Santa’s Village Note To Our Readers - Santa’s Village is under new ownership and is expected to re-open. Bookmark our website as we are getting our news directly from Santa Claus himself!!!
We live about 90 miles west of Chicago and have made it our family vacation in June to take our kids into the city for 5-6 days at a hotel filled with swimming, Brookfield or Lincoln Park zoo, and Santa’s Village. Last year we had to miss Santa’s Village as the eve of the day we was going our daughters got very sick in the middle of the night and all the next day. Now this year it appears we are going to miss it, and maybe forever, due to lack of funding.
Santa’s Village has stocking filled with IOUs
No ho-ho-ho as Santa’s Village, the summertime winter wonderland, may not open on Mother’s Day for the first time in nearly 50 years
By Colleen Mastony
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 12, 2006
Every Mother’s Day weekend for nearly 50 years, Santa’s Village brushed fresh, white paint on its piles of fake snow, opened the life-size gingerbread house and beckoned children and adults to its property in East Dundee. Opened a few years after Disneyland, the tiny park was designed to give kids the kind of Christmas its developer never had as a child.
Over the decades, as tourists began flocking to bigger attractions like Gurnee’s Six Flags Great America, attendance declined. Scores of other small parks in the Chicago area and around the country shut their doors. Santa’s Village hung on.
Now with a lien on the property and $83,000 in debt to East Dundee, Santa’s Village is closed. For the first time in its history, on the traditional opening weekend no children will crowd around the “North Pole” or clamor for a pony ride.
Up for sale, the park on a recent day looked as forlorn as an abandoned child. The snowball ride sat silent; the treehouse slide was empty; even the ponies had left for greener pastures.
Yet in storybook fashion the town has rallied, and a prospective buyer has stepped forward with a plan to rescue the fading landmark tucked along a strip of car dealerships on Illinois Highway 25 in Kane County. The buyer, a local businessman, has told town leaders that he wants to refurbish the place and open in June. The deal remains tentative, and the sale closing date has been repeatedly pushed back, leaving the future uncertain.
“These parks are a dying breed,” said Jim Carlini, 51, village trustee who was elected last year on a “save the park” platform. “It is easy to say, let’s put up townhouses, but then you become another vanilla suburb. How many towns can claim they have an amusement park?”
Not many. In the mid-1960s, the Chicago area boasted as many as 30 parks, according to the National Amusement Park Historical Association. Today, Kiddieland in Melrose Park is the only survivor.
As lawyers negotiate and land speculators hover, many locals–both children and adults–are hoping for a miracle.
Perhaps it’s possible. After all, the park’s original creator, H. Glenn Holland, a California real estate developer, believed in wondrous events.
As a child, Holland longed for a happy Christmas. He grew up in California during the Depression. His parents had died by the time he was 18, leaving him to care for his younger sister. When Holland got married and became a father, he tried to give his two children the kind of holiday he had never experienced.
“He wanted Christmas to be just magical,” said Holland’s daughter, Pamela Holland Reece, 63, of Fallbrook, Calif. “He always thought that children should have adventures and great happiness in their lives. He wanted to make that come true.”
At his kitchen table one day, Holland began sketchingpictures of a wonderland filled with enormous candy canes, animals and gingerbread houses.
Around the same time, Walt Disney was building Disneyland. So Holland contacted Disney, and the two men reportedly corresponded for a time. But while Disney was already wealthy from his films, Holland was an unknown. He began traveling the country, selling $45 stock shares in his amusement park idea and eventually listed Santa’s Village Corp. on the California stock exchange.
The first Santa’s Village, on 15 acres in San Bernardino County, opened on Memorial Day 1955–six weeks before Disneyland. It quickly became a hit. Holland then opened a second location in Santa Cruz County and began scouting for a third location in the Midwest.
Chicago, home of the Ferris wheel, had long been a center for amusements. In the early 1900s, the city led the nation in the number of parks. In the midst of the Baby Boom, as middle-class families moved to the suburbs, amusement parks opened across the region.
At the time, East Dundee seemed the perfect location for a large theme park. Surrounded by farm fields and close to the recently built Illinois Tollway, the tiny town had a handful of good restaurants, and its distance from Chicago–40 miles–made land relatively inexpensive.
Holland broke ground for the park in 1958, and opened to large crowds about a year later. Whimsical and cartoonish, the brightly colored buildings looked like log cabins painted with gingerbread trim. Ten-foot candy canes and polka-dot mushrooms sprouted from the ground. Workers dressed like elves, and rides included a giant whirling Christmas Tree.
Children could ride in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer or sit on Santa’s knee. The Polar Dome Ice Arena, which was built with inflatable material and looked as if it were made of snow, could be seen by airplane pilots, who reportedly used it as a landmark.
“It was magical,” said Don Goers, 80, who was plucked from the maintenance department to become Santa Claus shortly after the park opened. “Every day more people came. Every day had bigger crowds.”
The park became the pride of the community. Workers reupholstered the rides and repainted every year. Schoolchildren came by the busload. The local Republican Club held its yearly corn boil in the picnic area.
“It was wonderful,” said Rita Winger, 68, of Elgin. “A different age.”
$1 for all-day pass
Initially the park sold tickets for each ride but soon switched to an all-day pass, which then cost $1.
“Santa’s Village was the biggest thing that happened in our town,” said JoAnn Mesick, 53, who grew up around the corner. “We could get our hands stamped, go home, eat lunch and then go back. To me, it’s part of our village. We never had anything else like it.”
Despite the park’s early popularity, Holland, a Southern Californian, had not planned for Illinois’ freezing weather. While his West Coast parks stayed open year-round, doing their best business in the weeks before Christmas, the Chicago area was too cold. Eventually, Santa’s Village in East Dundee was in the odd position of being closed on Christmas.
The miscalculation helped lead to the collapse of the company. Holland found himself stretched thin. By 1965, investors rebelled. Holland was close to a nervous breakdown, according to his daughter. Heartbroken, he left the company; the parks were sold.
“Where he made the error was going on and doing the final one in Illinois. It was just not financially a good idea,” said Reece, his daughter. “But he knew he had touched people with the parks. It was the most special thing he felt he had ever done.”
Holland, who later became a real estate developer, died in 2002 at 84. The locations in California eventually closed, leaving East Dundee with the last surviving Santa’s Village.
The park changed hands several times, but the place continued to captivate. In 1979 Hugh Wilson, then a heavy equipment operator for the state of Illinois, saw an unusual newspaper ad: “Santa’s Village: For Sale.” Wilson took out a small business loan and purchased the park within a month. “I’m a big kid at heart,” said Wilson, 65.
Attendance went up and down. As times changed, so did Santa’s Village. The park added a water slide and a roller coaster. But financial issues loomed. Rumors circulated that developers were trying to build condominiums.
In February, Lois Farrell, 68, of Streamwood, took her granddaughter to the Polar Dome for a skating lesson and found the rink closed and a lock on the door.
The Polar Dome reopened in time for the annual ice-skating show, coincidentally produced under the title “Money, money, money.”
It is a theme echoed by lawyers.
“If we don’t receive the money, there will be a shut-off of the water June 1,” said Russ Hartigan, attorney for the village of East Dundee, which is owed $83,000. “It’s been over six months they’ve been delinquent. Our patience is waning.”
Local contractor and developer Steve Hopp has reportedly stepped in to save the park. Hopp did not return calls for comment. Many wonder whether Santa’s Village can survive.
“I do hope it can find a way,” said Julie O’Leary, 47, who fondly recalls her childhood visits to the park. “Having been there as a child gives you a connection. It would be tragedy to lose it. It would be a huge loss in our identity for the village.”