We all know what Santa Claus does in December, but did you ever wonder where he goes in the off-season? Paul Ruben finds Santa and his elves in Jefferson, New Hampshire.
Santa’s Village is a thoroughly Christmas-themed amusement park, and draws mainly from the New England states and Quebec, Canada. The 17 rides and five shows are geared for families.
“Theming creates a special feature not found elsewhere,” contends Elaine Gainer, the park’s president. “At Santa’s Village our mission is to provide a beautiful and joyful day. The landscaping, music, architecture and decorations all are there to help guests feel like it’s Christmas …even in summer! It’s America’s favourite holiday, and we all love the spirit.“
Families enjoy a personal visit to see Santa Claus, feed the reindeer and talk with Rudolf. Along with kid friendly rides and attractions, Santa’s Village also offers a scavenger hunt for young guests. Fibreglass elves from RP Creations are hidden throughout the village for children to find. Those who discover them receive a special gift from Santa.
“The unique Elfabet Game is one of our most popular attractions,” offers Gainer. “There are 26 elves located throughout the park. The competition to find all the elves of the Elfabet becomes a family affair!”
Another highlight is the entertainment offering inside the Polar Theater, where the shows also reflect the park’s family ideals. In 2007 the live production Once Upon A Christmas won first place at the IAAPA Big E Awards. “Guests love our entertainment too,” adds Gainer, “and RWS and Associates from New York are, in Santa’s opinion, the best in the industry.”
In 1940, Normand and Cecile Dubois moved into nearby Lancaster, New Hampshire, and established a successful dry cleaning business. By the early ’50s they envisioned something unique for the area – a family amusement park. They also recognised the beauty of Jefferson, especially a 16-acre piece of land occupied by a grove of fir trees. As they drove past the land with their daughter, Elaine, a young fawn jumped out of the woods into the road in front of their car. When Elaine asked what it was, her dad told her it was one of Santa’s reindeer.
These people did not believe in coincidence. It had to be fate that a Christmas theme park should rest on that parcel of land. It wasn’t long after they bought the land that they began to construct the first buildings. They opened the gates for the first guests on June 21, 1953.
With the assistance of 15 helpers and five buildings, guests enjoyed this hospitality that first year and this serene little park doubled in size the second. Additions such as Santa’s Schoolhouse, the Blacksmith Shop, Santa’s Workshop and St Nick’s Chapel added to the festivities. The third year brought the village its first live entertainment, Francis the mule drinking oats from a whiskey bottle! With every season came new additions. The Dubois’ determination along with community support has made Santa’s Village a success.
In 1969, a new generation of Dubois continued the tradition. Son Paul along with son-in-law Mike Gainer, who had married Elaine, teamed up as new managers. By then, Santa had installed three rides and hosted live entertainment in the form of chicken and rabbit dancing. Playgrounds, food shops and the animated Jingle Jamboree were soon to follow as Santa entered the technological age. Soon more land was purchased for necessary expansion and additional parking.
The 1980s brought more development as rides like the Yule Log Flume from OD Hopkins and Rudy’s Rapid Transit Coaster by Zierer were installed. Santa also acquired trained macaws that would ride bikes on a tightrope and roller-skate across the stage. In 1993 the Skyway Sleigh monorail from Hopkins was installed, and in 1994 came Santa’s Volunteer Fire Department. Santa’s North Pole Workshop, the Polar Theater and an arcade were built in 1997. Strangely, it was only that year that the park began opening during Christmas. This new season became an immediate hit as Mr and Mrs Claus greeted thousands.
The new millennium has welcomed the third generation into park management. Grandchildren Christian Gainer and wife Pam and Melanie Staley with husband Nick have been passed the torch. Christian and Pam have finance and accounting backgrounds, and Melanie and Nick have degrees in business management. What is most important is that they are parents themselves, so understand the needs of their guests.
Mike and Elaine Gainer continue to “overview” in the summer, but look south after the Christmas season. Great grandmother and founder Cecile Dubois can still be seen displaying merchandise at the Stocking Stuffer Shop. She loves the park, and loves how the family has gathered around it. Husband and founder Normand has passed away, but the Dubois passion has been carefully passed down through the generations.
Growth in the park continued with the Reindeer Rendezvous in 2005, where guests can learn about, feed and pet Santa’s Reindeer. The fun also included the Reindeer Games in 2006 as children learned how to make Santa’s reindeer fly!
“When looking to purchase a new ride and/or attraction,” acknowledges Gainer, “we attend the IAAPA convention. There’s lots to be learned from the workshops and speakers. Our suppliers range from Nanco as a favourite with novelties to LARC as engineers in design. Managers are sure to meet, and even dine with, long-time friends at that convention.”
Today, Santa’s Village covers a total area of 23 acres. The company owns additional land for future growth, maintenance and warehouse facilities. Santa’s Village boasts 25 full-time employees, or “helpers,” and more than 200 seasonal staff.
Looking ahead, Gainer discloses that, “we have plans to create a ‘Main Street’ with newly placed infrastructure and we also look to novel ways to provide interactive fun for the family. This is a balancing act that we walk as we meet for the next IAAPA convention in November.”
While change is guaranteed, the basic philosophy has remained the same at Santa’s Village. This is not a park of simply rides and carnival games. Rather, it is a village reflecting the culture of Christmas in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Group sales at Santa’s Village account for only about 1% of attendance. “Our groups consist of local area scout troops or summer recreational groups,” admits Elaine Gainer, the park’s president. “We’ve begun celebrating birthdays, but haven’t been actively recruiting.”
Gainer cites the weather as being the park’s greatest competition. “Last summer was proof we lost that game, as it rained throughout July and August almost everyday”.
But success brings success. In the White Mountains there are 17 other venues situated within a radius of 60 miles. There are natural attractions such as the Flume Gorge or Lost River Gorge, as well as theme parks and waterparks.