Santa's Land USA and Spray Foam House
It's been a while since we've visited an attraction as other-worldly as Santa's Land USA.
If you don't know about Santa's Land USA, don't feel bad.
You won't find a brochure for it easily in Vermont (you might instead see flyers for Santa's North Pole in NY or Santa's Village in NH). The official Vermont Attractions Map does not list it. It has no billboards. Even the publicity material for Santa's Land USA's home town, Putney, VT -- which carries glowing descriptions of local businesses like Basketville and the Putney Food Co-op -- fails to mention Santa's Land USA. The only reason we even knew about this place is that one of us visited it in 1985.
There must be some sort of elfin magic at work. The entire attraction, which covers many acres of pine-shaded woods, appears to be run by five people: the kindly lady in the gift shop, the guy who sprints between the Sweet Shoppe and Candy Cane Cupboard, the train engineer, the kiddie ride attendant, and Santa. And this is on a summer weekend.
Mysteries abound. The first thing that catches our eye when we enter the park through the fairyland cottage gift shop is a huge blob of discolored white stuff lying near a little pond. What is it? Fake iceberg? A wad of funnel cake that fell out of Valhalla? Only Santa knows.
The goats in the Santa's Petting Zoo are friendly, and the Sweetheart covered bridge is in good repair. The lights are out in the Elves' Home. And the TV in the kid's video theater in Santa's Arcade shows nothing but electric snow (but perhaps the tape has just ended). There's a Nativity Scene of statues, displays of elf dummies at work, a Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer statue photo op.
Parents stroll with their kids as if nothing is unusual ("Giant white blob? What about it?") and the children seemed to enjoy the iceberg slide and other wonders. As with all Santa attractions, children under 8 are the prime audience.
We walk up the hill to the quiet of Santa's House, and can see red legs through the doorway. Santa sits, motionless. We assume he's a stuffed dummy. Then a truck klaxon echoes through the woods -- the over-the-top horn for the tiny Alpine Train -- and Santa jerks to life.
"Ho ho," he says groggily. "You caught Santa napping." The next words out of his mouth startle us even more than finding him asleep. "You look like prosperous gentlemen. Would you like to buy Santa's Land?"
Santa says that the park's current owner wants to sell the place. The owner's pumped a lot of money into its electric wiring and septic system -- over $100,000 by Santa's guess -- but the right buyers have been as elusive as flying reindeer.
The manager abruptly left a couple of weeks ago, and the place is currently run by the multi-tasking Sweet Shoppe guy.
As a ten year veteran of the park, Santa seems to know more than anyone else. He tells us a story of how S.L. was built in the early 1950s. "The original owners -- I forgot their name, I forget everybody's name -- built it. There used to be an airstrip here. For the war, you know. It's not here any more." Santa recalls that a family named Brewer purchased the park in 1970 and ran it for almost 30 years. "This place was Mr. Brewer's pet. It did quite well for a few years, but then it sort of petered out."
"They lived up there, in the Igloo Pancake House," Santa says, pointing into the woods. "Before it was the Igloo Pancake House. If you take the train, and get off at Pancake Junction, you'll see it. It's an igloo-type thing."
We walk past the klaxoning train and see one of our favorite kiddie park statues -- the hydrocephalic Purple Plum Man. The now-abandoned Igloo Pancake House is set into the side of a slope. It's very similar to a Xanadu home, a spray-foam "house of the future" attraction from the late 1960s. Aside from another Xanadu in Florida -- also abandoned -- this is perhaps the only one still standing.
Chunks of white exterior have started to fall off, revealing yellowing foam underneath. It's more evocative of rounded snowplow piles than an igloo, but in the psychedelic funhouse world of kiddyland amusement parks, it's close enough. Peering into its dusty windows, we can see tables and chairs set and ready for service, a dining room atmosphere straight out of Logan's Run or A Clockwork Orange.
Santa's Land USA may yet be saved. The Igloo could again serve pancakes with real Vermont syrup, the elves no longer toiling in darkness, Santa delighting children for many years to come.
We like that scenario better than the alternative: a Santa's Land continuing its slow wind-down, run by a dutiful few at their posts in an overgrown and long-forgotten attraction. "Have you come to buy Santa's Land? We've been waiting a long time...."
November 2012:Reopened on weekends through Christmas, narrowly avoiding an auction of contents when an anonymous "Secret Santa" stepped in with support. December 2011: Santa's Land closed on Dec. 18, 2011 due to falling attendance and increased cost to keep the park open. May, 2004: Santa's Land has been purchased and is being refurbished under new management. It is reported to be opening with a new train on Memorial Day weekend.
July 2005: A revitalized Santa's Land is reported to be back on the VT attraction map.
September, 2004 -Santa's Land booster Josh Dennis updates us that the park has undergone some major restorations, including: repainting all signs and attractions; brand new roof on main entrance/gift shop building; animals placed on nutrient rich diets and working closely with the USDA to certify that the they are properly cared for; tearing down busted attractions, erecting new ones; general landscaping and grounds clean up. Santa's Land has installed a refurbished 1949 antique carousel that now sits in what once was a neglected area of the park. Also, the old train has been replaced with a new C.P. Huntington.
The admission price is the same as it had been under the previous management, but discount coupons are available throughout the region, and a promotional campaign is designed to put Santa's Land back on the state's official maps and literature.
Josh notes: "It's still a work in progress, but the park is already light years ahead of where it's been in recent years."