First opened in 1955, Santa’s Village was a magical Christmas theme park located east of Los Angeles in Southern California. Located in a small mountain town, the park was a vision of a little-known developer named Glenn Holland and was brought to life by Putty Henck, a local contractor and landowner. Residents of the mountain town embraced Santa’s Village while millions of visitors from down the hill flocked to the theme park for over four decades. After facing hard times, the park was abandoned in 1998. Years later, it’s finally been brought back to life.
Santa’s Village Opened In 1955, Just Six Weeks Before Disneyland
Santa’s Village welcomed guests for the first time on Memorial Day weekend in 1955, just six weeks before Disneyland opened. It was during a simpler time, when families got their news from the radio and the newspaper, and gas was only 23 cents a gallon.
Located in the small mountain town east of Los Angeles, the park was designed to bring joy and happiness to children, creating a magical Christmas world just 80 miles away from the bustling city of Los Angeles. Santa’s Village was such a hit that it became the world’s first franchised amusement park, charging 30 cents for entry.
A Local Developer Named Glenn Holland Came Up With The Idea
A local resident of Crestline by the name of Glenn Holland was the one who came up with the idea of opening Santa’s Village theme park. Growing up during the Great Depression, both of Holland’s parents passed away before he turned 18 and he was left to raise his younger sister.
Not one to stay down on his luck, Holland saw the good in things and wanted to do whatever he could to make others around him happy, especially the children. That’s what he loved about the Christmas season, the most wonderful time of year where anything was possible. His daughter later said, “He wanted Christmas to be just magical. He always thought that children should have adventures and great happiness in their lives. He wanted to make that come true.”
It Was Inspired By The North Pole Theme Park In New York
One day Holland was inspired after reading an article in the Saturday Evening Post of a new Christmas theme park opening in New York in 1949, called the North Pole.
“Home of Santa’s Workshop”, the village streets would be filled with oversized gingerbread men and candy canes, a train for the kids to ride, roofs covered in snow and dripping with icicles. The village theme park would be filled with Christmas joy year-round. Holland got out a notepad and began sketching a winter wonderland.
Located In The Forest East Of Los Angeles
The theme park that was opening in New York sounded magical to Glenn Holland and he wanted to open a similar Christmas theme park near his small mountain town in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Although it’s located just 80 miles from Los Angeles, the future home of Santa’s Village is far different from the glamour of Hollywood. Skyforest is tucked into the mountains in an outdoor lovers’ paradise. The area also gets plenty of snow.
He Leased The Land From The Henck Family
Motivated to bring a Christmas theme park to Southern California, Glenn Holland (pictured left) traveled the country to find investors and secure enough money to get started on building Santa’s Village. He sold $45 stock shares to get the business going.
Holland then leased 15 acres of land from the Henck Family, who bought 440 acres in the forest for $10,000 in 1918. They were hoping to use the land to build a resort and were very interested in Holland’s offer. He even hired one of the members of the family, J. Putnam “Putty” Henck (pictured right) as the head contractor of the project, and work began in 1954.
The Village Was Built By Locals
Henck, a UC Berkeley civil engineering graduate and World War II Navy veteran, managed the project and hired local artisans and craftsman to build the log cabins, giant gingerbread men, candy canes, and make it appear like everything was covered in snow. The park also featured a toy shop, candy kitchen, and rides for the kids, including a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel.
Of course, the park also featured Santa himself. In 1998 Henck told Los Angeles Times, “We’ve had some pretty good Santa’s. Some of these old guys start to really thinking they’re Santa,” hinting that many became so jolly they were almost sent home for the day.
Visitors Flocked To The Park
When the park opened Memorial Day weekend in 1955, “traffic was backed up all the way down the mountain,” Henck recalled, speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2006. Families packed up and hit the road to Rim of the World Highway, snaking along the mountain roads to take their children to see the first Christmas theme park in California.
Once a television commercial showed the attractions, the word was out. When Santa’s Village was at its peak, the park welcomed 180,000 visitors each year, according to Henck.
It Was A Magical Place
Santa’s Village was filled with magic for both kids young and old. Even teenagers who had stopped believing in Santa Claus were enamored with the enchanted forest train ride, exploring Santa’s workshop and home and climbing the treehouse with a slide for an exit.
The horse-drawn pumpkin ride was a big hit and families could even go on an authentic sleigh ride pulled by a team of reindeer. It was truly a place filled with joy and Christmas spirit.
Glenn Holland Had Multiple Conversations With Walt Disney
Around the same time that Holland was working on creating Santa’s Village, Disneyland was being constructed down the mountain from Skyforest, in Anaheim, California. By this time, Walt Disney was already incredibly successful with the making of his films. Holland, on the other hand, was an unknown developer.
Yet, the two had several discussions about possible business partnerships as Holland saw great potential in theme parks but nothing came out of their correspondence.
It Became The First Franchised Theme Park In America, After Taking Advice From The McDonald Brothers
After Santa’s Village opened in Skyforest, Glenn Holland opened two other locations in the US, making Santa’s Village the first franchised theme park in America. Holland made the decision after talking with the McDonald brothers, who were working with Ray Kroc to franchise their fast-food restaurants. (We all know how well that idea did!)
A Santa’s Village park was opened in Santa Cruz but closed in 1979. Another location opened in East Dundee, Illinois, and is now operating under new management as Santa’s Village Azoosment Park, which also includes water rides and a zoo. There were plans to open more Santa’s Villages in Richmond, Virginia, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey, but those never came to fruition.
Henck And His Wife Pamela Lived On The Property
Santa’s Village in Skyforest became a true labor of love for Putty Henck and his wife Pamela. Not only did they build and manage the theme park around the clock, but they also lived there. Henck recalled that together, they worked “seven days a week, 12 hours a day” to run Santa’s Village.
He told the Los Angeles Times, “Just seeing the people happy and all the kids laughing and yelling and having fun makes it worthwhile.”
Not As Many People Visited The Park In The ’90s
Santa’s Village was in full swing, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. But by the ’90s, interest in the theme park had dwindled and became worse as time went on.
In a 2006 interview, Henck told Los Angeles Times, “The young generation began to over-program their kids to where they had so much to do, and not enough time for a four-hour or longer round-trip drive up the mountain.”
Santa’s Village Was Struggling
1997 was a tough year for Hencks, as his beloved wife Pamela sadly passed away. The couple had married in 1953 and shared three children. Without her presence and support, the park just didn’t feel the same. After years of trying to keep Santa’s Village alive, Henck just couldn’t see a future for it any longer.
At the same time, Holland had stretched his money too thin by opening a third park in Illinois. While the California location could stay open year-round, the freezing temperatures in Illinois led to the park often being closed well before Christmas.
Holland Was Heartbroken When The Park Closed
It was time to make a tough decision. While attendance at the two California parks steeply declined, Holland had also lost a considerable amount of money funding the third park in East Dundee, Illinois.
Holland was heartbroken, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, according to his daughter Reece. She said, “Where he made the error was going on and doing the final one in Illinois. It was just not financially a good idea. But he knew he had touched people with the parks. It was the most special thing he felt he had ever done.” In 1998, Santa’s Village closed its gates in Skyforest.
It Sat Abandoned For Years
After Santa’s Village closed in 1998, the park sat abandoned for several years. Then, a man named Thomas Plott purchased the Hencks Family’s 220-acres, including Santa’s Village, for $5.6 million.
Plott planned on reopening the park, in addition to the multiple care facilities that he owned. He began renovating the park, and refurbished several buildings. It seemed like Santa’s Village would be given new life. That is, until Plott passed away in 2005. Once again, the Christmas theme park and the surrounding land had an unknown future.
The Park Had Done A Lot For The Local Economy
Local residents of the Skyforest area were especially sad to see the park close its gates. More than 5,000 people worked at the park over the four decades that it was open. Tony Crowder, a third-generation resident of Lake Arrowhead worked at Santa’s Village as a teenager. He told Sun, “It was a great place to get started and make a few bucks.”
Local grocery store owner Gene “Geno” Fulton appreciated how the park helped bring jobs and business to the area. He said, “Santa’s Village definitely helped the whole economy in the Lake Arrowhead area, and it introduced people (from down below) to the area.”
Pieces Of The Park Were Auctioned Off
After Santa’s Village closed its gates, fixtures from the park were sold at public auction. Local residents who were sad to see the park go purchased pieces of the park at the auction, including oversized gingerbread men and candy canes. Even the Christmas-themed park rides were sold off to the highest bidder.
Driving around the mountain town, visitors can spot remnants of Santa’s Village in stores and around the local community.
A Couple Had A New Vision For Santa’s Village
Once again, Santa’s Village and the surrounding land were available for purchase– but who would buy it? Once married couple Bill and Michelle Johnson heard about the abandoned village, they knew what they had to do. As outdoors enthusiasts with a passion for inspiring kids to be active and enjoy life in the mountains, they saw a new vision for Santa’s Village and bought it in 2014.
The Johnsons wanted to bring Santa’s Village back to life. Not only that, but they would open up the surrounding area for mountain biking, fishing, hiking, ziplining, and more. It would be an outdoor lovers paradise, complete with Santa.
Today, It’s An Outdoor Adventure Park
The Johnsons successfully completed the renovation of Santa’s Village and turned the area into an outdoor adventure park called SkyPark. For the local community and those who grew up visiting Santa’s Village, it’s a dream come true.
Once again, the village is filled with Christmas magic where families can make precious memories, meeting Santa, visiting the gingerbread bakery, and skating the icerink. Complete with a world-class mountain bike park, Santa’s Village is back and better than ever.
Putnam “Putty” Henck Passes Away At 91
J. Putnam “Putty” Henck passed away at the age of 91 on January 15, 2010. He lived his entire life in the Skyforest area which is also where he passed away, in his home.
During his lifetime, Henck built an incredible 475 projects in Southern California, bringing the community together with arts, culture, and fun. His projects included arts centers, churches, libraries, reservoirs, and of course, Santa’s Village. He even published a book, From the Memories of Putnam Henck (Plus a Little Bit of History). He would be happy to know that the park is in good hands and is once again a magical place to enjoy.