The Bay Area’s Year-Round Bizarre Christmas Amusement Park: Santa’s Village

Once upon a time, the children of the Bay Area could visit the North Pole. Nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, there were real reindeer and hot cups of cocoa. And Santa Claus, of course, exuberant and full of mirth, supervising his workshop of animated elves. It was open three hundred and sixty-four days a year – closed, ironically, only at Christmas.

Generations of children have memories of Santa Claus Village, a short-lived chain of amusement parks that once billed itself, very seriously, as a competitor to Disneyland. It was such a collection of things so bizarre, so 1950s, that you have to see it to believe it (Luckily you can. But we’ll get to that later.)

Santa Claus Village was designed by Glenn Holland, a Californian real estate developer and Christmas enthusiast. Its first Santa Claus Village in San Bernardino County was cut just under the wire to open in late May 1955, beating the opening of Disneyland by a few months. It was an instant success and Holland signed a lease to open a second village in Scotts Valley. This was big news in the small mountain town, and the project was featured daily in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

A wave of fancy constructions has begun, costing $ 9,000 per week in labor and materials (that’s about $ 84,000 today). The village was the vision of Ellen Koger, who was described in newspaper coverage as a Southern California “housewife” despite being an artist by training and holding the title of artistic director of the Santa Claus village. Koger’s creations were straight out of a fairy tale: a “Welcome House” decorated with candy canes and poisonous polka-dot mushrooms, a life-size gingerbread house that sold fragrant fresh cookies, a restaurant called Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen which served such arctic staples like… burgers, steak sandwiches and hot dogs.

Cars lined up in the parking lot at Santa Claus Village in Scotts Valley.

Ken Stone / Santa Cruz Public Library

There were touches of whimsy everywhere. “All of a sudden the kids will stumble upon a lollipop tree,” the Sentinel wrote on opening weekend of 1957. “They won’t believe their eyes, but they can reach out and pull out the sweet and colorful suckers straight from the tree – and free. ” There was even a North Pole made of ice, which the Sentinel enthusiastically reported that “children can lick … as they please”. (Please email us if you licked the North Pole of Santa Claus Village and survived the experience.)

A Texan named Grady Carothers, the self-proclaimed “Reindeer King of America,” brought his herd of reindeer to the park, and a petting zoo offered baby burros to bottle-feed. In order to flesh out the interactions between the characters – Christmas doesn’t have many big names – a multitude of random characters roamed the park, including Alice in Wonderland, the Easter Bunny, Little Bo Peep and the Good Witch. , Jack Pumpkinhead and Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.

A guide map shows the attractions of Santa Claus Village.

A guide map shows the attractions of Santa Claus Village.

Ken Stone / Santa Cruz Public Library

“We try to make a visit to Santa Claus Village as a national convention of all the wonderful characters from childhood story books,” Koger said.

This convention was almost disrupted the day before the opening day. An employee parked his car at a hotel in Salinas and returned to his vehicle to find that someone had stolen almost all of the costumes in the back. “The police may not know who took their things,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “but you can bet your boots Santa knows.”

Santa's Village Gas Station, photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Public Libraries, Scotts Valley Branch.

Santa’s Village Gas Station, photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Public Libraries, Scotts Valley Branch.

Ken Stone / Santa Cruz Public Library

Fortunately, the backups were put together, and the motley team of characters were ready to welcome 8,000 guests, mostly children, on opening day. While the kids ran around the park, staff dressed as gnomes took care of crowd control and parking. Local publications praised the family-friendly amusement park for its “exceptional taste” and told parents that it was “almost impossible” for children to “break anything.”

The manic energy of Santa Claus Village was immortalized on film in a series of short films by K. Gordon Murray, a producer now known for setting off several clunkers that eventually became “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. The shorts, collectively called “Santa’s Enchanted Village,” were released in 1964 primarily as promotional material for the Santa’s Village chain, which then also had a park in Dundee, Illinois.

“Santa’s Enchanted Village” offers an invaluable look at the elaborate buildings and a mind-boggling glimpse into what passed for family entertainment in the early 1960s. The films have little intrigue other than watching characters wandering aimlessly through the parks (Low points include a soft-jawed wolf complaining loudly about his ulcer and the looping audio of a pained boy shouting “WONDERFUL!” and laughing hysterically at a puppet show.)


As promotional videos they flopped and, alas, Santa Claus Village hasn’t been long for this world. As Californians had more and more entertainment options, a year-round Christmas experience lost its luster. Financial problems hit the park in the 1970s, and by the end of the decade its new owners switched to a shopping center concept called “The Village”. Christmas colors have been repainted in soft tones and non-holiday stores have moved in. “When you have an amusement park that attracts kids ages two to eleven, you limit your marketing appeal,” vice president of operations Bill Witcher told The Sentinel in 1979. That year, the village general manager Father Christmas, who was 13 years old, resigned, citing a debt of $ 48,000 which weighed down the operations of the village.

Fred Cummings, a former head of maintenance at Santa's Village, seen at the Scotts Valley Amusement Park in December 1983.

Fred Cummings, a former head of maintenance at Santa’s Village, seen at the Scotts Valley Amusement Park in December 1983.

Jerry Telfer / Hearst Newspapers

The Village walked a few more years before software company Borland International purchased the site in 1990 for its new headquarters. The Merry Chalets have been demolished and almost all traces of Santa Claus Village have been removed. The office park is now called the Enterprise Technology Center and is currently leased by UC Santa Cruz.

Santa Claus Village has left an indelible mark on Scotts Valley, however: a road. The street that once brought cars full of horny children to Christmas wonderland is still called Santa’s Village Road today.

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