Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thank You

I would personally like to take the time to thank all the families and groups that visited Santa’s Village Azoosment Park this past 2012 season. It is by your patronage and support that this Chicagoland icon is still a part of the summer tradition of the region.

Thanks also to the staff of the park. There are many people that work behind the scenes that help create the magic you see at Santa’s Village. From the ride operators, ground crew, janitorial staff, shops and entrance to the food service workers, animal workers and barn staff, thank you.

Thanks to the management team of Jason, Amy, Don H., Jake, Jill, Tom, Samantha, Joslyn, Rob, Curtis, Dutch, and Wendy. To the maintenance staff of Dave, David, Rob the carpenter, and Danny the painter. Also thanks to Tim, Robin, Don B., and all those who entertained us with the game show and the magic show.

And of course, a very special thank you to all the children and adults that continued the Santa’s Village tradition of stopping by Santa’s House to say hello, sign the Good Book, and talk a little about the history, the magic, and the memories of the park.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Reopened Santa's Village feeds nostalgia

Chicago Tribune
Steve Johnson - Tribune reporter

4:46 PM CDT, August 14, 2012

It is probably not accurate and certainly not provable to say Phil Wenz willed Santa's Village back into being. But it's not a crazy thing to believe either.

After the northwest suburban amusement park closed in May 2006, Wenz helped organize the auction of the assets. He kept an office on the premises and served as administrator of the property, which quickly maneuvered to rejoin the wild prairie, plants growing around and into those assets — rides, vehicles, and the vaguely Seussian buildings— that hadn't been sold.

“Mother Nature took it back over,” Wenz recalls. “There were weeds all over the property. The buildings were empty. It was basically a ghost town. And it was one of those things where that, of anything, was very sad to see.”

He did historical research to write a picture-heavy book, “Santa's Village,” from Arcadia Publishing's “Images of America” series. He contributed the foreword to another, Christopher Dearman's “Santa's Village Gone Wild!” a self-published, not-as-racy-as-it-sounds collection of former employees' reminiscences about backstage doings at the park during its decades as a hotbed of teen employment and, therefore, teen behavior.

And more days than not — 200 a year — Wenz still spent a couple of morning hours putting on makeup, gluing on one of the $1,500 white beard-and-wig get-ups he carefully maintains, surrounding himself with the foam padding, the red suit, the belt, the boots.

And he went and made his corporate and charity appearances as “Santa from Santa's Village,” just as he'd been doing since making his first appearance there in 1986, at age 23. He did so even when the place seemed most likely to remain on the lengthening list of shuttered independent parks, their vintage charm no match for video games or the mega parks that can advertise ferociously, usually touting something like a new roller coaster named after a blockbuster movie character.

Wenz, now 49, knew that story line from the Chicago area alone: Riverview Park, its memory guarded like an heirloom in Chicago, is now a shopping mall, police station and college campus south of Lane Tech High School. Adventureland, in present-day Bloomingdale, now hosts the Scottish Rite Cathedral, a headquarters building for Freemasons. Kiddieland, in Melrose Park, held on longer than the others, but not long enough to avoid turning into a Costco.

All of them have a powerful pull on people's memories, testament to the way these fantasy lands make themselves larger than life. East Dundee, however, is not the North Side of the city or even Melrose Park. Located, roughly speaking, midway between Schaumburg and corn fields, it's a place where retail chains can find the space to build big boxes almost anywhere. And so the land sat there, even as Wenz did not.

“With this park, even when it was closed, the name never died,” says Wenz. “We did tons of book signings. There was a lot of legwork we did just to keep these opportunities open, to keep the name before the public.”

Now there is, once again, a park bearing the “Santa's Village” name operating on the property, like some ridiculous thing you whisper into Santa's ear that somehow turns up under the Christmas tree. And Wenz, once again, spends his early mornings getting into character in his office above the gift shop and spends his days in Santa's House in the park, greeting a new generation of visitors to the place, which first re-opened in late 2010. It's been renamed “Santa's Village AZoosment Park” to reflect a focus on younger kids and the live animals brought in by new owner Jason Sierpien, who had his own memories from working there as a teenager and again during the last season the park was open, when it contracted with him to supply the animals.

The iconic Snowball ride isn't there anymore, a carousel in its place. The Polar Dome ice arena, which used to host Blackhawks practices, is now home to an indoor battlefield in Paintball Explosion, a separate business that occupies half of the almost 40-acre property, including most of the area that was devoted to older-kid rides in the later-years land expansion of the first Santa's Village.

Still, to Wenz, enough things are the same that “it's kind of a deja-vu-type thing in many ways, and there's also times that it's like the park never closed. It just got a makeover,” he says.

“People thought, ‘Phil's got this pipe dream.' Well, here I am sitting in Santa's Village once again.”

It is an unlikely story, says Pam Turlow, and that's why she chose it to end her own book, “The Cotton Candy Road Trip,” a chronicle of visits to more than 40 such vintage parks across America.

The Elmhurst resident was spending a hot July morning touring the reborn park in its second full summer of operation, remembering the visit she made last September to bring her book full circle from her first park visit, to Kiddieland at the start of the season (2009) that would be its last.

In the book, which Turlow published herself (Amazon and cottoncandyroadtrip.com), she called the Santa's Village rebirth “a type of Christmas miracle.” Parks close quite a bit; rarely do they reopen.

Sitting on a bench by the entrance during her follow-up visit, she describes Santa's Village as “a beautiful representation of the Santa-themed park from the '50s. The architecture is Tyrolean, but yet it's bigger-than-life. It's Tyrolean from a little kid's eyes.”

She's wearing little ferris-wheel earrings, specifically the Wonder Wheel from Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park at Coney Island in New York City, says Turlow, 49, a voice actor who has been nominated for top awards in audio book reading.

Storybook and Santa themes were big when the new highway system led to a boom in roadside attractions in the 1950s. Santa was especially good because he has all the name recognition of a licensed character without those pesky licensing fees.

But in the new millennium, Turlow's 44 park visits included only two Christmas-themed parks, the East Dundee attraction and Santa's Workshop/North Pole, at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado. A third still operating is an unrelated business also called Santa's Village, in New Hampshire's White Mountains, dating to 1953.

Vintage amusement parks retain such a powerful hold on people, she says, “because you have a lot of your firsts at an amusement park. First dates are quite often at amusement parks. You remember the first time you rode a particular ride, how scared you were, and then you tackled it,. you know? In some ways, it's like little microcosms for life.”

What she learned in her park-themed journeys is “that these places are amazing bits of often mid-century history that shouldn't just be razed and forgotten, that it really takes some amazing people to run the parks,” she says.

While Wenz does his Christmas-in-July duties, Turlow, Sierpien and general manager Don Holliman — also rehired from among longtime staff — walk around and talk about the provenance of rides, plans for the future and whether they'll be able to open the shuttered water park, another late Santa's Village addition, its tubes and sluiceways still visible in the valley to the immediate east.

“This year, it would have been fantastic,” says Holliman, referring to the heat that lures people to water parks and had kept attendance down at the amusement park.

The new Santa's Village exists on, roughly, the footprint of the original, founded by California developer Glenn Holland in 1959 because he thought the Chicago area was the right place to expand from his two Santa's Villages in California (both closed).

“The park today is geared more to 2- to 10-year-olds, like it was in the very early days,” Wenz says. “From 1959 through about '66 to '70 was always for the smaller kids. In the '70s they kind of put in bigger rides and it became more of a rounded family park. By the mid-'80s to '90s they put even bigger rides out here, like some roller-coasters. It kind of changed the demographics a bit.

“Today it's back to its original roots, with the buggy brigade: the moms, the dads, the grandmas, the grandpas and the smaller children. Also the landscaping is either the best or second-best it's ever been,” going back to the very earliest days, he says.

The older-kid, Coney Island section of the park has now been incorporated into the Paintball Explosion side of the property with a kind of grace that belies such battlefield names as “Biohazard” and “Mutiny.” Original signage — “Santa's Slide,” “Dundee Bomb Pop” — decorates the paintball fields. The old bumper car building is used for cover, as are a lot of the structures from Arcade Alley, the games of chance. An old plane that kids would sit in on a ride is plugged, nose-down, into the ground.

“That elf is original,” adds Journey Kerchner, Paintball Explosion's general manager, who claims the business is gaining a reputation as one of the top paintball venues in the U.S. “It's every paintballer's dream to play in developed properties.”

Dearman, who grew up in Elgin and now is a reporter in Wisconsin, says he wrote his book because of the immediate and interesting response to a Facebook posting he put up about having worked at Santa's Village as a teen.

“I started contacting other people, interviewing them,” he says, and he eventually fashioned the book as an oral history. He won't say how many copies he's sold (Amazon and santasvillagegonewild.com), but he was able to live for a year off the proceeds, he says.

“The reaction was fantastic. Some people were scared off by the title: ‘You're gonna be ruining my childhood,'” they'd tell him. “The ‘Gone Wild' part does scare some people off, but it's basically a love letter to the park.”

In addition to tales of employee theft, romance and intoxication, “it's got the nostalgia and the feel-good stuff too,” Dearman says.

“These local parks, it's not like Great America, these big huge things that can be overwhelming,” he adds. “My mom worked at Santa's Village when she was a kid, and she took me there every year. When you get older you just yearn for those nice memories from when you were young.”

Back in Santa's Village, Star Jets, a longstanding ride that didn't sell at the auction, has just gotten new paint this year, and it looks almost new. The other original rides are Kringle's Convoy, a mini-train made of cars done up like the cabs of semis, and the firetruck, which tours visitors around the grounds.

“The nostalgia was obvious from the beginning,” says Sierpien, 36, who grew up in Carpentersville and remembers visiting both Santa's Village and Kiddieland as a child. “But a lot of those buildings were built in 1958. It's not easy. It's a constant battle.”

He points to one modestly sized building. “That's one of the tiniest roofs here,” he says, “and that was 20 gallons of paint. “It's kept us really, really — maybe a little too — busy.”

Now the battle is to get the word out, let people know that there's still a park like this in the area that people can visit for less than $20 at the gate.

At the Kiddieland auction, Sierpien bought the Kiddie Whip and the Midge-o-Racers, boosting his park's offerings and hoping to lure devotees of that place to his, about 30 miles to the northwest.

“So where are the hand cars?” Turlow asks, referring to a ride that had been auctioned off.

“Georgia,” says Holliman.

“Florida,” Sierpien corrects.

“Georgia,” Holliman says again.

“Georgia, you're right,” says Sierpien.

Turlow, for the sake of a photograph, is allowed onto the Kiddie Whip in abject violation of the size restrictions. She looks ecstatic.

“Thank you so much,” she says, after exiting. “I have not gotten to ride that particular ride since I was 5 years old.”

After the ride arrived from Kiddieland and he first looked at it, Sierpien says “a panic set in that we had gotten ripped off.”

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not the same ride I remember. It was much bigger.'”

Then, of course, he realized that he was remembering it from the perspective of a child.

Steve Johnson
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

Friday, May 18, 2012

An old friend…

This past Mother’s Day, May 13, 2012, Santa’s Village Azoosment Park reopened for its 2nd full season. The park, which originally opened in May of 1959 and operated continually until it officially closed in May of 2006, is enjoying a new rebirth and an ever growing awareness of just how special the attraction is to so many people. In this modern day age, Santa’s Village Azoosment Park is a retrospective classic of a gone by era.

Antique Cars and Fire Truck
Families, some of whom have been coming to the corners of IL RT 25 and 72 in East Dundee for decades, are now enjoying the Santa’s Village experience with their new family members, many of which were not even born when the park closed in 2006. A new generation of children now has the chance to grow up with a Chicagoland tradition. And that is pretty special.

It is special for those families to have a common memory of a certain ride or attraction. This season the park has brought back the Fire Truck Ride, the Antique Cars, and a beautiful Carousel. These rides all have a history with the park during one decade or another. By bringing these rides back and adding them to the Balloon Race, the Convoy Trucks, and the attractions already in place, one can only imagine the common experience that a grandparent and a grandchild can share at Santa’s Village Azoosment Park.

The park itself is like an old friend or family member with years of loyalty from guests and employees alike. As the season progresses there will be more enjoyment and memories made with Santa’s Village. It is all about family, friends, and fun!

And when you think about it, some of the best times one can have in life is to sit and reminisce with and an old friend who is back once again.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Don Goers - International Santa Claus Hall of Fame

Last Saturday, April 21, 2012, upwards of 700 Santas and Mrs. Clauses came to the 2nd annual Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop in Santa Claus, Indiana. The event also included the induction ceremony for the new members of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. The Class of 2011, which was announced to the public on December 22, 2011, was honored along with the charter members of the Class of 2010. I am very fortunate to be in this exclusive “club” as I was enshrined as the first living Santa with the charter class.

At this year’s enshrinement my best known predecessor and friend, the late Santa Don Goers, was inducted. Don passed away a year ago in May 2011. It was a sad day and one that I shall not forget because of the irony of Santa’s Village re-opening for the first time in 5 years. Don never got to see the park up and running again and that to this day bothers me. We did have a small celebration at the park for him with some of his family present in August of 2011.

Don’s family and friends were in attendance this past weekend for his induction. I too was there. Santa Don Goers induction into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute to man who always smiled and saw the best in people. His Hall of Fame plaque reads…

Don Goers
“Santa with a Smile”
Dundee, Illinois

Don Goers didn’t play Santa, he was Santa. As one of the longest tenured Santas in theme park history, Goers began his career in 1959. He is among the original men who played the role at Santa’s Village Theme Park in Dundee, Illinois. In 1966, Goers took over the role fulltime becoming Santa from Santa’s Village and being in costume 200 days a year. It would be a position he would hold for 14 years. As Santa, he invoked a jolly demeanor that was more a reflection of his personality making him a natural for the character. His wide smile and hearty belly laugh became his trademark. Goers spent twenty years at Santa’s Village in the maintenance department and as Santa. He helped the park grow from just a few rides and attractions to a Chicagoland icon. Each year, tens of thousands of children visited him in Santa’s House. Goers left the park in 1979, returning only once to be Santa. In 1994 he returned for the 35th anniversary celebration of Santa’s Village.

Don joins 24 other men in the Hall and is deserving of being one of the first 25 to be inducted. His entrance is special for me also as I sat on his knee in 1966 and we will always be connected by Santa’s Village and the role of Santa from Santa’s Village. Now our plaques hang together in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Indiana. How cool is that! Somehow, someway, I know Santa Don Goers was present Saturday in Santa Claus, Indiana…you could tell he was, as everyone was smiling, just the way Don always did.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pondering being Santa

Sometimes I sit back and ponder what my life would have been like without Santa Claus. Today is Easter Sunday 2012 and I have been in full regalia over a dozen times already this year. It started in February doing promotions, photo shoots and related activities for Santa’s Village. This month, April 2012, we have a couple day in the suit, but more importantly, we have over 700 Santas and Mrs. Clauses coming to Santa Claus, Indiana in less than two weeks to be a part of the Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop. After the Workshop in in May 2012 Santa’s Village opens to the public for the season and Santa appearances for the park will stretch until the end of October…and then the real Christmas Season begins in November and December.

I know that I am very fortunate to be able to have a true year round Santa career for over a quarter century. It is special and I know it. But just as many people, especially other Santas, wonder what my world is like, I sometimes wonder what their world is like. It is something that I am not sure I will ever really know. And that is okay. Being Santa is a vocation and a fulltime paying job for me. It is my work, my living, what I am all about, and what I do. Just like most, I like to get away from my job and not think about it. I have hobbies, but to many people surprises, my hobbies have nothing to do with Santa or Christmas. After a certain time of the day, heck, I don’t even want to talk about Santa. And for some reason that surprises some folks.

April 19, 20, and 21st at the Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop, hundreds of Santas will be coming dressed in all sorts of Casual Claus clothes. The first time I saw this, it reminded me of a comic book convention I attended years ago in Chicago. I saw dozens of “Batmans”, “Supermans”, “Spidermans” and many other characters being portrayed by attendees. It was wild. These folks really get into this stuff. I guess so do guys who play Santa. I guess it is a release from their real jobs and real worlds. I on the other hand I will just be me, Phil, at the Workshop as I want to get away from my real job, which is being Santa. I do enjoy the pageantry of the Casual Claus, though I do not fully understand it. And probably never will no matter how many times someone tries to explain it to me.

The Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop will be fun, but the best part of it will be… I get to see others really get excited about portraying Santa. I get to hear about all the stories of a Santa’s past seasons. I get to see friendships being made and acquaintances being renewed. I get to see some really neat outfits. I get to be behind the scenes seeing people smile and enjoy the Spirit of St. Nicholas. I get to be just a normal guy among a sea of white beards and red shirts. I get to smile, be “the child” and enjoy the magic. I get to be me, Phil, not Santa.

And I would not have it any other way.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Back to being Santa...

Spent the last weekend starting off the live appearance schedule for Santa’s Village. I started the year with 200 days slated in the suit for promotions, the spring-summer-fall park calendar, and into the Christmas season 2012. The countdown has begun. (Already have done one photo shoot and a voice over in February…had to shave off the facial hair off this time as a full glue-up was needed. Vacation is over and back to work.) Pictured with me from left to right are Park General Manager Don Holliman, Magician Tim Balster, and Azoosment Park/A Zoo to You Owner Jason Sierpien.

Next month we will be in Santa Claus, Indiana in mid-April for the Santa Claus Workshop I am producing. The response to the event has been much greater than anticipated. We have over 700 Santas from around the world coming to the gathering making it the largest of its kind in North America and perhaps the world.
Visit Santa from Santa's Village Click Here .