North Pole, New York
America's oldest theme park isn't in Florida or California. It's a little place tucked into the north woods of New York State, closer to Montreal than to any spot where we'd think to take a vacation.
It's Santa's Workshop, and if your taste leans toward the earnest and the retro, if you want to see what tourism was like 50 years ago, then come here. Not much has changed, and management intends to keep it that way.
The idea for Santa's Workshop came to Julian Reiss, a Lake Placid businessman in the 1940s, when his little daughter asked him to take her to Santa's summer home. Reiss, frustrated that he couldn't satisfy her wish, bought some hilly woodland along the highway that ran to the summit of Whiteface Mountain, a top tourist attraction at the time.
He worked with Arto Monaco, a local artist who'd designed a fake German village in the Arizona desert (to train World War II soldiers for uber-urban fighting), to create preliminary sketches. With little other forethought -- no feasibility studies, marketing plans, or even blueprints -- Santa's Workshop was built and its frosty doors thrown open on July 1, 1949.
The public loved it, adults as well as kids, because nothing like it had ever existed before. They were drawn, not so much by Santa, but by the park's continually frozen "north pole" -- a wonder of refrigeration technology -- and by the deer and goats and sheep that wandered freely among the park's brightly painted log cabin buildings, turning it into the world's first petting zoo.
The U.S. Postal Service awarded Santa's Workshop its own zip code --12946. Summertime crowds of over 10,000 a day were common, which is astounding when you consider this attraction's remoteness and its small size. Its success spawned dozens of copycats -- the reason you still find Santa lands across the U.S.A. today. Planners from Disney, with their own theme park on the drawing boards in the early 1950s, came here to study the phenomenon. From Santa's furry belly, America's tourism industry was born.
Things are quieter now. But even if you visited Santa's Workshop years ago as a kid, you'd feel right at home visiting it today. The free-range animals are gone -- they nibbled too many of the visitors' clothes -- but the north pole is still frozen, live reindeer still pull Santa's sleigh, and the costumed characters -- local high school kids dressed as Frosty the Snowman, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, and lesser-knowns such as Rowdy the Reindeer and Chris Moose -- still lead the afternoon Christmas Parade and dance with the children. There are kiddie rides, an arcade, musical shows, and a variety of gift shops, confectionaries and snack chalets.
The post office is still here, and so is Tannenbaum the Talking Christmas Tree (although he was mute when we peppered him with questions). Santa is here too, of course, comfortable in his summer home with its cool Adirondack mountain breezes, a location that many a flatland Santa would envy on a sweltering July afternoon. He comes out for the daily decree, and a magical flight through the woods in his sleigh.
Bob Reiss, son of Julian, has run the park since 1962 and declares, "This place is for the believers."
But Bob is now in his eighties, and for several years he searched for a younger believer to run Santa's Workshop. He even appeared on the QVC cable TV network in 1999 to make an appeal for a worthy successor, someone who would maintain the park's integrity. Greg Cunningham, a local man who apparently was watching QVC that day, wrote to Bob and told him everything he wanted to hear.
"I wanted to believe," Bob concedes, and the two men signed a contract in early 2001.
Then Greg was arrested, and subsequently convicted, of embezzlement, forgery, and grand larceny in previous business deals (He's currently in a New York state prison, and is expected to be there for the next 20 years.)
Santa's Workshop did not open during the summer of 2001. Many thought it was closed for good.
Happily -- this is a story about Santa, after all -- the park did not die. Bob Reiss regained control. Santa's Workshop is open for business again. Bob found a new, new owner, Doug Waterbury, who pledged to us that, "This place will be here forever," and granted Bob the right to hang around as long as he liked.
Bob Reiss told us that the new era at Santa's Workshop will look pretty much like the old era. When we asked if the park might incorporate pieces of Kwaanza, Chanukah, Ramadan, Saturnalia, and other winter solstice holidays, in an effort to become more inclusive, Bob deflected the suggestion. "We try our best to stay as true to the legend as we can," he said. "I think we'd screw it up if we tried otherwise."