picnic, despite the park having been closed for thirty years. Little parks make an impact on people's lives in a big way.
Theme park owners and their biggest fans (such as myself) have to believe that anything is possible. You have to be able to speak to the bones of forgotten places, and see them rise again. You have to be willing to look at a dilapidated attraction and find the parts that are worth saving. It’s part practical magic and part alchemy and a ton of hard work. And sometimes you get really lucky and the stars align, and your dreams come true and you find yourself in the middle of a park that once only existed in memory.
Santa’s Village; A Little History
Santa’s Village, in the Santa Cruz mountains opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1958, the second of what was to be three winter-themed franchised amusement parks. Southern California developer Glenn Holland created the first park in the San Bernardino mountains in 1955 (six weeks before Disneyland) as a place where families could lose themselves in a fantasy forest for the day. The park featured reindeer, a baby animal petting zoo, puppet shows, elves in workshops making toys, a life-size gingerbread house, and of course, Santa himself.
Searching for Ghosts
By the late 1970’s however Baby Boomers were grown, gas prices were soaring, and roadside attractions across the country were hurting. The Santa’s Village Corporation dissolved and the three parks went their separate ways, each eventually closing. I never got to see any of it. I only saw the abandoned thirty-foot tall candy cane, colorful concrete mushrooms, and Welcome House across the highway, every day when my parents drove home. And every night, as if by some theme park magic, the lights still illuminated the welcome house and mushrooms, and even in its dilapidated state, the park was still magical.
Then one night on the way home, my parents stopped the car. We looked across the freeway in horror as the Welcome House stood, surrounded by flames. Even the tiny log cabin Santa-themed gas station next door was in flames. The little white plastic reindeer on its roof were melting as an ominous orange glow illuminated the sky. Part of me has never recovered from that night.
I longed to go to the park that had always been closed to me. As a kid I gathered my friends together and wrote to the city, asking them to re-open the park. I collected stories and anything I could find from the park. On my thirtieth birthday I finally walked the abandoned, bulldozed grounds of my park, which had been gone for thirty years. I still have a piece of an original mushroom I found that day. Today, my park is a few dozen multi-million dollar tract homes, never to be open again.
Santa’s Village Reborn
Even in the hardest times, somewhere in the universe, there has to be hope. That hope came in the form of a real estate listing in the San Bernardino mountains in 2014, for a park that had been abandoned since 1998 called Santa’s Village. That’s when Bill and Michelle Johnson, Lake Arrowhead locals, decided to buy the Santa’s Village park and its surrounding forested acres. The couple spent the next 24 months fixing up the park, adding a bike park zip-line, and many other attractions, cutting through red tape and doing everything in their power to re-open the park. I watched with bated breath, hoping against hope that their plans would work.
After many struggles and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, Bill and Michelle and their amazing team opened their park under the name SkyPark at Santa’s Village. Their park had all the charm of the old winter-themed park plus a mountain bike park, medieval-style games, high-end gastropub-style food, a full bakery, venues for weddings, new characters, and more.
In December of 2020, I gathered my courage and all the luck I could find and reached out to Bill and Michelle Johnson, pleading my case, telling them how I knew all about the park and wanted to make sure it thrives for generations to come. “I was born under the sign of the Candy Cane,” I told them. “I’ve spent my whole life telling people about this place. I was born to do PR for Santa’s Village.”
Today I am pleased to report that I am now working for SkyPark at Santa’s Village as the Director of PR, offering my storytelling and creative services. It is a dream come true. I wish I could go back to my childhood self, watching the fire tearing apart the Welcome House at my park, and tell that devastated little girl, “It’s going to be ok. There is still magic in the world, and you will find it someday.”
Visiting the Park At Last
After a 41 year wait, I was recently able to see the park in person and it went above and beyond my expectations. “We want you to experience the park,” Bill had told me. “Come check it out for the weekend.” So I did; I booked a 2 hour flight to San Bernardino, rented a car, and drove up the windy mountains. But before checking into my hotel, (like a normal person), I drove along the highway, past my turnoff. Because after 41 years I didn’t come all this way to be normal. I knew it was close without looking at the GPS. I had studied these hills for so long. The car rounded the top of a hill and then I saw it; the turnoff to the park. My heart caught in my throat. There was the park, looking shiny and new, nestled in a field against a forested hill. All at once I saw the park as it had been in pictures from 1955, surrounded by a full forest, and then in 2003, when this park had its own fire that had burned 91,000 acres but spared the park. I saw the park as it was before me, and as I hoped it would be for years to come.
I turned into the parking lot and my vision became blurry. I had to pull over and cry for a minute. The parking lot was almost full. There were people, actual people, queuing up to get into the park. Families were unpacking bikes from their vehicles. The park was alive and well, and for the first time ever, I got to be part of its story.
That weekend was spent with some of the most dedicated, amazing people I have ever met. Bill and Michelle are so dedicated to the park and the team, and their team shares the same vision. The park itself is not only well-kept, but re-imagined and re-designed to cater to a modern audience and also comply with ADA accessibility.
SkyPark at Santa’s Village is a place where you can put down your screens and just enjoy a hike, or ride the little train in the park, or practice throwing an axe. The characters in the park are well-designed and acted and their presence is very natural as they chat with guests and blow bubbles for children.
And don’t get me started on the food. If you only come here for the food, it will be worth it. From BBQ to burgers to pub food, and a full bakery where they make their own cookies and wedding cakes, this place offers more than traditional park food.
Bill and Michelle and Arrow the timberwolf-malamute (and the park’s mascot) took me on a hike through the Northwoods and along the back end of the property through the forest and meadow. We saw what was once a family homestead and a grove of apple trees, grown from the seeds and grafts of the original homestead trees.
I couldn’t help but think of how much this park and the forest reminded me of the park near my house, which was also off a major highway, in an area where tourists frequent. Even though it was my first time to this park, I felt like I had been there my entire life.
This memorial day marks 66 years since Santa’s Village in San Bernardino opened. Against all odds it not only survives but thrives. Despite previous years surviving squatters, a historic fire, a global pandemic, and decades of abandonment, the park still stands, and I intend to help it do so for as long as I can. I’m so grateful for the parks new owners and team, and beyond thrilled that I get to be part of this exciting new chapter in its history.
Not everyone grows up next door to an abandoned winter-themed amusement park, and very few people get to see that park reborn. As far as I’m concerned, I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I like to think that was part of Glenn Holland’s dream; for more kids to live near such a park. Glenn envisioned Santa’s Village after growing up during the Great Depression. His parents died when he was a teenager and he had to look after his sister. Glenn never really had a childhood and he made up for lost time with the creation of the Santa’s Village parks. I think he must have known that such a place changes children’s lives for the better. I know it changed mine.
I promise you that dreams do come true. There is still magic in the world, and sometimes you will be lucky enough to find it. And if you get a chance to go to the childhood amusement park of your dreams, don’t let it pass you by.
Note: Many of the vintage pictures above are from the generous people who share memories of the Scotts Valley Santa's Village Group on Facebook.
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About the Author
Jennifer is a storyteller who connects big ideas with audiences. She specializes in public relations, brand development, and creative services for startups, theme parks, musicians, authors, nonprofits, and more. From audience awareness to brand development, and positive social change, Jennifer works with clients she believes in and that she believes she can help.