Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Development on Santa's Village

Media Release
For Immediate Release
November 24, 2008

“Santa’s Village” to launch Christmas Season at Grand Bear Lodge

Possible new location for famous theme park at Grizzly Jack’s Resort in Utica, Illinois.

UTICA, IL-----Three years have passed since the Santa’s Village theme park in East Dundee closed its doors. A few attempts have been made on reopening the park at its old location, but without success. Well, now Santa is looking at a possible new location.

Santa Claus and officials from Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Lodge and Resort in Utica met last week to discuss possible plans on recreating a Santa’s Village on the property of the 90 million dollar resort. The Resort already owns some of the famous rides and props from the East Dundee theme park. Future plans would also possibly include some of the historic buildings and static displays from the IL Rts. 25 and 72 location.

“Santa’s Village remains a great memory for many people across the Midwest.” stated Joe Hook, general managing partner of Grizzly Jack’s Resort. “We look forward to creating this new magic for generations to come.”

The new park is in the planning stages and would not open for about two years, but that won’t stop the Resort from having many events and attractions this upcoming Christmas and into next summer that relate to Santa’s Village. There is even a new webpage, where people can ask questions, make comments and suggestions on the project.

The Christmas season at Grand Bear Lodge will kick off on Friday November 28th with Santa Claus arriving at the resort. Santa will be Phillip L. Wenz, the Santa from Santa’s Village. He will also be making appearances on Sundays during the Holidays at the Resort’s “Sunday Brunch with Santa.” On Wednesday, December 10th, Santa will hold a very special “Storytime” at the Lodge.

Wenz will also be putting on display some of his memorabilia collection from Santa’s Village.

Plans next summer include a portion of the Resorts property to be developed into a temporary home for Santa’s Village. Guest will be able to ride historic attractions like the Snow Ball ride and the Convoy Trucks. Even Santa will be there with some of his original park props including the frozen North Pole. Negotiations for other props from the original location are being considered by the East Dundee property owner Sterling Bay/Griffon Associates.

"The site of the former amusement park at IL Rts. 72 and 25 in East Dundee is at the center of what will one day be a significant development for the village of East Dundee and the surrounding communities.” stated Patrick O’Connor, partner with Sterling Bay. “Whether that development includes some elements of the former Santa's Village theme park is yet to be seen. Despite the current economic slowdown, we continue discussions with a number of interested parties."

Santa’s Village in East Dundee opened in May of 1959 and officially closed its doors in May of 2006.

“There has always been open dialogue on the subject of Santa’s Village with Sterling Bay and Grizzly Jack’s Resort since the park’s assets were auctioned in October 2006.” commented Santa Phillip L. Wenz. “Everyone involved knows each other and everyone wants to do the right thing for Grizzly Jack’s, the East Dundee property and the future of Santa’s Village.”

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About Santa’s Village at Grand Bear Lodge

A webpage where people can make ask questions, make comments and suggestions on the project. Please visit

About Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Lodge and Resort

Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Lodge and Resort has expressed building a Santa’s Village near their current property off IL Rte. 178. The Lodge has Illinois’ first indoor water park along with miniature golf and a 36,000 square foot indoor amusement park. The park would become part of an ever growing destination that already includes resort suites, vacation villas, and cabins. Over 2 million visitors visit the attractions and state parks near Utica each year. For more information on Grizzly Jack’s, please visit

About Sterling Bay Companies

Sterling Bay Companies is a full service commercial real estate firm based in Chicago. Founded in 1986, Sterling Bay has been actively involved in the development or redevelopment of over $300 million of office, retail, industrial, telecom, and laboratory properties. From West Loop brick and timber rehabs to Class A office campuses, Sterling Bay has built commercial real estate success with a hands on approach and an unrelenting commitment to their projects. For more information on Sterling Bay, please visit

About Santa Claus, Phillip L. Wenz

Phillip L. Wenz donned his first Santa Claus suit at the age of four. By the time he was fourteen he was in his first parade, and by the ripe old age of twenty-four, he became the year round Santa Claus for the iconic Santa’s Village in East Dundee, Illinois. An association he has now had for more than twenty years. Wenz has appeared in nationally televised parades, commercials, and at some of the nation’s largest corporate and civic holiday events. His resume also includes work in Santa Claus, Indiana at the Historic Candy Castle, consulting on Christmas programs, and being a published author. For more information on Santa Claus or Santa’s Village please visit

Media Contact

Angie Garcia
Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort
IL RT 178
Utica, Illinois 61373
(708) 301-9804 x 13

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Friday, September 12, 2008


Just a really good kid. I have one child and she is a wonderful young lady in her early twenties. Holly is part of not only my life and family; she is part of my Santa Claus world. As a child she came out to Santa’s Village to see me and enjoyed the park. She knew that I “helped” Santa. When I did have a day off, I would take her around the park and enjoy Santa’s Village just as any other parent would.

I often wonder how she felt about having a father that was basically Santa all the time. Other fathers were firemen, managers and such, but her's is a year round Santa…all of her life. She could not tell her friends as no one would believe her. Think about it. Here is a child who has been to Santa’s House, seen the frozen North Pole, feeds the deer, rides in a sleigh and can do it when ever she pleases. (Thanks to all the props at the park.)

I was always busy at Christmas time of course. She would come see me at one of the locations I might be working at. I travel a lot and did back then too, so I was rarely home during the Holiday Season. I imagine her memories of childhood at Christmas are “Dads gone again.” Which I was. I can count on one hand the Christmas Eves and Christmas Days she and I have been together.

I do believe her childhood was tainted by me and my job. My wife and I told her there was a “real Santa” but I don’t think the magic of Santa was ever there for her. How could it be? I did take her to see Santa when she was little, but you could see it in her eyes she wasn’t buying it. After she grew up a bit, Holly often joked that if she wanted to see me all she had to do was walk into any mall and I would be sitting in center court.

Our memories of Santa relate to her and I doing things together. Each year for about eight or nine years, I would photograph her sitting in Santa’s Chair by herself at the park. I now have my daughter growing up in pictures in that chair. She filmed a couple commercials with me along with some print work.

I was asked by some other Santas why I just didn’t try to hide the fact I was Santa from Santa’s Village. That way she could enjoy the magic. How would she feel though when she found out? The daughter of a very famous Santa once told me to never hide the facts of what I do from her. In the long run, that was the best advice I ever got.

Today, I think Holly has some very fond memories of Santa and the experiences she got to have. She has a unique perspective on the whole issue. The day she was born she was Santa’s daughter and the same is true to this very day. She sees me every now and then in full regalia and when people get excited to see “Santa” she just smiles and says, “That’s just my Dad.”

Thanks Holly for sharing and this “Santa” will always keep your name in his good book.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Santa Don Goers

To me there is only one Santa Claus that is really Santa from Santa’s Village and that man is Don Goers. An Algonquin, Illinois native, Don first came to Santa’s Village in 1959 as part of the maintenance department. He started to help out “Santa” that same year by playing the part to give a day off to the main Santa. He is among the original gentlemen who played the role at the park in 1959.

Goers made “Santa” his own in 1966 taking the role over fulltime that year. 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 was his trademark.

Spending twenty years at Santa’s Village in the maintenance department and then as Santa, Goers saw the park grow from just a few rides and attractions to the addition of the Polar Dome and the “Coney Island “ section. Each year, tens of thousands of children visited him in Santa’s House and throughout the park. Leaving the park in 1979, he returned only once to be Santa again. It would be in 1994 on the 35th anniversary year of the park.

I met Don Goers as a child many years before I was to become his successor. I would not meet him again until some 27 years later during the Christmas of 1993 at Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee, Illinois. I was the opening day shift Santa that year. Sometime during the course of that Christmas Season while out shopping, Don and his wife came up to the Santa set at the mall and started to have a small conversation with the photo operation manager. After this conversation, Don came up and introduced himself to me. Of course hearing his name I knew exactly who he was.

We chatted for a minute and I asked if he would stick around a few minutes as my shift was about to end. He agreed. After I was out of costume, Don, his wife and I sat in my dressing room talking about Santa and Santa’s Village. We had a lot in common. The conversation lasted about an hour when we exchanged phone numbers.

Spring of 1994 saw Santa’s Village celebrate 35 years of being a landmark in the Northern Fox River Valley. As the park’s season progressed, I thought it would be neat if I could have Don come back for a day and be Santa once again at Santa’s Village. After a few phone calls between us and he agreed. June saw Santa Don Goers return to Santa’s Village.

The day started off with me meeting Don in the main office. (It wasn’t like he didn’t know his way around.) From there I took him to the dressing room where he changed into his costume. When he walked out in full regalia as Santa, you could see a little smile beneath his moustache. Standing in front of me was the Santa that I knew as a child.

Santa Don and I went out of the dressing area and over to Santa’s House. I opened the door for him and for the first time in 15 years, Don was back “home” once again. He sat in Santa’s chair and rapped his knuckles on the chair. It was of course the same chair that he and all who ever played the character had sat in.

I left Santa’s House for a few minutes and when I came back, I glanced in the window. It was strange feeling peering into the house. There was Santa, in his house, just as I remembered him as a child. Walking inside, I felt as I had just traveled back into time. Don Goers had changed himself into Santa Claus and he had change me into a little boy once again. It was magic.

Don played Santa all day that day. A few newspapers came out to interview him. It was his day, but it was also my day. It is not too often that two people form different eras have a chance to interact and share some of the same experiences. Each of us got to go back in time for a brief moment. In age we are 38 years apart, but in the Santa’s Village world we share so much and the same role. We will always be connected by that common bond.

I still see Santa Don every now and then. I enjoy the conversations and enjoy the fact that we have the opportunity to talk about the park. Of all my days at Santa’s Village, the day I got to “re-visit” with Santa is by far my most cherished.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The last day...

The last day that Santa’s Village in Dundee, Illinois would be open to the public was on September 18, 2005. The Polar Dome shut its doors in May of 2006. Forty six years had passed since my first predecessor “Santa” Jim Combs opened the gates to the Village in 1959. And 50 years had passed since the first “Santa’s Village Santa” Carl Hansen opened the first of Glenn Holland’s three Santa’s Villages. Hansen opened up the Sky Forest, CA location in 1955 and he opened the second park in 1957 at Scotts Valley, CA. The Sky Forest park was opened for 43 years and closed in 1998, while the Scotts Valley’s park closed in 1978 after a 21 year run. Dundee outlasted them all with 46 years.

I arrived at Santa’s Village early that day in September of 2005. I wanted to take in the whole experience of this day. Rumors had been flying that the park was going to be sold and this was just another closing day. None of the people that worked at the park on that last day thought this was going to happen. And of course it did not.

This last day was a passing. A passing of a dream, the passing of magic and most importantly the passing of the people who worked at Santa’s Village over the years. I could not help but think of these people as I began my day as Santa. I knew this might be the last time that I was in Santa’s House visiting guests and entertaining the young at heart.

It was a weird day from the start. A pretty good size crowd was there that day, all with cameras. In reality, more pictures were probably taken in the park that day than in any day in the last 40 years. People just soaked it all in.

By 1:00 pm you could see some of the management of the park getting a little emotional of the day. Visitors came and went in a steady pace all day in Santa’s House. I kept my composure until Debbi, the long time manager of the barn and petting zoo, came into Santa’s House. Debbi, like a few others had been associated with the park for decades. Her smiling face and tear soaked eyes got to me.

Her visit made me realize what Santa’s Village means to a lot of people…family. Whether you worked out at the park in 1959, 1966, 1972, or whatever year, you were part of this extended family. During the last hours that Santa’s House was open that day, mostly employees came in. It was all I could do to keep in character. When it came time to close up the House that day, I made sure I knew who the last visitors were and I had the last picture taken in the House.

Going to my dressing room when my day was finished, it was hard to not think of all the people that I had the good fortune of working with at the park. I thought of one of the owners who passed away a few years earlier and thought of Don the general manager of the park for so many years. Others crossed my mind such as Frank, John and Joslyn, Jill, Grant, Lori, Lauren, JoEllen, Luda, Pete, Cathy, and Toby. The maintenance guys over the years, Ralph, Red, Bob, Kenny, Nels, Gene, Ron and Russ. The food service people of Willie and Marion Hankey. All these people and more were part of my time at the park.

I thought about all the people who worked there before me like “Santa” Don Goers and general manager Ray VanRoyen and Jack Morningstar. I thought about the original Santa’s Village Corporation folks, Glenn Holland and J.P. Henck. All were part of this day.

When I finally got changed out of costume, I went and sat in the park with a lot of the management that was winding this day down. The director of operations, Crystal, had been a part of this park for 30 years, the maintenance department of Gary, Mark and Matt, the current owner and his son and daughter-in –law and the security guards, Dean and Al were all around the snowball ride. The park’s wonderful magic act duo of Tim and Robin were there. Sue L. was there smiling like she always did. Sue H. and Jeff D. were tucked away in guest services preparing for the closing of the day.

When it came time for the closing announcement, we all just kind of looked at each other. When it was announced, I remember everyone dispersing, as the park had to be locked down. I sat on a bench with Tom, the grounds manager, and watched as the people exited. Across from us sat the owner. I don’t think a word was said.

As the last people exited I thought how over the years Santa’s Village provided magic and entertainment for over 20 million guests. The owners, managers, contractors and thousands of local teenagers created that magic. All of them contributed to the 46 years of Santa’s Village.

When the park was secure, the managers met in the Polar Dome’s Alpine Room. Everybody knew in their hearts that it was over. With the clinking of glasses, Santa’s Village in Dundee passed into our collective memory.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Growing Up Santa / Remembering Watseka, IL

I came across some old photos and articles the other day about my early years in Watseka, Illinois and playing Santa there as a teenager. They brought back quite a few memories and how lucky I am to have had these wonderful opportunities at such a young age. As some of you know I have been playing Santa in public since I was four years old, as a little Santa at the hospital where my Dad was the administrator, at local nursing homes and at school parties.

By 1977 I was a six foot tall freshman in high school when the local chamber of commerce approached my father to ask if I might be interested in being the official Santa Claus for their annual Christmas Parade and Santa House promotion. My Dad wasn't sure. I was a fourteen year old kid. Sure I did this Santa thing, but this was a paid job with a lot of stuff that went with it.

When my Dad talked to me about it I did not know what to think. Could I do it? What were the hours? What would my friends think? The decision was all mine to make. I thought about it a lot and finally said yes.

Santa House would be open everyday from the Saturday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. The hours were Saturdays 9 am to 5 pm, Sunday noon to 5 pm and weekdays 3:30 pm until 8 pm. I would be in the Parade and have some other obligations as well. I would be paid $3.00 an hour. Even my schedule at school was change to allow me to get out early to work.

As Thanksgiving approached and my big day came near I grew nervous. I almost backed out, but my desire to be a professional Santa drove me. I knew I had some experience, a whopping ten years at the time.

The day of the Parade I was surprisingly relaxed. My Mom and Dad on the other had were not. I believe they knew that this might be that start of something. I had a dressing room in the basement of one of the local stores. My Dad came down to see me before the Chief of Police picked me up to drive me to the sleigh I was to ride in.

Dad reminded me that this might be the first step to bigger things. Just enjoy yourself and the experience your about to have. He gave me a hug and went to find a spot on the street to watch.

The Parade that day in 1977 went off without a hitch. I did eight Parades and Santa House promotions for the chamber from 1977 through 1984. From a 14 year old freshman in high school to a 22 year old young man.

Those eight years in Watseka helped me with getting hired with my first job with Instant Photo Corporation of America in 1985, which led to Santa's Village in 1986. They also led me to a career as Santa. I would do a ninth Parade in Watseka in 2001. It was for my 20th high school class reunion.
I have done a lot of Santa things in the last 31 years since that Christmas in 1977, but nothing will be like that first feeling of turning the corner onto the parade route in Watseka that day. Dad was right…it was the first step.
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