In May when we posted a story regarding the purchase and planned re-opening of Santa’s Village in the Lake Arrowhead area of the San Bernardino Mountains, we never in a million years would have guessed that it would immediately attract hundreds of thousands of readers to the site, let alone go on to become our single most popular story ever since Theme Park Adventure has been online. It did, however, demonstrating the love and enthusiastic nostalgia people everywhere have for the long-closed little theme park here in Southern California.
To review, in spring of 2014, it was announced that 154 acres of land in Skyforest had been purchased for upward of $6 million by local businessman/realtor Bill Johnson; either in a solo effort, or with silent partners, Mr. Johnson had bought Santa’s Village, a shuttered theme park that had operated near Lake Arrowhead from 1955 to 1998. Soon after the purchase went through, Mr. Johnson went public with news that the theme park would be re-designed and re-opened by Mother’s Day 2015 – a highly-ambitious timeline, given the current state of the property and the fact that Santa’s Village was no longer zoned as an operating attraction. Yet, enthusiasm drowned out doubt for the time being, and TPA just like everyone else, was really excited to see an icon from our childhood come back to life – something that doesn’t happen very often in the theme park world.
In the half year that has followed that initial announcement, we’ve seen progress surrounding Santa’s Village slow to a crawl, and along the way, some serious questions have been raised, including the most important – just what the vision for a new Santa’s Village truly is.
The first indication came very shortly after the park’s purchase was confirmed by way of a YouTube video posted by owner Bill Johnson. Instantly, our enthusiasm was dampened by the apparent re-branding of the property as Skypark at Santa’s Village. What the heck is a Skypark, we wondered. As we watched the video, Mr. Johnson explained it in his own words: “Well, it’s mountain biking, hiking, climbing, fly fishing, camping, rides, zip lines; pretty much all adventure-sction sports.” In other words, it seemed apparent to us right away that there was no solid vision at that point, and if there was, it certainly did not focus on the theme park in the same way most everyone wants it to.
Johnson did revisit the theme park question in the same video by saying, “As you know, it’s also Santa’s Village as you remember it. Most of the buildings in the background as you can see, are in pretty good condition. We’re busy cleaning up the park. There’s a lot of restoration work to do.”
We immediately reached out to Mr. Johnson, saying how much the park meant to so many people from their childhoods. Additionally, I offered him my support and assistance as a creative director/show writer in the themed entertainment industry; as far as I knew at the time – and still believe – the team behind the renovation of Santa’s Village has not tapped any local design firms or creatives to assist in the re-imagining of the theme park portion of the property. I wasn’t alone – numerous professionals from all over the country have reached out, offering their services to Mr. Johnson. No one I know in the business is working on Santa’s Village – so my guess is like with us, those offers have gone unanswered or accepted. I’d love to be completely wrong; but we’ve not heard anything that indicates creative work is being done, or has been engaged seriously thus far.
Re-branding the property to Skypark at Santa’s Village also set off red flags in our minds. Why wouldn’t the new owner simply continue to call it Santa’s Village? In his own words, Mr. Johnson indicated that a large chunk of the newly-purchased land would become what is known in the industry as an “adventure park”. Adventure parks around the world are focused on physical activities, from biking/running trails to zip lines and ropes courses. They are the cheapest type of “amusement park” component an operator can invest in, and they don’t usually come with a whole lot of creative theming – the environment does that on its own, as most adventure parks are in mountainous, rugged locations. The problem we have with a large-scale adventure park at Santa’s Village, is that the entire mountain is one big natural adventure park of sorts – visitors and locals from all over Southern California head up the hill to play in snow, go skiing, fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. Why would anyone necessarily want that at Santa’s Village? Sure, some cool zip line and physical elements/attractions could definitely be incorporated into the Santa’s Village experience – but I really don’t think that’s what Mr. Johnson is saying when he’s talking about the future of Skypark at Santa’s Village. And for this fan at least, that’s enough to be very disconcerting. We want an endearing, enchanting theme park back – not a generic, wilderness sports park.
The demographic appeal of an outdoor adventure park is extremely narrow. Your audience over 40 drops off sharply, as do young families with small children. Forget grandparents or other elderly visitors. Nor will you attract many foreign or out-of-state visitors vacationing in Southern California. When your operation is going to depend completely on mass appeal from the Inland Empire, Orange and Los Angeles counties and beyond, creating a destination that is primarily focused on strenuous physical activities such as mountain biking, zip lining, and ropes courses is a gamble I’d personally never take or bet on as a designer.
For the past half year, we’ve heard countless people reminisce about the Santa’s Village that they grew up with, and how badly they want to bring their children and grandchildren to, should it re-open. Go through the comments on our May 2014 Santa’s Village story – you’ll see what people want and are expecting for yourself. I sincerely worry that if the focus of Santa’s Village isn’t re-imagining the theme park with all of its charm and whimsy, Mr. Johnson has already set himself up for a huge, very unfortunate failure with this venture.
Since posting that first YouTube video in May, we’ve seen a Skypark at Santa’s Village Facebook page come online (with just over 7,200 “likes” at the time of this posting) along with an official Twitter account (with a total of 12 tweets and 40 followers at the time of this posting). Other than a few promising images of newly-repainted buildings and a new coat of paint on the property’s large candy cane icon in front of its entrance, only a few vague “we’re working hard” messages have come across social media as people hold their breath.
On September 10, 2014, a DBA was filed and subsequently published in the Mountain News in October that outlines the name of the Nevada-based entity operating the property as Skypark at Santa’s Village. It’s been stated by media and other individuals that the project has been mired in paperwork and zoning issues since the land was purchased – something that Mr. Johnson and his team should have expected and counted on both legally and financially. The filing of the DBA paperwork however, is at least a baby step in the right direction.
The most recent public glimpse of Santa’s Village has come by way of a poppy teen holiday music video by performer Mack Z for her song “Christmas All Year Long”. The video was shot in part on location at Santa’s Village, although we never see more than close-up shots of a couple of the park’s existing structures, including what appear to be the Good Witch’s Bakery, Santa’s House, and possibly the tunnel where Santa’s giant sleigh ride vehicle was stored; it could also be the left-over carousel building – it’s very hard to tell. The structures all appear to have been re-painted, although by viewing the video alone, it’s impossible to tell how well, or if they were just touched up for the shoot. One of the buildings in the video appears to be Santa’s House, sporting a new paint job of very dark browns and bordeaux colors; if this is, in fact, the same building, much of its gingerbread trim and all of its bright, pastel highlights are gone. That would be a shame, as it’s a drastic and low-key departure from the original look and feel of Santa’s Village.
People that have recently been by the property report that many of the buildings have been re-painted and that even the large candy cane standing as the park’s entry icon is sporting a new coat of paint; that’s obviously very encouraging, although it doesn’t get to the serious issues at hand regarding the timeline in which Mr. Johnson says they’re maintaining for a mid-2015 opening.
If Santa’s Village is to return to its former glory (and beyond – because let’s face it, it’ll need to be better than the 1998 version of the park that closed due to lack of interest), there is a lot of creative and then physical work that needs to be done at the property, probably to the tune of $20-30+ million dollars to do it right. That may sound like a lot of money, but in the world of themed entertainment, that kind of price tag for an entire 154-acre park to be re-developed is palm-sweat-inducing. Here’s a layman’s breakdown of what needs to happen if we’re to see Santa’s Village truly re-imagined and opened:
A creative team needs to be formed. This includes everything from writers to artists, area development professionals and technical folks. Rides, shops, food locations, winding walkways, shows, and placemaking have to be taken from concept into development to the point where a construction firm can make it happen in the field. This is of course, after ride vendor companies have been contracted and special rides – such as the Dumbo-style giant Christmas tree with ornaments that guests sit in and make go up and down – need to be secured and paid for. Much of the work will likely be custom, as there aren’t many Christmas-themed rides in existence anywhere. That will cost extra for Mr. Johnson and his team, but will be necessary to maintain the theme of Santa’s Village. Most ride vendors have busy schedules – Santa’s Village might very well encounter a 6 or more month waiting list before said companies can even begin to work on their customized attractions. The attractions that do still exist on the mountain – I think the Bumble Bee Monorail may be the only truly standing large attraction left – will likely need to be removed completely, which is also a huge cost; there’s very little chance that the monorail ride is either able to operate or is safe to operate after almost two decades of sitting there in the elements. Even if the monorail was operational, it certainly is not up to today’s strict ADA and safety codes and would need a complete overhaul to meet those standards.
Most people don’t understand the kind of money we’re talking about when it comes to ride design and construction. A “simple” dark ride can cost easily $5-10 million. Attractions on the scale of Disney or Universal (which wouldn’t ever happen or be necessary in the case of Santa’s Village) can easily run $150 million and higher. Bringing it down to Santa’s Village level of attraction needs, a Huff-N-Puff (small hand car toddler-powered vehicles on a small track) such as the one found in Camp Snoopy at Knott’s Berry Farm will run you about $30,000, give or take a few thousand bucks. A small train like Santa’s Village had operating during its heyday will now run you at least $250,000.00 to $350,000.00 for track and site work, along with the scenic and thematic elements that would go along with it. That train, by the way, is alive and well at the Santa Ana Zoo in Orange County! Throw in more rides, and it adds up very quickly. We’re not talking chump change when discussing theme park design.
Likely all of the infrastructure at the property will need to be completely re-done to code, from electrical to sewage and plumbing. Practical/work and show lighting will have to be designed and put in place – from the parking lot and shops, to the rides, walkways, and back of house areas – all installed to withstand the harsh mountain elements such as snow and below-freezing temperatures during the winter months. Infrastructure is a huge cost up-front that can’t be corner-cut or short-changed, otherwise you’ll have big, expensive headaches down the line.
A very broad and unique soundscape will need to be created and paid for. This includes area music for the entire park – walkways, shops, rides, shows and any space where the public spends time; music and sound components are an extremely key part of any themed experience today, large or small in scale. Custom music and soundtracks take time and money; usually a good amount of both.
All aspects of operation should be well underway by now, including number crunching on how many guests the park plans on accommodating (we need to know expected/target capacity before we can design a park or select attractions, so we know the types of traffic to plan for), what months Santa’s Village will be open, how large the workforce is going to be, and how/where those employees are going to be found (including senior staff, a marketing team or individual, and specialized employees such as bakers or entertainment personnel). Things such as payroll budget, merchandising development/supply/cost need to be worked out. On the back end, you have more fun costs such as a huge insurance policy you’ll need to carry, along with a crack legal firm on retainer to represent you the minute someone falls down and goes boom in the park, claiming they tripped over a pine cone that dropped from an ill-placed pine tree (despite the fact that said pine tree has been there since 1933). Everything ops-wise needs to be set in concrete with the money in place for the park to move forward into a real, functional existence.
Once everything is in motion, the park needs to be re-built to code, offering Americans with Disabilities Act compliance from rides to restrooms, walkways, food counters, and gift shops; reinforced or brand new building construction, and the types of amenities that today’s theme park audience expects, including ample seating spaces, food and beverage offerings, a broad variety of shows and attractions for all age groups, and seemingly extraneous things such as strong cell phone signals or in-park Wi-Fi, which keep people connected to the outside world during their visit and even more importantly – can serve the park itself with smart phone integration such as apps, and digital interactive elements that can be incorporated into the overall experience.
If this all seems daunting, it is. Developing a theme park of any size is a very complicated, highly-orchestrated production that requires a huge amount of skill, know-how, time, and funding. In the event that Mr. Johnson went into this venture unaware of the huge effort and expense attached to reviving and re-opening Santa’s Village, he’s most certainly got to be painfully aware of it now. Buying the land and getting the proper zoning and permits in place are just the tip of the iceberg. The creative development and then construction process follow in the months – and usually years – to come.
So what are we getting at? What’s the point of this update and article? Considering the vast amount of fans that continue to visit TPA and read about Santa’s Village, we strongly feel that the public should be aware of the very real challenges that Bill Johnson and his team face if they are truly interested in re-opening Santa’s Village properly, in the way most people are eagerly anticipating. As industry professionals, we have seen too many plans fall through once the process begins due to clients not understanding the incredible amount of planning and work that needs to be done to properly create a themed environment that will attract visitors in 2015 and beyond. Even clients with much deeper pockets than Mr. Johnson get cold feet or quit their ventures completely once things get real and the true costs involved are put on the table. Everyone wants to play blue sky designer – but when it comes time to write the checks, more often than not, we see projects go away in this industry; that’s not a slam against Mr. Johnson – that’s just the truth and the way it is around the world, from China to Skyforest.
The brutal truth is, for a full-blown Santa’s Village the way we the fans would want it to be – the project would have to be in full-blown design right now for even an attempt at a 2016 opening – forget 2015; that ship has sailed. Design and operations would have to be 100% in place by now, and infrastructure construction would need to have already been started; nothing is going to happen construction-wise during the snowy winter months ahead. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is calling for an El Nino Watch for the first part of 2015, expecting higher than usual rain amounts in the coming months. That is something that every contractor and construction project is looking at, as the rainy season here in Southern California certainly has started. That has to be factored into the Santa’s Village construction schedule as well, making work very difficult and often not possible in the months to come.
Can Santa’s Village be re-designed and re-opened by Summer of 2015, as the public is being told? The initial Mother’s Day 2015 date has been scrapped and now mid-year is the target. Skypark – not Santa’s Village as we know it – could likely be open this year, however, it would be minimal at best and void of much theming or property-wide infrastructure improvements. If Bill Johnson and his team move forward with an adventure park so that they can get the doors open and in their minds, some money in the bank to continue the project as a whole, that is a very slippery slope and a huge risk to take – because if throngs of people visit and are disappointed that there’s no Santa in Santa’s Village anymore – they won’t likely come back down the road. No return business is instant death to any theme park or attraction that plans on existing longer than a given season.
If the plan all along has been to re-open the property solely as an adventure park, with the history of the park as a nostalgic aside, then Mr. Johnson and his team really need to make that clear via social media, interviews, their own website, and so on. Otherwise, it’s unfair to get so many people excited for something that they never intend to do. Messing with peoples’ very strong nostalgic emotions and childhood memories is a huge no-no business-wise; ask George Lucas. Geeky Star Wars jab aside, this is something that theme park entities such as Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm have to contend with any time they expand or alter their parks here in Southern California. The fans and public at large have incredible emotional ties and bonds with these parks and places; they consider them sacred ground to an extent. When Walt Disney dedicated Disneyland in 1955 and said, “Disneyland is your land,” there’s no way that anyone then could have known how strongly guests over the coming decades would take that to heart, literally. This same powerful nostalgia exists for Santa’s Village in Skyforest. It would behoove the Skypark Santa’s Village team to be straightforward and transparent with the hundreds of thousands of people eagerly anticipating the glorious return of the little theme park we grew up with and cherished with families and friends.
The purpose of this update isn’t to be negative or critical of Bill Johnson and the Skypark at Santa’s Village team in any way. Theme Park Adventure has a long-standing reputation with its fans and throughout the industry for keeping things real and putting our own professional opinions into whatever we do, even if the truth hurts or is controversial at the time. We want nothing more than to see Santa’s Village reborn and thrive for years and years to come in the San Bernardino Mountains. We want Lake Arrowhead, Crestline, Running Springs and all of the neighboring communities to flourish and benefit from its redevelopment by way of new jobs and an influx of visitors to Santa’s Village throughout the year. It’s important to educate and discuss with TPAers everywhere the very real challenges this project is facing and will face moving forward. There’s no “Christmas miracle” that will magically see the park restored and re-opened by summer of 2015 the way we all want it to be in our mind’s eyes, and it’s concerning to see all of the comments online and on this website of people offering to work for free, or begging for an opening date so they can plan to bring their families. This story/update is a sincere discussion based completely in reality, with the hope that the community stands behind Bill and his team and sees this thing through to a completion that is both exciting and absolutely satisfying to the scores of guests ready to plunk down their money to get a piece of their childhood back. If and when that happens, TPA will be first in line, because we want this to happen so badly!
Please continue to watch Skypark at Santa’s Village’s social media and website for more information as it becomes available. Theme Park Adventure is not actively or aggressively pursuing additional information regarding the park at this point, and it’s been made clear that at this time, the Santa’s Village team have nothing to share with us or anyone else asking from the media, regardless of the fan support/momentum that communication could garner. Like all of you, we will continue to keep tabs on the company’s Facebook page and look for relevant tweets from the owners with our fingers crossed.
We remain hopeful, and still believe that Santa could return to Skyforest!
– Rick West