Santa Stages a Comeback in Indiana
America's oldest theme park has reopened, kind of.
Santa's Candy Castle has once again lowered its drawbridge in Santa Claus, Indiana. Built in 1935, it is the oldest -- and thus far only restored -- part of "Santa Claus Town," the first theme park tourist attraction in America. The Castle closed in the 1970s and was left to rot, until it was rescued by self-described "big Christmas fanatic" Kevin Klosowski.
"From the moment I laid eyes on it, it was just calling me," he told us. "Who hasn't at one point fantasized about being the prince or the princess of the castle?" Kevin, a self-admitted executive drop-out from the world of corporate finance, does have moments of clarity. "You have to be crazy to buy a run-down castle in a town named Santa Claus," he admits. "Every roof was caved in. I fell through the floor several times. But the story of this place is AMAZING."
Santa Claus Town was the creation of Milton Harris, a super-salesmen from upstate Indiana. He knew that a million people a year were sending their mail to be postmarked in Santa Claus, and reasoned that people would want to have their toys sent from here as well. So he convinced some of the biggest toy companies of the time -- Daisy Air Rifles, Lionel Trains, and many others -- to build kid-sized "pavilions" in Santa Claus Town, all centered around "Santa's Workshop" and the all-important post office. It was designed as a year-round attraction, where it was "Christmas morning every day of the year."
Klosowski remains awed by Harris's accomplishment. "I can't even get companies to show an interest in this place today," he said. "To do that successfully during the Depression? It's AMAZING. I'm as enamored of that as I am of the attraction."
Santa Claus Town had enough Christmas mojo to survive a general economic catastrophe, but it couldn't survive World War II, when toy production dwindled and people could no longer travel. "I think that had it not been for the war," Kevin told us, "instead of people saying, 'Hey, let's go to Disney World,' they'd be saying, 'I'm going to Santa Claus Town.' This guy had a thousand acres under lease."
As it was, only four acres were ever developed, and only the small, sturdy brick castle -- sponsored by the Curtiss Candy Company -- survived long enough to be restored by Klosowski.
Kevin and his very understanding wife run Santa's Candy Castle as a custom sweet shop, mini-museum, and a soon-to-be Santa Claus Hall of Fame. Special rooms are set aside for visits with a real-life St Nick and for writing letters to Santa when he isn't around. Kevin plans to rebuild Santa's Workshop and all of the toy pavilions as well, whose foundations still exist out in the weeds. When it's eventually finished, Santa Claus Town will be America's most ancient theme park, knocking another hoary holiday attraction, Santa's Workshop, into second-oldest place.
"A lot of people think we're crazy," Klosowski concedes. "But I think this is a MAJOR part of American history. It's this tiny little thing, but it has a much bigger significance. I'm really, really passionate about it."[09/22/2007]