Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley California is the abandoned amusement park of my dreams. It closed the year I was born, but that didn’t stop my lifelong obsession with it, nor did it stop me from working for Santa’s Village today, but let’s not start with the end of the story just yet. By the time I first found out about the enchanting Bay Area Christmas theme park, it was only a memory, and someone else's memory at that.
To put it in Dickensian terms; Santa’s Village was dead to begin with; as dead as an abandoned theme park could be.
It was one of three Santa’s Villages across the country; the first franchised amusement park. But the heydays of mid-century modern luxury dissolved into the gas crisis and economic despair of the 1970s. The Santa’s Village Corporation dissolved in the late 70s. The parks went their separate ways and eventually all closed. And you might assume this is where the story of Santa's Village stops, but you'd be wrong.
As a child, I saw the ghost of Santa’s Village every time my parents drove home. It sat across Highway 17, across from my kindergarten. I could look out from the playground and see the twenty-foot-tall candy-cane, the log-cabin Welcome House, and the brightly colored concrete mushrooms that children used to play on. Beyond that, the trees grew tall, hiding what must have been a magical fairy world, just out of reach. The park was surrounded by fences and no trespassing signs, yet every night, as if by some lingering theme park magic, the lights still came on outside the Welcome House. It was in these times that the park called to me most.
Even in its dilapidated state, the park was still magical.
Over the years, I collected newspaper clippings, souvenirs, and stories from locals who remembered the park. My elementary school was lucky enough to inherit three of the concrete mushrooms which strengthened my resolve to salvage whatever was left. By fourth grade, I had commissioned my friends to write the city to reopen the park. The city politely but promptly refused.
Then one night there was an orange glow in the sky 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 neighboring abandoned log cabin Santa-themed gas station was in flames. The little white plastic reindeer on its roof were melting as the fire reached high into the sky. Part of me has never recovered from that night.
I was born too late to save my Santa’s Village, but my obsession turned into a passion for parks, storytelling, and a drive to preserve history and wild places.
I have collected the stories of Santa’s Village employees, Frontier Village fans, and the family that started The Enchanted Forest. I’ve gone on tours behind the scenes at Disney World and talked with Cast Members and engineers about immersive environment theory, what ride control surfaces are best, and the history of the carousel (fun fact; in Europe, it was made to train lancers for war and it means “little war” in Italian). I earned my master’s degree in Broadcast Communications. I wrote my thesis on Puppets in Prime Time, a book on social media, and another on PR for startups. I am currently drafting a four-part young adult novel series about a magical theme park that comes to life.
I went on, living my life with a Santa’s Village-sized hole in my heart driving me forward. Then, in 2014, an unexpected ray of hope shone through the clouds. That hope came in the form of a real estate listing in the San Bernardino mountains, the Santa’s Village that had been abandoned since 1998; one of Glenn Holland’s 3 original parks. 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 renovating and reimagining the park, adding a professional 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 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 dreams do come true and I am now working for SkyPark at Santa’s Village as the Director of PR, offering my storytelling and creative services.
After a four-decade wait, I finally got to experience Santa's Village in person and it went above and beyond my expectations. “We want you to experience the park,” Bill and Michelle told me. So I booked a flight to San Bernardino, rented a car, and drove up the windy mountains.
But before checking into my hotel, (like a normal person would have), something called to me, and it felt like that Ghost of Santa's Village Past.
I knew the park was close without looking at the GPS. I drove along the highway by instinct, ignoring the turnoff for my hotel. After four decades of waiting, I hadn't come all this way to be normal.
I had studied these hills for so long, I could feel where the park should be, and I was right. The car rounded the top of a hill and I saw it. My heart caught in my throat. It was really there, shiny and new, nestled in a field against a forested hill. All at once my mind's eye saw the park in all its stages of existence; past, present, and future. There it was, as it had been in pictures from 1955, surrounded by a full forest. And there it was in 2003, with burned trees around it, after the mountains had a historic fire that burned 91,000 acres but somehow spared the park. And there it was now, and somewhere in the distance, I saw it as it would someday be. It was magical.
My vision became blurry in that moment and I had to pull over in the parking lot to cry. It was a dream come true. The park was thriving. The parking lot was almost full. There were guests 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. 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 the Heneck family homestead and a grove of apple trees, grown from the seeds and grafts of the original homestead trees. Putnam Heneck was the general contractor that built the park and later purchased it when the Santa’s Village Corporation dissolved.
I couldn’t help but think of how much this park and the forest reminded me of the park near my house, which now only lived in memory. Even though it was my first time to this park, I felt like I had been there my entire life.
This is the 66th year since the first 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, and at long last, I have found others who share that dream.
The memories of my long-gone Santa's Village in Scotts Valley are still with me. They follow me, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, and I have learned to sit by its side and listen to the stories it has to share. But now there are two more spirits that drift around me; and they offer hope. The Spirit of Theme Parks Present, and the Spirit of Theme Parks Future encourage me to keep learning, and keep finding joy, and to make good use of my time.
Together the spirits of the past, present, and future, create a powerful magic, one which the most successful theme parks have learned to honor.
I wish I could go back to my childhood self, to the little girl watching the fire destroy my park's Welcome House. I would tell that devastated little girl, “It’s going to be ok. There is still magic in the world. You will find it someday, and you will be one of the people who helps it grow.” In this, good things can never die, so long as they have someone to remember them and share their stories with the people of the future.
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.