Reopened Santa's Village feeds nostalgia

Santa's Village Azoosment Park

Aricelia Mendez, 6, of Rockford, waves to her Aunt while riding the Roto Whip ride at Santa's Village Azoosement Park in East Dundee. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune / August 14, 2012)

But in the new millennium, Turlow's 44 park visits included only two Christmas-themed parks, the East Dundee attraction and Santa's Workshop/North Pole, at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado. A third still operating is an unrelated business also called Santa's Village, in New Hampshire's White Mountains, dating to 1953.

Vintage amusement parks retain such a powerful hold on people, she says, “because you have a lot of your firsts at an amusement park. First dates are quite often at amusement parks. You remember the first time you rode a particular ride, how scared you were, and then you tackled it,. you know? In some ways, it's like little microcosms for life.”

What she learned in her park-themed journeys is “that these places are amazing bits of often mid-century history that shouldn't just be razed and forgotten, that it really takes some amazing people to run the parks,” she says.

While Wenz does his Christmas-in-July duties, Turlow, Sierpien and general manager Don Holliman — also rehired from among longtime staff — walk around and talk about the provenance of rides, plans for the future and whether they'll be able to open the shuttered water park, another late Santa's Village addition, its tubes and sluiceways still visible in the valley to the immediate east.

“This year, it would have been fantastic,” says Holliman, referring to the heat that lures people to water parks and had kept attendance down at the amusement park.

The new Santa's Village exists on, roughly, the footprint of the original, founded by California developer Glenn Holland in 1959 because he thought the Chicago area was the right place to expand from his two Santa's Villages in California (both closed).

“The park today is geared more to 2- to 10-year-olds, like it was in the very early days,” Wenz says. “From 1959 through about '66 to '70 was always for the smaller kids. In the '70s they kind of put in bigger rides and it became more of a rounded family park. By the mid-'80s to '90s they put even bigger rides out here, like some roller coasters. It kind of changed the demographics a bit.

“Today it's back to its original roots, with the buggy brigade: the moms, the dads, the grandmas, the grandpas and the smaller children. Also the landscaping is either the best or second-best it's ever been,” going back to the very earliest days, he says.

The older-kid, Coney Island section of the park has now been incorporated into the Paintball Explosion side of the property with a kind of grace that belies such battlefield names as “Biohazard” and “Mutiny.” Original signage — “Santa's Slide,” “Dundee Bomb Pop” — decorates the paintball fields. The old bumper car building is used for cover, as are a lot of the structures from Arcade Alley, the games of chance. An old plane that kids would sit in on a ride is plugged, nose-down, into the ground.

“That elf is original,” adds Journey Kerchner, Paintball Explosion's general manager, who claims the business is gaining a reputation as one of the top paintball venues in the U.S. “It's every paintballer's dream to play in developed properties.”

Dearman, who grew up in Elgin and now is a reporter in Wisconsin, says he wrote his book because of the immediate and interesting response to a Facebook posting he put up about having worked at Santa's Village as a teen.

“I started contacting other people, interviewing them,” he says, and he eventually fashioned the book as an oral history. He won't say how many copies he's sold (Amazon and santasvillagegonewild.com), but he was able to live for a year off the proceeds, he says.

“The reaction was fantastic. Some people were scared off by the title: ‘You're gonna be ruining my childhood,'” they'd tell him. “The ‘Gone Wild' part does scare some people off, but it's basically a love letter to the park.”

In addition to tales of employee theft, romance and intoxication, “it's got the nostalgia and the feel-good stuff too,” Dearman says.

“These local parks, it's not like Great America, these big huge things that can be overwhelming,” he adds. “My mom worked at Santa's Village when she was a kid, and she took me there every year. When you get older you just yearn for those nice memories from when you were young.”

Back in Santa's Village, Star Jets, a longstanding ride that didn't sell at the auction, has just gotten new paint this year, and it looks almost new. The other original rides are Kringle's Convoy, a mini-train made of cars done up like the cabs of semis, and the firetruck, which tours visitors around the grounds.

“The nostalgia was obvious from the beginning,” says Sierpien, 36, who grew up in Carpentersville and remembers visiting both Santa's Village and Kiddieland as a child. “But a lot of those buildings were built in 1958. It's not easy. It's a constant battle.”

He points to one modestly sized building. “That's one of the tiniest roofs here,” he says, “and that was 20 gallons of paint. “It's kept us really, really — maybe a little too — busy.”

Now the battle is to get the word out, let people know that there's still a park like this in the area that people can visit for less than $20 at the gate.

At the Kiddieland auction, Sierpien bought the Kiddie Whip and the Midge-o-Racers, boosting his park's offerings and hoping to lure devotees of that place to his, about 30 miles to the northwest.

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