Santa’s Village was the brainchild of Glenn Holland, a California real estate developer and Christmas aficionado. His first Santa’s Village in San Bernardino County nipped in just under the wire to open in late May 1955, beating Disneyland’s opening by a few months. It was an instant hit, and Holland signed a lease to open a second village in Scotts Valley. This was big news in the little mountain town, and the project was daily news in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
A flurry of whimsical construction commenced, costing a reported $9,000 a week in labor and materials (that’s about $84,000 today). The village was the vision of Ellen Koger, who was described in newspaper coverage as a Southern California “housewife” despite the fact she was a trained artist and held the title of Santa’s Village art director. Koger’s designs were straight out of a fairy tale: a “Welcome House” decorated with candy canes and chubby polka dot toadstools, a life-size gingerbread house that sold fragrant, fresh cookies, a restaurant called Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen that served such Arctic staples as … burgers, steak sandwiches and hot dogs.
There were touches of fantasy everywhere. “All of a sudden the kids will come upon a lollipop tree,” the Sentinel wrote during opening weekend 1957. “They’ll hardly believe their eyes, but they can reach right up and pull the sweet, colored suckers right off the tree — and free.” There was even a North Pole made of ice, which the Sentinel excitedly reported “the kids can lick … to their heart’s content.” (Please email us if you licked the Santa’s Village North Pole and survived the experience.)
A Texan named Grady Carothers, the self-proclaimed “reindeer king of the United States,” brought his herd of reindeer to the park, and a petting zoo offered up baby burros to bottle feed. In order to flesh out the character interactions — Christmas doesn’t have much by way of big names — a host of random characters wandered the park, including Alice in Wonderland, the Easter Bunny, Little Bo Peep and the Good Witch, Jack Pumpkinhead and Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.
“We try to make a visit to Santa’s Village like a national convention of all the wonderful characters out of childhood storybooks,” Koger said.
That convention was nearly disrupted the night before opening day. An employee parked his car at a Salinas hotel and returned to his vehicle to find someone had stolen nearly all the costumes out of the back. “The police may not know who took his things,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “but you can bet your boots that Santa knows.”
Luckily, backups were rallied and the ragtag crew of characters were ready to greet 8,000 guests, mostly children, on opening day. As kids raced around the park, employees dressed as gnomes did crowd control and parking duty. Local publications praised the family-friendly amusement park for its “exceptional taste” and told parents it was “almost impossible” for kids to “break anything.”
The manic energy of Santa’s Village was immortalized on film in a series of shorts by K. Gordon Murray, a producer best-known today for unleashing several clunkers that ended up as “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fodder. The shorts, collectively called “Santa’s Enchanted Village,” were released in 1964 essentially as promotional material for the Santa’s Village chain, which by then also had a park in Dundee, Ill.
“Santa’s Enchanted Village” provides a priceless look at the elaborate buildings and a mind-melting glimpse at what passed for family entertainment in the early 1960s. The films have little plot other than watching characters wander aimlessly around the parks (lowlights include a slack-jawed wolf who complains loudly about his ulcer and looped audio of a pained-sounding boy shouting, “WONDERFUL!” and laughing hysterically at a puppet show.)
As promotional videos, they were a flop and, alas, Santa’s Village was not long for this world. As Californians increasingly had more entertainment options, a year-round Christmas experience lost its luster. Financial woes hit the park in the ‘70s, and by the end of the decade its new owners were pivoting to a shopping center concept called “The Village.” Christmas-y colors were painted over in muted tones and non-holiday shops moved in. “When you have an amusement park that appeals to children from two to eleven years old, you are limiting your marketing appeal,” vice president of operations Bill Witcher told the Sentinel in 1979. That year, the 13-year Santa’s Village general manager stepped down, citing $48,000 in debt weighing down village operations.
The Village puttered along for a few more years before software company Borland International bought the site in 1990 for its new corporate headquarters. The jolly chalets were torn down, and nearly every trace of Santa’s Village removed. The office park is now called the Enterprise Technology Centre and is currently leased by UC Santa Cruz.
Santa’s Village did leave one indelible mark on Scotts Valley, however: a road. The street that once ushered carloads of excited children into the Christmas wonderland is still called Santa’s Village Road today.