The Story of Santa’s Village
Santa’s Village was born of a man, who as a child had no real Christmas. Glenn Holland grew up in California during the Great Depression. His parents died by the time he was 18 years old, leaving him to care for his younger sister. As a grown man Holland married and had children. As a father he tried to give his own children the type of Christmas that he only knew in his dreams.
In the early 1950s, struck with inspiration, Holland sat at his kitchen table one day and started to sketch his idea of a Christmas fairyland where all the magic of the Holiday would come to life. Holland developed this idea into a working plan and began finding investors for his project. He traveled the country selling his “Santa’s Village” concept and eventually listed his new company, Santa’s Village Corporation, on the California Stock Exchange.
The first Santa’s Village opened in 1955, six weeks before Disneyland, in Skyforest near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, California. (Closed 1998) A second Santa’s Village opened in 1957 near Scotts Valley in Santa Cruz County, California. (Closed 1979)
With the success of the first and second Santa’s Villages, Holland began scouting a third location in the Midwest. The Chicago area, home to two World’s Fairs, birthplace of the Ferris Wheel, and a center of entertainment and culture was picked as the spot. A suburban location approximately 45 miles northwest of the city was chosen.
Dundee, Illinois was a tiny little town with some local attractions and a few good restaurants. The community was surrounded by cornfields and a huge forest wildlife foundation area. The newly completed Northwest Tollway connected the small suburb to Chicago to the east and Rockford, Illinois to the west.
In April 1958, Holland entered a 50-year land lease on 40 wooded acres of McGraw’s Wildlife Foundation with Chicago businessman Edwin Eichier. The property, located on State Routes 25 and 72, was similar to the settings of Holland’s two California endeavors. In September ground was broken; the third Santa’s Village was born.
Santa’s Village Corporation and general contractor Putnam Henck built Santa’s Village Dundee, Illinois, in nine months at the cost of one million dollars. The Dundee park officially opened on Memorial Day Weekend in 1959 to large crowds. On hand to greet these visitors of all ages was Santa, Mrs. Claus, and numerous helpers dressed as pixies and elves. These pixies and elves operated rides, worked in shops, and served food to the public. Santa had a petting zoo with sheep, ducks, goats, and Penny Peck, the educated chicken. Children could ride a Mexican burro or in a sleigh pulled by real live reindeer from Unalakeet, Alaska. Other rides included a giant whirling Christmas Tree, gasoline-powered tractors, and the Tree House Slide. Children could see a puppet show at the Wee Puppet Theatre, a giant Jack-in-the-Box, and brightly-colored mushrooms dotted the landscape.
There was also Santa’s Post Office, Reindeer Barn, and a Gingerbread House. Mrs. Claus made fresh candy daily in her Candy Kitchen. The Pixie Pantry served hotdogs, hamburgers, fries, and sodas. Santa’s Toy Factory was also here by the magic pond. Wishing wells, toy soldiers, and outdoor displays could be seen. Music flowed from treetop speakers. There was even an egg-shaped hut for the Easter Bunny.
As you looked around the Village, you could see over a dozen log buildings, stores, and attractions. These buildings had pointed roofs strengthened by rafters. These log structures were brightly colored and had wonderful detail like gingerbread trim and surrealist features. They fit into the beautiful trees that are part of the Fox Valley region.
Santa’s Village in the first few seasons was open 364 days a year. The layout of the “Village” stayed pretty much the same until an extensive expansion program, which began in early 1962, started to change the makeup of the park.
Arrow Development of California was contracted by Santa’s Village Corporation to develop some new attractions for the park. Arrow was best known at the time as the company that built the Disneyland rides in Anaheim, California. The first major change came in the removal of the wishing well in the front of the park next to the Entrance House. Ground was broken in the spring of 1961 for the Dundee Village’s most enduring attraction…The Snowball Ride. Advertised as the original Snowball Ride it was one of two Snowball Rides built. That same year the Scotts Valley’s Santa’s Village in northern California also had one installed.
The expansion also included the redevelopment of the Magic Train, which was relocated deeper into the forest setting of Santa’s Village. A brand new C.P. Huntington engine was added along with an extension of the tracks. The new layout actually looped in and out of the parking lot. The Antique Car Ride was installed in the space vacated by the Magic Train.
The year 1962 saw the start of the biggest development in Santa’s Village’s history, The Polar Dome Ice Arena. The Polar Dome project was a major undertaking for Santa’s Village Corporation. Part of the park’s original layout had to be moved to make room for the 40,000-square foot ice arena. The first relocation was that of North Pole Plaza and Santa’s House. They were moved into an empty space near the newly added Snowball Ride. Originally these two attractions sat near where center ice of the dome is today. They also relocated the Toy Soldier (Duck Pond) and the Jack-in-the-Box Snow Cone Stand. The Polar Dome project took a little more than a year to complete at the cost of $350,000; a very tidy sum in the early 1960s.
The dome opened in February 1963 to national reviews. The original Polar Dome Ice Arena design sat 4,000 people and was the largest air-supported dome stadium in the world according to Guinness World Book of Records. Top name acts appeared in the dome such as the International Showtime Circus with Don Ameche. Magician Mark Wilson’s Magic Land of Allakazam was presented and filmed in the dome for national audiences. Major sports like the National Olympic Speed Skating Competition (videotaped for ABC’s Wide World of Sports), and the Chicago Black Hawks practice sessions and exhibition games were held. Numerous ice skating revues, hockey leagues, wrestling matches, concerts, and roller derby events filled out the entertainment.
Santa’s Village was also a big hit in the movies. Between 1964 and 1966 three movie “shorts” were shot on location in the park by Florida based producer K. Gordon Murray. (1964’s Santa Claus and his Helpers, 1966’s Santa’s Magic Kingdom, and 1966’s Santa’s Enchanted Village.) The featuretts used the park’s employees and characters in the cast, as well as some of the Village’s more noticeable props. These one-reel movies have not only been seen in the United States, but in Great Britain, France, and Mexico.
With all the expansion that Santa’s Village Corporation was having in Illinois, Holland miscalculated the park’s operating season. The two California Santa’s Villages could operate 364 days a year. The Dundee park started out that way, but the Chicago area weather was so unbearable and unpredictable during the winter months that attendance was low. Santa’s Village in Dundee was being put in the odd position of being closed at Christmas. Financial problems ensued.
The year 1965 saw the end of Santa’s Village Corporation in Illinois. Glenn Holland sold the park and its Illinois assets to Adventureland owner Durell Everding, closing the chapter on the original owner of Santa’s Village in Dundee, Illinois.
During the Everding era, Santa’s Village continued to adapt and grow. The facility could operate year-round but not simultaneously. Santa’s Village would now open on Mother’s Day in May and close the last weekend of October. The Polar Dome Ice Arena would open in September and close in April.
Everding also had a plan of adding new rides that would attract older children, thus making the park a total family experience. It worked.
Sadly the “heydays” of the Polar Dome ended when a storm raced through the Dundee area in 1966 tearing open the skin of the inflatable dome and laying it across the inside of Santa’s Village. The dome went through a major overhaul and remodeling. A flat roof was added a year later.
In early-1970 saw the passing of Durell Everding and a group of gentlemen known as the Medina Investors purchased the park. Barney Clark, the principal of the group kept the park in the same direction as that of Everding. To help “sell” this new and improved version of the park, the name was changed to the Worlds of Fun Theme Park.
The “Three Worlds” were Santa’s World, the original area of the park, Old McDonald’s Farm, which replaced the reindeer barn area, and the Coney Island section of larger rides and games of skill. The name “Three Worlds of Fun” never really caught on. Plus, another theme park in Kansas City, Missouri had a similar name. To avoid the confusion, management added Santa’s Village to the name again, thus becoming The Three Worlds of Santa’s Village.
The tenure of the Medina Investors was relatively short, as in 1978 the park was once again on the market for sale.
The year of 1978 saw two McHenry county business men take over the park. The North Pole Corporation had some new and bold ideas. They added a water and action park, Racing Rapids. The water park was one the first in the Midwest and the State of Illinois’ largest when it opened in 1983.
The late 1980s into the early 1990s saw new growth in record attendance and in adding new and exciting attractions. Rides like the Galaxy Roller Coaster, the Balloon Race, and the YO-YO were opened. Outdoor shows and new eating facilities dotted the park’s landscape.
The late 1990s saw the addition of the park’s first looping coaster, the Typhoon. In 2003 the name of the park was shortened from The Three Worlds of Santa’s Village back to Santa’s Village Theme Park. Under the management of North Pole Corporation, the park headed into the 21st century and into a mile stone.
May of 2004 saw Santa’s Village hit 45 years of Family Fun. Very few theme parks achieve this mile stone, and thus becoming a park of five generations of visitors. Santa’s Village provides a way for children to experience some of the same attractions that their parents experienced as children.
At the close of the 2004 season, Sterling Bay Companies, a Chicago based real estate development firm, purchased the land on which Santa’s Village sits. Rumors were spreading that Santa’s Village would not reopen. On Mother’s Day 2005 the park opened as usual. It would become Santa’s Village’s 46th and last season.
2005 also saw a group of Dundee businessmen calling themselves North Pole Village, L.L.C. approaching North Pole Corporation to buy the assets of Santa’s Village along with the land that the park sits upon. The land lease held by North Pole Corporation was set to expire in March 2008. If this deal was successful North Pole Village, L.L.C. would have put Santa’s Village assets and land together for the first time in history. In June 2006 the deal was in default.
In August 2006 judgments against both North Pole Corporation and North Pole Village, L.L.C. was handed down by the Kane County circuit court. Both companies were evicted from the park property. Longtime owner North Pole Corporation held an October 2006 auction of the non-fixed assets. The infrastructure stayed in place. Sterling Bay Companies kept their options open as to the future of Santa’s Village. In January 2007 the property was listed for sale and was closed to the public.
Many attempts to reopen Santa’s Village were tried by numerous people and businesses in the few years that followed. There was even talk of moving parts of Santa’s Village to a downstate location in Utica, Illinois. For a short time, the property was used for flea markets and the Polar Dome for indoor soccer. But the true rebirth of Santa’s Village was just around the corner.
As a teenager, Jason Sierpien of Marengo worked at Santa’s Village in early 1990s. His experience at the park working in the barn area with the animals would lead him to form his own animal based business, A Zoo To You. Along with his wife Amy, the Sierpien’s contracted the animals for the last two seasons the park would be open. In 2010, needing more space, they contracted with property owner to lease space at Santa’s Village.
At the same time, part of the property was being developed as a paintball facility that would become known as Paintball Explosion. This left the main section of the property, where most of the buildings stood, available for a new concept in family entertainment; The Amusement Park.
Sierpien combined his petting zoo with rides, added educational animal shows, and started to rebuild the park. To help bring all the intangibles together, he brought back some key management employees and interjected some new staff to bring freshness to the project. By the fall of 2010, Santa’s Village Amusement Park was ready to open.
The positive feedback to the reopening of the park in the abbreviated first season was outstanding. The following three seasons Santa’s Village Amusement Park continued to grow and added more attractions. The park is keeping with some of its historical roots for the nostalgic and adding bigger rides for the new generation of visitors.
Did You Know?
Park creator, Glenn Holland, insisted that theme presentation was important. Numerous static displays were in the park. Buildings and grounds were decorated with elaborate details. Even money never exchanged hands as a small passport ticket was used to keep track of the guest’s expenses. The passport would be checked out at the end of the visit in the exit shop. Children’s belief in the myth was paramount.
Holland also created his own line of branded products. Storybooks, puzzles, and coloring books could be bought at the park as well as in stores throughout the region. The Santa’s Village candies were sold via mail order.
The mushrooms and toadstools? Holland wanted his visitors experience so complete that these brightly colored concrete creations dotted the landscape. Why? In Norwegian legend, the Vindicans (little people) who were craftsmen lived in the toadstools and mushroom. Pixies and Elves along with Gnomes are a direct relative to the Vindican. Holland gave all of Santa’s helpers a place to live in the “Village.”
Santa’s Village Facts
Glenn Holland was a developer from Crestline, California who established three Santa’s Village theme parks. Born in 1918, Holland grew up during the Great Depression. His parents died by his eighteenth birthday, leaving him to care for his younger sister. As an adult, Holland wanted to give his children and other children the type of Christmas he only knew in his dreams.
As the creative force behind the world’s first chain of theme parks, Holland was inspired to create a Santa Claus type fantasy land not only by his lack of a Christmas as a child, but the new roadside attractions being built in other parts of the country. Santa’s Village was by no means the first of its’ kind, but to fully understand Santa’s Village one must start at the beginning of the themed attraction concept.
Years before Walt Disney, a sleepy little town in southern Indiana called Santa Claus, a post office, a Sunday morning comic and an entrepreneur sparked an industry. Santa Claus Town Park was the vision of Vincennes, Indiana entrepreneur Milton Harris, who saw the potential of Santa Claus, Indiana’s unique name after its post office had been featured in Robert Ripley’s famous “Believe It or Not” cartoon. Harris leased almost all the land in and around the town and secured sponsorships from leading national toy manufacturers. Santa Claus Town was officially launched with the dedication of Santa’s Candy Castle in 1935, and would quickly be expanded with the addition of the Toy Village and Santa’s Workshop. Santa Claus Town would serve as a strong influence for other Santa Claus-themed attractions that would later appear throughout the United States from New York to California.
Holland developed his Santa’s Village concept after reading a Saturday Evening Post story about a similar project called North Pole in New York State. In early 1953, struck with inspiration, Holland sat at his kitchen table one day and started to sketch his idea of a Christmas fairyland filled with enormous candy canes, animals and gingerbread houses where all the magic of the holiday would come to life.
Holland, who later became a real estate and amusement consultant, died in 2002 at the age 84.
All words, contents, images, and descriptions of Santa’s Village History and Memories are copyrighted under an attachment with Arcadia Publishing 2007-2017 by Phillip L. Wenz. ISBN#978-0-7385-4149-5 and LCCC#2007925452 – All rights reserved.