When it was first announced that the beloved old theme park in Skyforest had been bought by businessman/realtor Bill Johnson in 2014, fans everywhere became very excited; rightfully so. After closing its gates in 1998, the defunct Christmas-themed park sat abandoned and neglected for years, its wonderful old rides and whimsical buildings falling into a sad state of disrepair and ruin. Vandals left their mark on the closed park, as did the harsh seasons on the mountain just miles from Lake Arrowhead. Over the years, occasional interest was sparked by news of a potential buyer – but nothing ever came of it. When the property was purchased by Johnson, that was a huge step in the right direction, giving us all hope that the little theme park might be restored and returned to operation with a lot of love and a truckload of investment money. The price tag in 2014 for Santa’s Village was reported to be in the neighborhood of $5-6 million. When the 154-acre property was purchased, we cautioned strongly beginning with our May 15, 2014 story about the park possibly re-opening that it would require a lot more than that to get the property back up to modern codes, rebuild its infrastructure, add new attractions, and hire a year-round team, along with seasonal employees.
Since May of 2014, Johnson has had to wade through a sea of red tape with the county as costs have continued to rise. Several attempts have been made to open the park, and each time, the big event has been pushed for one reason or another.
During the very slow renovation of the property, Johnson and his team have released videos and blog updates, giving us all a glimpse into the ideas he has for the park. We’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years cautioning that what has been re-branded as Skypark at Santa’s Village is not what we all grew up with. Skypark at Santa’s Village is what’s called an outdoor adventure park – one that features “attractions” such as zip lines, ropes courses, biking trails, and rock wall climbs. Bill Johnson has been very straightforward about this since very early on. Sadly, the majority of the population only hears, “Santa’s Village” and gets instantly swept up in the joyous nostalgia of their youth, when the park was alive with themed flat rides, the Bumble Bee Monorail, Alice in Wonderland walk-through attraction, bobsled roller coaster, and a bunch of kooky walk-around characters. Skypark at Santa’s Village is not that. Johnson has made that very clear for years now. There won’t even be reindeer, and Santa – he’ll probably be seasonal.
The long-term vision for Skypark at Santa’s Village is just what we’ve explained in the past, and just what Bill Johnson has said himself time and again; see the video below.
In all honesty, I have had major doubts about Santa’s Village – or simply Skypark – ever opening, considering all of the setbacks Johnson and his team have suffered since purchasing the property. It’s my understanding that there are still issues in play and interest groups on the mountain that could ultimately get Santa’s Village shuttered again once and for all. If there’s ever been a great on-going themed entertainment drama, it’s the tale of Santa’s Village here in California.
Just when I was giving up all hope of the park re-opening in 2016, tickets have gone on sale. While there’s not been any major announcement as of the writing of this story, we’ve pegged the opening date of Santa’s Village to be December 2, 2016; that is the first date that you can buy tickets for, so unless there’s something wonky with their online ticketing program, it looks like December 2 is the big day.
While it’s certainly another huge step for the Skypark team, I can’t help but take notice of even more red flags. I don’t want to be a major downer or sound like a bad guy here – we never want to see any themed entertainment endeavor fail. Skypark at Santa’s Village has some major challenges ahead, in our opinion.
The biggest hiccup we see immediately is the price point to get in to Skypark at Santa’s Village. Guests 4 – 12 are $49. Guests 13 – 59 are $59. Seniors 60+ are $49. It is unclear if Santa’s Village parking will be free or an additional fee. In fact, there are a lot of things that are unclear at this point. We know that there will be a rock wall climbing attraction. We know there is supposed to be live entertainment. We know that the gift shops and Santa’s house have been rebuilt/refurbished. We also know that the Good Witch’s Bakery has been renamed/rebranded as The Gingerbread House. And, we know that there is an ice skating rink.
What we don’t know yet, is what kind of up-charge fees will be associated with these “attractions” when the park re-opens on December 2. Word is, people can bring their own ice skates for the rink – but really, who in Southern California has a pair of ice skates lying around? Rock wall attractions almost always have fees associated with them – but for the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that Santa’s Village throws that one in for free because we’ve all be good boys and girls this year. That’s still about $60 a pop to get into the park and at the very least, sit and watch people scale a rock wall or ice skate. We’ll assume that meeting Santa is free – and we’ll assume then that buying a photo of said meeting is also going to cost. There is supposed to be a restaurant and several food and beverage options at Santa’s Village, including likely beer and wine sales; those will certainly cost you as well.
We have been promised a lot of live entertainment – singers, characters, and everything else that makes the season bright. But honestly, can’t you get a lot of that at nearby Arrowhead Village for free, or elsewhere around Southern California this time of year at other theme parks? So I’m still stuck at the $60 gate price to come in, say hello to Santa Claus (there are no reindeer – this is a progressive Santa with a dog, instead), check out a couple shops, buy some food, and watch folks ice skate while strolling carolers sing Christmas songs. I’m not seeing where the value is here. If you’re a mom and pop taking two kids and a grandparent (because grandpa and grandma have fond memories of taking your folks to Santa’s Village when they were young), you’re already at almost $300 – and you haven’t even bought snacks yet!
I swear to you, I am not trying to sound like the Grinch here. I simply don’t want to see history repeat itself. What history, you ask? The fact that Santa’s Village closed in the late ’90s because no one was coming anymore; it couldn’t compete with nearby Orange County and its world-class parks, nor was there anything driving the locals to support the park any longer. I’m sincerely concerned that Bill Johnson and his team are setting themselves – and more importantly, Santa’s Village – up for its second failure in a big way. Santa’s Village now shares the market once again with SoCal’s other theme parks – all of which, including the Queen Mary (which is an attraction more than a “theme park”) all feature major holiday events and overlays that will go head-to-head with Santa’s Village for peoples’ holiday dollars. When you can buy a 2017 Season Pass to Knott’s Berry Farm for $90, or a single day ticket for $50, which includes all of the Knott’s Berry Farm holiday offerings – you see where I’m going with this, so there’s no need to beat this particular drum any longer. I don’t see a huge value in return for my $60 gate charge at Santa’s Village.
You may be familiar with Marty Sklar. Marty is an industry legend, notable for his involvement with Disney beginning in 1955 when he was hired by Walt and his team. Through the years, Marty rose through the ranks, eventually becoming President of Walt Disney Imagineering. During his career with Disney, he has been actively involved in the development with every Disney theme park to date, with the exception of Shanghai Disneyland – although you can bet more than a few Imagineers certainly sought his advice during the design process these past several years. It’s safe to say, Marty’s been around and knows enough to make some intelligent calls when it comes to the operation of a park.
Where are we going with this, since Santa’s Village is definitely not a Disney theme park? Marty is known for a list of design rules – often referred to as Mickey’s Ten Commandments. While all 10 rules of development are extremely important, I’m going to cut to the chase and go right to #1, which quite simply is, “Know your audience.”
Know your audience. That’s a big one, isn’t it? That’s the big one, actually. And in the case of Santa’s Village, I’m honestly not too sure that the team there does know their audience. The people who are excited about the return and re-opening of this park are adults who grew up with it, and their folks who remember taking them in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Other than sitting around or walking through a gift shop or two, there’s really not much for older folks to do. And not many parents are likely going to be terribly excited by the prospect of rock wall climbing. Ice skating with their kids? Sure. That’s a given. But that’s not unique or special – and Santa’s Village should be. I circle back to the price point. $60 is a lot to ask for of folks who are going to likely spend most of their time wishing there was more to do, or leaving after an hour because they’ve seen everything and are feeling swindled out of their hard-earned cash. I don’t have an exact break-down of the demographics of residents living on the mountain; there are certainly some very wealthy folks living in the neighboring communities of Arrowhead, Running Springs and Big Bear. Most residents however, are average folks with mid-to-lower income. Skyforest isn’t Newport Beach or Beverly Hills, where the demo is much different and people don’t think twice about dropping $50 or $60 on a bit of entertainment.
Santa’s Village needs to appeal to and pull return business from locals. No one is going to return if they drop $60 and walk away vastly underwhelmed or disappointed. There aren’t going to be any second chances with this, folks. It’s GO time, and I am extremely worried that the Santa’s Village team have grossly miscalculated their gate worth and price point. At $19.99, I could see the park being packed with people looking for a fun afternoon or night out celebrating the holidays; up-charges like ice skates wouldn’t cause a second thought, because it’s still a good value. I’d drop Senior pricing down to the $15.99 range, because grandma and grandpa will want to join in the fun the best they can. But $60? With all due respect, I simply don’t see or get it. And believe me, I’m trying. I’m trying really hard here, because I know so many people are excited. Santa’s Village should be the best value for entertainment on the mountain – it should be a no-brainer, priced low enough that families will come back again and again to simply chill and have a great time together.
The last bit of reality here is that Santa’s Village, the best I can understand it, is opening with a temporary operation permit. The permanent re-opening of the park isn’t even a done deal yet – which is even more concerning if the attendance and/or reviews over the next few weeks are poor or even lukewarm. Santa’s Village really needs to be a hit at this point – there is a lot riding on it, from Bill Johnson’s financial and personal investment, to the residents who’ve signed on to be team members and really need these jobs. I just am having a hard time seeing how, at this point, Santa’s Village can or will be successful. Besides a few buildings, most of the nostalgia has been swept away (why would they change the name of the Good Witch’s Bakery, which was an iconic landmark for decades?), and just about everything fun and charming about the park has been replaced or removed.
Santa’s Village is in desperate need of a Christmas miracle in the worst way if we’re ever going to get to see the next phase of Johnson’s vision realized. To come all this way to see it all melt through their fingers – would truly suck.
We’re sincerely rooting for Santa’s Village. I don’t have much hope for it, unfortunately. It does not appear to me that they know their audience. I don’t think they know who their target even is at this point. And while I could be very wrong – I don’t pretend to know everything – in design terms, there just doesn’t seem to be any there there. A rock wall, skating rink and generic “mall train” do not return Santa’s Village to the place of childhood wonder and enchantment that it once was.
Fingers crossed here, Mr. Johnson. Please prove us wrong.
- Rick West