In 1955, a theme park opened in Southern California where families could go and spend a fun-filled day together riding unique attractions, eating delicious baked goods and food, and loading up on whimsical souvenirs including a photo with the big guy himself! We’re not talking Disneyland however – we’re talking about Santa’s Village, in Skyforest, California!
For decades, so many SoCal residents grew up visiting that magical place in the San Bernardino National Forest – and since the park’s closure in 1998, so many of us have looked back on Santa’s Village with utmost fondness and growing nostalgia.
In what has to be the ultimate “Throwback Thursday” article, Glenn Barr of The Mountain News wrote a bombshell that has gone off with a resounding “HELL YEAH!” throughout the themed entertainment community. The article (click here for the full story – subscription fee may apply), which appeared in the May 15 edition of the mountain community’s newspaper, states that the 154-acre property has been sold to an “unidentified Lake Arrowhead resident” who has “big plans for the property”. Those plans apparently call for a complete renovation and re-opening of Santa’s Village possibly within a year after escrow closes on the deal!
Santa’s Village has remained fairly intact over these past years since its closure in 1998. Many of the main buildings have withstood the hot summers and snow-covered winters in Skyforest. Saldy, vandals and other individuals have left their mark – graffiti sprayed on interior walls of gift shops, broken windows and debris left behind from late-night parties and trespassers on the site; surely, they remain on Santa’s Naughty List indefinitely.
Even the Bee Ride Monorail still stands, its yellow bee-shaped ride vehicles sitting silently high above the paint-faded, forgotten structures and pathways of our youth. Folks passing by the property on Rim of the World Highway can catch glimpses of the defunct theme park through overgrown brush and pine trees as they zip along the mountain on their way to Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear. Aside from a company that runs a logging operation, there is no sign of activity at Santa’s Village; its memory only lingers in our minds and funky postcards and images tucked away in desk drawers all around the country.
Driving around the Lake Arrowhead community, it’s not uncommon to find large colorful mushrooms and over-sized candy canes displayed prominently in residents’ front yards – remnants of Santa’s Village can be found for those looking and paying attention!
Who can forget Santa’s Thrilling Bobsled Ride (quite possibly my first coaster experience as a child), the odd Alice in Wonderland walk-through, the spinning Christmas Tree Ride where guests rode in ornaments a la Dumbo at Disneyland, the Antique Car Ride, the Crooked Tree House, Santa’s miniature Train Ride through the Enchanted Forest, and reindeer-led Candy Cane Sleigh?
Or what about the really uber-geeky memories that the Rock Candy Mine bring back – drop your quarter in the slot, listen for the muffled explosion and grin at the “blast” as your very own rock candy slides to you down a chute! Ah, the nostalgic rush that brings! Sadly – many don’t know this – the Mine was purchased with the intent of re-locating it in Frontierland at Disneyland, but management didn’t want to spend the money installing it, and so, the beloved Rock Candy Mine rotted away in the park’s infamous Boneyard backstage.
Let’s not forget the kooky cast of characters that lived at Santa’s Village. Of course, the main man Santa, and his wife, were always present – but what about the creepy Easter Bunny that lived in a huge egg house, or the roaming Jack Punkinhead character that surely inspired the likes of Tim Burton as he dreamed up Jack Skellington as the Pumpkin King in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Then there were the Lollipop Lady and the Rainbow Man… “Come sing with the Rainbow Man!” the commercial jungle would blare – pure marketing crack to kids!
The reality is, none of the things we loved so dearly at the time at the park could compete with the big attractions of Los Angeles and Orange County – Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, Marineland, the Japanese Village and Deer Park, Lion Country Safari, Movieland Wax Museum, Movie World, and Busch Gardens. The small family-owned Santa’s Village closed its doors on March 1, 1998, and everyone figured that was that.
In 2001, the property was purchased for nearly $6 million, with its new owner planning on re-opening the cherished theme park. That never happened, and Santa’s Village appeared to be down for the count. Since then, a logging operation has crammed its expansive parking lot with lumber (which was recently deemed a fire hazard and moved off-site).
Which brings us to the news of the day coming from The Mountain News team. Who is this mystery resident, and what are the plans? Will Santa’s Village rise again and become a whimsical, colorful theme park for locals re-imagined? One can only hope! The serious question remains, however… If Santa’s Village re-opened with new attractions, characters and activities, how would it survive in 2015 if it couldn’t hang on nearly 20 years ago?
I think the answer – the secret weapon – may be nostalgia, plain and simple. Everyone that grew up going to Santa’s Village as a kid is now grown, many with their own kids and grandchildren. Mega-attractions like Disneyland Resort are so commercial and expensive these days, I think the climate may be just right for a revival of this type in the San Bernardino mountains. Certainly, the attractions would be updated (the Bee Monorail would likely have to come down or be completely re-built to ADA standards) and the buildings re-done. But in the end, I think it could work with some brilliant marketing, heart-felt seasonal events, and genuine quality. I certainly would go to Santa’s Village a few times a year to enjoy great food, perhaps a family-themed spooky Halloween event or fun Easter EggStravaganza, and unique shopping offerings. And hell, who wouldn’t head up to Santa’s Village during Christmas to see the park lit up in all its glory and to pay a visit to Santa and his elves? I think it’s just the type of experience people are looking for in this day and age. We’re all so wrapped up in high-tech gadgets, $100 million rides, and commercialized theme park marketing hitting us at every turn – that something as charmingly Lo-Fi as Santa’s Village could work. I’m not alone when I say I want it to happen and I want it to work. Now, we just have to wait and see what happens next.
Possibilities abound. Fans are geeking out. Industry peeps are whispering about who might be this “mystery resident” with a vision. It’s almost as bad as waiting for Christmas morning to arrive! Fingers are crossed… hoping for a follow-up story that I’ll title “Yes, Skyforest – There is a Santa Claus!”
UPDATE: Work on Santa’s Village has been moving forward, but not quickly enough to hit the Mother’s Day 2015 opening that the company had announced. Visit our December 19, 2014 Santa’s Village Update story to learn more about the project and when – or if – we can expect the theme park to re-open any time soon.
– Rick West
TPAers, we want to know what you think about the possible re-opening of Santa’s Village! Share your own memories and thoughts with other fans below, and let’s all hope for a Christmas miracle together!