SANTA CLAUS, Ind. - It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that this town near the southern tip of Indiana is located pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Nearby hamlets have names like Tell City, Ferdinand, and Gentryville, and the closest city of any size is Evansville more than 55 miles to the west.
But this tiny community of barely 2,200 people has earned a reputation around the central United States and beyond, attracting close to a million visitors a year. As you might guess from the whimsical name of the town, it owes much of its notoriety to a certain jolly fat guy with a white beard and a twinkle in his eye.
But Old St. Nick's partner, the one who really got things going around here more than six decades ago, was an Evansville industrialist named Louis Koch. It was Koch who built "the world's first theme park" here (more about that claim later), calling it Santa Claus Land, and Koch's family which has overseen its steady growth over the years. In 1984, the park's name was changed to Holiday World, and today, in its 60th year of operation under Koch family management, it's one of the premier amusement parks in the country - though it fails to register as even a tiny blip on the radar for most folks living in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
When I told people earlier this summer that I was planning to take the grandkids to Holiday World, nobody had even heard of it. "What is it, a museum?" was a common question.
Actually, much of the Yule-happy hamlet of Santa Claus does seem like a museum, with statues of St. Nicholas everywhere you look, a big hotel called Santa's Lodge, a shopping area called Kringle Place, and a post office that receives up to 15,000 letters to Santa every year - and answers each one of them with the help of an army of volunteers.
But Holiday World & Splashin' Safari (a water park was added in 1993) is anything but unknown in the amusement park industry.
Amusement Today, the same trade publication that has ranked Ohio's Cedar Point as "Best Amusement Park in the World" for eight consecutive years, has certainly not ignored Holiday World.
In 2005, the publication named Holiday World "Friendliest Park" for the eighth straight year, beating out higher-profile contenders such as Dollywood, Disney's Magic Kingdom, and Cedar Point. It was also named "Cleanest Park" for the sixth year in a row, ranking higher than Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Cedar Point, the Magic Kingdom, and Disneyland.
And in last year's survey results, Holiday World was once again the only amusement park anywhere that could boast two of the top 10 wooden roller coasters in the world.
In planning our trip, I learned that right next door to the park is the Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort, which has more than 150 rental RVs as well as cabins and camping sites. It also has a couple of pools, several play areas, rental golf carts, and paddle boats and kayaks for use on the lake.
I thought it would be great to spend a night in one of the rental RVs, but I was outvoted by other members of the family, so instead we ended up at Santa's Lodge, a rustic hotel just down the street from Holiday World. It looked like a big log cabin, guarded on the outside by two big statues of you-know-who. The three-story lobby was crisscrossed with wooden beams and filled with antique Christmas trees and other holiday decorations. A gift shop sold holiday souvenirs, and a restaurant in the basement was called St. Nick's.
The lodge's guest rooms were spacious and clean, but curiously, they didn't continue the Christmas theme, other than small holiday pictures on the walls.
One advantage of staying at Santa's Lodge, other than its proximity to the park, is that guests can get discount tickets to Holiday World, saving themselves $4 a person. Regular park prices are $37 for adults and $29 for those over the age of 60 or kids under 54 inches tall. Children 2 and under are admitted free.
The next morning, before heading to the park, we made a quick stop across the street at the new Santa Claus Museum (located in Kringle Plaza between the post office and a women's health club), where manager Joe Keller showed us around. The museum, which opened in May, displays artifacts, pictures, and documents (many from the Koch family) that tell the story of the town, including how it got its unusual name.
As legend has it, back in the mid-19th century the town was to be named Santafee, or Santa Fe, but the government wouldn't allow that because it was too similar to the name of another Indiana town. During a winter meeting of community leaders to consider an alternative, a door was blown open by the wind and the sound of sleigh bells drifted in.
"It's Santa Claus!" a child called out, and the adults at the meeting thought that was as good a name as any.
"At least that's how the story goes," Keller said.
When we left the museum and drove the short distance to Holiday World, I got my first surprise of the day. Parking was free. That's practically unheard of these days, with most amusement parks charging from $8 to $10 per vehicle.
Inside the park, there were more surprising freebies. Guests can help themselves to unlimited drinks for nothing, including carbonated beverages, pink lemonade, fruit punch, iced tea, and ice water at six "oasis" buildings. And at the water park, 30 SPF sunscreen is free, as are the inner tubes used on some of the water slides.
"We decided we weren't going to nickel-and-dime people who came to the park," said Paula Werne, a Holiday World spokesman. She explained that the company's bean-counters had calculated that potential revenue lost on drink sales is made up for by people staying at the park longer, and in all likelihood spending more on food or other purchases.
And the sunscreen? "We used to see too many little lobster faces at the end of the day," she said.
There's one more item in the "free" category that's designed to appeal to families: both Holiday World and Splashin' Safari are smoke-free parks, with diehard smokers required to use designated areas in each park.
Werne said the park was designed to be a family-friendly destination. "We're not a teen park, we're not a date park, we're not a baby-sitting park," she said. "We're a place where families can come and have fun together." Fun Town, a small section in one corner of Holiday World, is dedicated to rides for younger guests; among them is the Freedom Train, the only remaining attraction from the park's first season in 1946.
The two parks together cover about 120 acres, making the complex about a third of the size of a Cedar Point or a Kings Island. But it's by no means a second-tier park. Holiday World's four themed sections - Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, and a new one this year, Thanksgiving - contain more than 40 rides, some considered among the best in the country. There's a nice mixture of classic amusement-park rides such as flying scooters, bumper cars, and carousels alongside high-tech, world-class roller coasters.
And in addition to the usual musical shows that are presented in theaters throughout the day, there are regular appearances by Santa himself. (No, he doesn't wear shorts or sandals, but he's in shirtsleeves and hatless. And the old boy has a pretty good tan, too!)
The 22-acre Splashin' Safari, which has been ranked by Amusement Today as the No. 2 water park in the world for the past four years, includes two wave pools, raft rides, several water slides - including the world's longest enclosed slide - and interactive play areas with jets, geysers, water cannons, and spray arches.
The Koch family sunk $13.5 million into new rides and renovation of the parks this season. The most dazzling addition is a wooden coaster called the Voyage, which features three drops of 100-plus feet as well as five underground tunnels and extreme 90-degree banking. With a track length of 1.2 miles, it's the third-longest wooden coaster in the world, but what really has coaster enthusiasts buzzing is the 24 seconds of "air time" - or virtual weightlessness - that riders on the Voyage experience. The new ride joins the park's two other world-ranked wooden coasters, the Raven and the Legend.
Other new attractions are a family ride called Gobbler Getaway, a "dark ride" featuring runaway turkeys, and another action river in the water park.
"We realize that we can't compete with the huge parks with their $25 million coasters," Werne said, "so we decided let's look at what we can do to make us special."
There's no denying that the park is indeed something special - and well worth the price of admission - but before we left, I still needed to pin Werne down on the seemingly outrageous claim that Holiday World is the oldest theme park on the planet. Opening as Santa Claus Land in 1946, it obviously predated Disneyland (1955) and Walt Disney World (1971), not to mention Kings Island (1972). But that still leaves a little place over in Sandusky, Ohio, which welcomed guests for the first time way back in 1870.
So what about that, Paula?
"We were the first theme park," she explained slowly, as if speaking to someone who wasn't very bright. "We were the first park to theme its areas. Cedar Point is an amusement park. There's a big difference."
Hmm. Well, that's a point that may be subject to debate, but semantics aside, there's no debating this: Holiday World, the pride of Santa Claus, Ind., may not be the biggest amusement ... er, theme park around, but it's definitely one of the best.
Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.