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Arts and Entertainment

Photos: Long-Abandoned Santa's Village Is Looking Festive For First Time In 18 Years

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The once beloved, long defunct Santa's Village will open to visitors for the first time in over 15 years this holiday season. We stopped by recently to check out the festive renovations, which included a creepy spider cave and a whole lot of glittering lights.

Santa's Village has a very peaks and valleys history. It first opened in the unincorporated community of Skyforest, near Lake Arrowhead, on May 29, 1955, preceding Disneyland by just over a month. The idea came from developer Glenn Holland, who leased the land from the park's general contractor, J. Putnam Henck. Guests to the park were immersed in an atmosphere of seasonal wonder, surrounded by Christmas trees, towering candy canes, Santa's helpers and Yuletide displays. There was even a petting zoo. Many long-time residents of the region still boast fond memories of childhoods enhanced by annual visits to the park.

Santa's Village was initially a success, and would become the first franchised theme park in the U.S., opening additional locations in Illinois and Santa Cruz. When the franchise when bankrupt in 1978, the Henck family, who still owned the land in Lake Arrowhead, purchased the theme park. They added horseback riding, trails and rides for a booming 1980s and early '90s.

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By the late '90s, however, Santa's Village had fallen out of favor. Its secluded charm lacked the thrilling rollercoasters and more advanced attractions of more modern theme parks. In 1998, it shut down and was mostly abandoned, save the occasional use of its parking lot.

"The reason for us closing down now," Henck told the L.A. Times in 1998, "[is] we have a very loyal following, but there's just not enough to pay the bills. People, I believe, are over-programming their kids to where they have so much stuff to do now, they don't have time to come up here. Every McDonald's, every pizza parlor, every mall has a kiddie place. Most of our people have to plan an eight-hour day, two hours up, two hours back, four hours here."

In 2003, a massive wildfire that would become known as the Old Fire raged through 23,800 acres, taking out 280 homes. The abandoned Santa's Village was damaged, but spared from complete devastation by local fire crews.

After the fire, the site was used to store trees infested by bark beetles. Urban explorers who sought out the vestiges of the park stumbled upon its eerie emptiness and documented—you can see one example of this in the video below. (The Alice in Wonderland attraction seen in the video was not restored during renovations.)

In 2014, the glimmer of hope appeared for the forsaken park when developers bought the property and reimagined it as not just a Christmas-themed attraction, but SkyPark at Santa's Village, a year-round adventure park with zip lines, hiking and camping. There's plenty of room for this, as Santa's Village only takes up 15 acres of the entire 230-acre property. While the full project's completion has been delayed numerous times, owners have received permission to temporarily open the Santa's Village portion of the park for the holidays. While owners are not yet sure when exactly they will be able to officially open to the public—they're hoping before Thanksgiving—the park is currently operational. It's aglow with dazzling lights, the scent of fresh-baked gingerbread cookies lingers in the air, and the shops are packed with sweets and gifts. They're even fully staffed with a number of convivial elves who skip through the grounds singing carols, and of course, Santa and Mrs. Claus.

During a walk around the park, general manager Bill Johnson told LAist that the park's nostalgia has been kept in tact throughout renovations. Rather than constructing new buildings, existing ones have been restored. The Good Witch's Bakery, which appears in photos in an array of dizzying pastels with a pink frosting roof, is now more subdued as the snow-capped Gingerbread House, which still serves up warm baked goods. The Kandy Shoppe is a fantastical scene with bright colors, a candy chandelier and a toy train that goes round and round a village blanketed with fresh-fallen snow. Food is available at either St. Nick's, a fast-casual eatery, or via The Gathering, which will serve as a more upscale Mediterranean restaurant where adults can order a glass of wine with their meals. There's also Pedals Pub, a cyclist-themed watering hole, where craft beers from area breweries can be sipped. A small chapel offers a nativity scene, while a nearby pavilion provides a space for performances.

For those looking to burn off their cookies and hot cocoa, there's a large climbing wall meant to look like a tower of ice. It sits before what will soon be a bouldering room, and not far from the Adventure Center, where guests can rent mountain bikes. Other activities, such as ice skating, are on their way as well. Those who recall the old park might recognize the cars from the bumblebee monorail, a few of which are now scattered around the grounds. Two can be found near a massive dump truck that marks the playground, another can be seen off in the distance. Atlas Obscura reports that due to new safety laws, the monorail will not be restored.

Johnson has added some fresh mythology to the park in the form of a new park champion named Arrow. Arrow is a wolf, who appears as both anthropomorphic mascot and an actual fluffy, white dog. An existing tunnel on the property has been turned into a creepy spider cave, full of grotesque faces peering out from cavern walls. Inside this cave, a spider guards a golden key, and takes the form of a woman's face projected onto an eight-legged body. She sings "Itsy Bitsy Spider" over and over again with a pained expression that reminds us of a scene from a David Lynch film. Each year, the intrepid Arrow must retrieve the key and give it to Santa. The key enables Santa to enter homes without chimneys and deliver presents.

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When Santa's Village is ready to open, visitors will be able to purchase tickets online. Due to traffic concerns on narrow mountain roads, you must buy tickets in advance and not at the door. Admission is free for children 3 and under, $49 for ages 4-12, $59 for ages 13-61, $49 for ages 62-80 and free for ages 80 and over. Groups of 12 or more will receive a 10 percent discount.

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