Over the years, Christmas-themed amusement parks have popped up all across the globe (and crumbled right back down), but to this day there is is only one theme park that celebrates the American Thanksgiving holiday nearly all year. Just not on Thanksgiving.
Holiday World, in the town of Santa Claus, Indiana (yes, that’s its real name), is the world’s only holiday-themed amusement park. It features a section devoted exclusively to Thanksgiving, in which visitors can feast on turkey dinner, then try to keep that dinner down while zooming around a pilgrim-themed roller coaster track.
But it wasn’t always that way. The park was founded by wealthy businessman Louis Koch in 1946 as Santa Claus Land, a Christmas-themed amusement park featuring a year-round Santa Claus, children’s rides, and a toy shop. Over the decades the number of attractions grew, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the owners started looking past Christmas. In 1984, the park was rechristened Holiday World and two new themed sections were added to the park, celebrating Halloween and the Fourth of July.
As the only theme park in the world to focus exclusively on the theme of holidays, Holiday World continued to thrive. Then in 2006, on the park’s 60th anniversary, they added the latest section of the park: Thanksgiving.
“It was quite the controversy back in 2005,” says Paula Werne, Director of Communications for Holiday World. “We knew we were going to be adding a new holiday to Holiday World in 2006. And there were all too many holidays put out there. I personally wanted Valentine’s Day, if I may tell you that. But my powers of persuasion failed me this one time.”
In the end, the park owners decided to theme the new section after Thanksgiving because it represented a time when families come together, and as a family owned and operated park, it made sense—even if the theming possibilities were a bit limited.
The most recognizably Thanksgiving-y parts of the park are probably the rustic colonial architectural flourishes that litter the entire section, and the Plymouth Rock Cafe, where full turkey dinners are offered throughout the year. “People really enjoy that they can eat Thanksgiving dinner in July,” says Werne.
Fitting thrilling rides into the Thanksgiving theme is a bit tricker. At its unveiling, the Thanksgiving section of the park was anchored by a massive new wooden roller coaster known as The Voyage. Over a mile long, the coaster continues to win awards and accolades nearly every year, although these have to do with the coaster’s huge drops and freefalls, and not its pilgrims-on-The-Mayflower theme.
In 2015, another steel roller coaster was added to the Thanksgiving section. Called the Thunderbird, it needed a little finessing to fit the theme. “We had to kind of create our own legend to more or less pull together the pilgrims’ ride over in The Mayflower to the thunderbird helping them find their way,” says Werne. The mix of feasting and lurching around also makes for strange bedfellows. “It’s funny that the most thrilling of our rides are located [in the same section] as our heaviest meals,” she says.
Other rides in the Thanksgiving land include a tilt-a-whirl in which the passenger buckets are shaped like turkeys, and a dark ride where guests round up neon turkeys with infrared “turkey callers.” There is also a swinging boat ride, called The Mayflower, that the Holiday World website admits is, “not exactly the Atlantic Ocean, but that pop of airtime will give a hint of what the Pilgrims experienced on their heroic voyage long ago.”
Surprisingly, Holiday World is closed from November through March, meaning it is shut on half of the holidays that it celebrates. This dissonance hasn’t gone unnoticed. “We catch a lot of heat,” says Werne. “‘Why aren’t you open at Christmas time?’”
Yet people seem to love the turkey-filled section of the park as much as the Halloween or Christmas sections, according to Werne. So, why don’t more amusement parks embrace a love of Thanksgiving?
According to Jim Futrell, historian at the National Amusement Park Historical Association, it’s all about business. “If you look at parks that are open year round, or through the end of the year, logistically, it’s just very difficult to do,” he says. “There really isn’t a whole lot of time to do anything specifically Thanksgiving-themed.”
Halloween and Christmas may be much more marketable holidays, but, as Holiday World proves, there is a demand out there for turkey-shaped tilt-a-whirls.