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.
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