Everybody loves Christmas, and back in the 1950s, an amusement park was created for those who wanted to relive it at other times of the year as well. Although Santa’s Village opened only six weeks before Disneyland, unfortunately, this festive park didn’t have quite the same staying power and was closed in the 1990s.
Luckily for Christmas enthusiasts today, after surviving abandonment and a terrible wildfire, the park has been renovated and reopened as Skypark at Santa’s Village.
After reading about a Santa theme park that had opened in New York, Californian resident Glenn Holland decided that this would be the perfect attraction for Skyforest near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino. He managed to get some investors on board, and the project officially broke ground in 1954. Those trees that were felled to make space were then used to build the log cabins.
Putty Henck was the contractor taken on to do the construction, and those running the project liaised with local artisans and craftsmen to ensure the village had plenty of local character. Henck was also the owner of the land. He leased 230 acres to the Santa’s Village franchise, and when completed, the park covered 15 acres.
The official opening took place on Memorial Day weekend in 1955. Santa’s Village included rides, a bobsled, a monorail, a Ferris wheel, and a live petting zoo that offered children the chance to meet real reindeer. There was also a candy shop, a bakery, and a toy shop.
Holland thought it was important that the myth of Santa was maintained, even down to having no money exchanging hands inside the park. Instead, guests had “passport tickets” to detail their expenses, and these were paid for at the end of the visit.
There were plenty of static displays within the park, including painted concrete toadstools, which were claimed to be the homes of the elves that worked in the village.
There were also life-sized gingerbread houses and dolls’ houses. Those working at the park also had special uniforms: costumes with curled-toe boots for the elves, and lederhosen for the ride attendants.
Buoyed by his success, Holland went on to open Santa’s Village parks in Santa Cruz, California, and Dundee, Illinois. Santa’s Village represented the first franchised theme park in America, but unfortunately it went bankrupt in the 1970s, and these three parks were forced to close.
However, that didn’t spell the end for Santa’s Village at Lake Arrowhead because the land reverted to Henck, and his family continued to run the attraction. They even expanded it to include more rides, nature trails, and horseback riding. They named it Fantasy Forest at Santa’s Village, and a TV commercial helped draw in the crowds, which could number up to 180,000 per year.
Eventually, the business had to close in 1998 due to reduced attendance. At that point, the Hencks sold off the fixtures and rides, many of which were bought by locals and proudly incorporated into the local area.
After three years, the land was sold for $5.6 million. The new owners were in the logging business, and they used the land for storing and processing timber. While the land itself was being used, the village fell into disrepair and became a ghost town.
At one point, it looked like Fantasy Forest would live again when a new owner engaged local contractor John Radleigh to restore the park. Radleigh and his associates managed to restore some of the windows and roofs, preventing further degradation. However, disaster struck in the form of a wildfire in 2003.
Known as “The Old Fire,” the wildfire swept through the state, destroying so much it became one of the worst wildfires in state history. Santa’s Village suffered in particular because the fire is believed to have been exacerbated by a bark beetle infestation that had weakened the trees.
Infested trees were stored and processed on land belonging to the former theme park, and it took great efforts by the local firefighters to ensure that Santa’s Village wasn’t completely destroyed. It is also thought that some of the previous restoration work helped the buildings withstand the flames.
Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the line for Santa’s Village. In 2014, yet another new owner came along, and the park was renovated to become Skypark at Santa’s Village. Parts of the forest, as well as 18 buildings, needed considerable work, but after that, the attraction was able to open on December 2, 2016 – just in time for Christmas!
Despite its association with Christmas, the park is open all year round. To ensure that the attraction appeals even to those who don’t feel festive in the middle of summer, the park also offers activities such as mountain biking, fishing, hiking, and ziplining.
The photographs of this Santa’s Village in an abandoned state before its renovation were taken by the Straite family. They travel and share photos of the beautiful places they’ve visited on Flickr. A huge thank you to Matt and Tofu Straite who allowed us to use the photos in our article about this interesting location. Visit their Flickr account to find out more.
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