Trouble in Santaland
In the 1950s Santa’s Workshop caused traffic jams as thousands of families converged on Wilmington’s theme park. Is nostalgia enough to keep this landmark alive in the 21st century?
by Lisa Bramen
Passing through the gates of Santa’s Workshop with my two-year-old son on a sticky July day, we are greeted by teens in elf suits wishing guests a Merry Christmas.
“It’s not Christmas,” retorts a blond boy of about nine, an implied “duh” in his tone of voice. One jolly elf’s reply is, “It’s always Christmas at Santa’s Workshop!”
Speciﬁcally, Christmas circa the Eisenhower era. The Wilmington theme park, built in 1949, has changed little since, from the color palette of the buildings—mint green, lemon yellow, brick red—to the classic rides.
Santa’s Workshop consists of two main sections. The original village, with Santa’s house, shops, a reindeer barn, small farm and chapel, is centered around a frosty North Pole. The upper park opened in the 1960s, adding a railroad, ferris wheel and other kiddie amusements, plus a cafeteria, an outdoor theater and a post ofﬁce, where letters are postmarked “North Pole, NY.”
The crowd is sparse on this summer morning. In contrast to December weekends, when more than 1,000 people come a day, there are no lines. My son and I take a spin on the rickety carousel, watch a rag-doll revue, feed leaves to the reindeer, take a picture with Santa—the real twinkle-eyed deal, not some synthetic-bearded impostor. Other than a parking-lot meltdown when he realizes we missed the Candy Cane Express, my son has a grand old time. He ﬁts squarely into the park’s target audience of children old enough to know who Santa is, young enough to believe, and short enough to go on the 48-inch-or-under rides.
For adults, the experience is something like watching one of those vintage stop-motion holiday specials, with Burl Ives singing, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” as reindeer streak herky-jerkily across the sky. It’s charmingly retro, nostalgic.
Or shabby and hopelessly hokey, depending on your perspective. To judge from Trip Advisor reviews, opinion is sharply divided—sometimes within the same write-up.
“Is it ‘outdated’? I say ‘original’ and that is a part of the charm!” writes one reviewer from Massachusetts. “Are the characters ‘corny’ and amateur? Maybe, but delightful, enthusiastic, and friendly all the same.” Another bemoans “severely chipped paint, warped wood, etc.”
“It’s adults who have a problem with it. Kids get the magic,” says Matt Stanley, general manager of Santa’s Workshop since 2010. Starting at age 14, when he worked with the farm animals, the 37-year-old Jay native has done nearly every job in the park and given a good portion of his life to this place.
Which is why his frustration is palpable on a midday visit to his North Pole ofﬁce, where he is scrolling through the park’s Facebook page to rafﬂe off passes. “People keep writing, ‘Oh, I would love to visit,’” he says. “Well, you can come here even if you don’t win tickets!”
Stanley has tried expanding business through value-added packages like Yuletide Family Weekends in winter, which include personalized gifts and a surprise visit from St. Nick to local lodging. But he bristles at the frequent suggestion that Santa’s Workshop needs to modernize its offerings. “We’re always compared to Disney,” he laments. They could spend a fortune to make it an amusement park with modern thrill rides, he says, but that idea goes against everything that makes Santa’s Workshop special.
Not that the park has a fortune lying around anyway. The two biggest customer complaints about Santa’s Workshop are the cost ($22.99 per person over the age of two) and the condition of the grounds. While he says the owner pours every dollar he can into upkeep and infrastructure that isn’t always visible to guests,
Stanley concedes that there are improvements he can’t afford to make. “We have 365 days’ worth of care for something open 100 days per year.” Between aging structures and the harsh Adirondack weather, there’s simply not the money to stay on top of it all.
Stanley says they try to allocate funds to maintaining a full staff of 60 to 70 seasonal employees. “At orientation, I tell them they’re the most important [asset],” he says. “If they’re in the park, they’re onstage. Everyone is a cast member.”
Stafﬁng is a huge expense, and an increase in the state minimum wage in 2014 led to higher prices. Another wage bump is planned for 2015, meaning ticket fees will likely rise again.
It wasn’t always this hard. When Santa’s Workshop opened in 1949 as the ﬁrst theme park of its kind, “people didn’t even understand what it was,” Stanley says.
Julian Reiss dreamed up the idea of a summer attraction that would allow visitors to see where Santa Claus lives the rest of the year. He partnered with Harold Fortune, who owned land along the highway up Whiteface Mountain, and recruited Arto Monaco, a toy designer and artist in Upper Jay, to help create a Christmasy wonderland.
Before long, the theme park was drawing hordes, with cars backed up for miles into the heart of Wilmington. On its busiest day, in the early 1950s, more than 14,000 guests made their way through Santa’s Workshop. This was the beginning of the family road trip, when Mom, Dad and the kids piled into the car and made a circuit of similar attractions in the region, including Storytown USA near Lake George, Frontier Town in North Hudson and the Land of Makebelieve in Upper Jay.
At a recent gathering hosted by the Adirondack History Center Museum, in Elizabethtown, former Santa’s Workshop employees reminisce about its 1950s heyday, when teens like John Manning earned cash parking cars. “We made $35 a week,” he says, and quite a bit more in tips.
Dan Christoffel was hired as a staff artist in 1956, after Arto Monaco opened the Land of Makebelieve. Christoffel recalls setting up roadside “North Poles” all over the Adirondacks to advertise Santa’s Workshop.
The theme park expanded in the 1960s to include rides and a nativity pageant. Winter hours and a restaurant were added in the 1970s, and a full schedule of shows in the ’80s.
In the 1970s, when Diane Kirby was a teenager working in the hat shop, she says some stores were owned by individuals; Leroy Von Entress ran the hat shop. “Let me tell you, we pushed a lot of hats,” Kirby says. “When we hit our ﬁrst $1,000 day, he would have us over to his house for steak dinners.”
You can still buy a personalized Santa hat at the North Pole, for $7.99, but the days of celebratory steak dinners are long gone. Stanley rattles off the myriad reasons why: The American family has changed, with most juggling two working parents’ vacations instead of one. Shorter trips have become the norm. The typical Adirondack visitor is more focused on the outdoors than family attractions, many of which have closed or evolved. At the same time, nearby Lake Placid has become event driven. “Ironman’s a tough one,” Stanley says. “Most of the local lodging has a ﬁve-day minimum [during that event], so you have one static set of people for a week. We might get them, but probably not.”
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to buy Santa’s Workshop and continue operating it. But that’s what Oswego developer Doug Waterbury did on Christmas Eve last year, when he bought out Bob Reiss (Julian’s son) after more than a decade as co-owner.
Waterbury is principal of Empire Attractions, LLC, which specializes in the turnaround of “troubled assets,” including the Sylvan Beach Boardwalk and the Sterling Renaissance Festival. To him, Santa’s Workshop is a treasured piece of Americana. “My intent is to preserve its historic nature,” he says, which he expects will take three to ﬁve years of hard work. Meanwhile, they operate at a loss. “I hope the people who care about this place will support it.”
If You Go: Santa’s Workshop is open winter weekends, November 22 to December 21. Village of Lights evenings are December Sundays and December 26–30. See www.northpoleny.com for details.