Christmas in Southern California is a funny thing. All the usual tropes of the holiday season just don’t apply—sleigh bells don’t ring, and no one dashes through the snow or walks in a winter wonderland. Sometimes, you can barely tell it even is winter, unless you go to the mountain ski resorts (and even then, you’re not guaranteed to see any real snow).
But that hasn’t kept Southern Californians from trying to create some Christmas magic. Case in point: Santa’s Village, a storybook-style pastel-hued Christmas theme park near Lake Arrowhead that opened just six weeks before Disneyland in 1955. Shuttered in 1998 after struggling to compete with neighboring rollercoasters and high-tech attractions, the park may yet be reopened—but fans of the original holiday wonderland aren’t holding their breath.
Even though a lumber operation used much of its open space as a staging area for a few years, most of the fantastical structures—The Good Witch’s Bakery, The Chapel of the Little Shepherd, Santa’s house—managed to remain standing. Still, the living ruin tended to attract the usual suspects: vandals and thieves.
As the park stood there abandoned, nostalgia for it began to grow. One day, somebody’s Christmas wish came true: in 2014, the logging operation sold the property—Santa and all—to an independent investor, who vowed to reopen Santa’s Village. There was just one catch: its new identity would be “SkyPark at Santa’s Village,” featuring ziplining and mountain bike trails and other activities that you’d never see at the North Pole.
This could be a dream come true for many—but how much of the original merriment would be preserved at Santa’s Village? Two years later, it’s still unclear. Santa’s Village still hasn’t reopened, and its new owner, Bill Johnson, is being mysteriously tight-lipped about it. In emails sent earlier this December, SkyPark at Santa’s Village announced, “We tried folks, we really tried to get the Park open this year.” After bumping the opening date from May 2015 to Summer 2015, now they are projecting Summer 2016.
So what is it about the original Santa’s Village that people want back? A visit to the Facebook fan page for the original Santa’s Village, created and run by local designers Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily, gives a glimpse into the magic of the mid-century theme park. Because they both grew up going to Santa’s Village, Kidney says they wanted to create a forum for people to share their memories and reminisce.
In addition to sharing memories, the admins for the Facebook page also get asked a number of oddball questions—including about the theme park’s famous “Pixie Dip”—a packet of seasonings from the Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen that you could stir into sour cream to make a dip (and various other recipes). “People are crazy about it,” Kidney says, “and constantly ask us if it’s still available somewhere.” (It’s not…yet.)
“The original park had such great design and a wonderful color palette,” said Kidney, who’s one half of the design team better-known as Kevin and Jody. They both worked as art directors for Disney, and they were designers for Disneyland for many years. “We’ve found so much inspiration from those miniature buildings, bridges, turrets, and candy canes. It had so much whimsy and charm….” he said, noting the collection of Santa’s Village memorabilia he’s amassed over the years, including View-Master 3D reels, a record album, a jigsaw puzzle, and a lot of postcards. “For years, we thought these things would be the only thing left of Santa’s Village that we could ‘return’ to.”
Despite all the suspicion and intrigue surrounding the new SkyPark at Santa’s Village, Kidney says he’s very excited about the possibilities, noting: “I don’t think any of us ever expected that even a portion of the park could be reopened.”
To those contemplating a trip to the site to check on its progress, SkyPark has advised via email that the place is “in ‘No Peeking’ mode and will remain so until opening day.” And they’re not just saying that—pop-culture historian Charles Phoenix, who has contributed to much of the online storytelling of the park’s days of yore, was denied access when he tried to visit unannounced on December 18.
Though information on the park’s reincarnation is scant, we do know that all of the original Santa’s Village stores and buildings remain on the property, as do some of the rides. New safety laws, however, will not permit the use of some of the old attractions in their original ways (like the bumblebee monorail). The rest of the rides were sold off years ago. Santa’s house has been restored, and Santa is promised to be at the park year-round. There will also be new characters introduced to the wonderland.
The longer that SkyPark at Santa’s Village keeps the details of its rejuvenation enshrouded in secrecy, the more that nostalgists are inclined to speculate. “People can only be excited about some new paint and a few piles of old rubble removed for so long before they start doubting, you know?” says Rick West, founder of the website ThemeParkAdventure.com, who has been following the Santa’s Village story closely. And he makes a bold prediction: “You’re in for a huge let-down,” he says, “If it does eventually re-open, it’s not going to be the theme park we all want back….I don’t see any Christmas miracles saving Santa’s Village at this point.”