Nostalgia at the heart of theme park that has weathered through the decades
By Tom French
Many enchanting experiences emerge from the Adirondacks, but nothing compares to witnessing Santa in his sleigh sliding through the switchbacks above his workshop. He laughs as he barrels down the hillside, faster than imaginable, barely slowing as he swings through several turns.
Open on weekends in November and December, any visit to Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole (with its own zip code and as recognized on official USGS maps), begins with Santa. Visitors form a line in front of his house as soon as the park opens – families rush down the hill and stamp their feet (hopefully in snow) while waiting their turn to sit on the big guy’s knee. And he doesn’t disappoint.
For almost 75 years, Santa has been entertaining kids (and adults) from his home near Wilmington. Everyone I know seems to have been there at least once. My mother visited in the early-1950s. I first dropped by when my kids were little. We have video of our son tentatively testing Santa’s bed while waiting to enter Santa’s chamber.
Opened with a boom
Considered one of the first theme parks in the United States, it opened on July 1, 1949, with 212 visitors, mostly adults. With no rides, the main attraction besides Santa and the frozen North Pole was a number of shops, many of which are still present today. Visitors didn’t pay the 76-cent entrance fee until they left. Instead, “shopping cards” were attached to guests with strings where purchases were tallied and paid upon leaving, along with the entrance fee.
Animals roamed freely. The reindeer discovered the lollipop tree and the goats ate people’s clothing (and the shopping cards), so the animals were eventually placed in paddocks, and a different payment method was devised. Reindeer can still be found near Santa’s house.
When visitors only stayed for an hour, live shows and rides were added. Jason Gregg, the park’s current maintenance supervisor, has renderings by Arto Monaco showing how the Christmas tree ride was converted from a helicopter ride and the bobsled ride from an airplane ride.
A picture of Santa giving toys to kids was picked up by the Associated Press. Feature articles in magazines such as Esquire and Mechanix Illustrated, along with Pathé Newsreels, generated hype. Soon, daily attendance was often in the thousands. On Labor Day Sunday in 1951, over 14,000 people visited.
According to Julie Robards, guide for a recent AARCH (Adirondack Architectural Heritage) tour, “They had to shut down Wilmington. They ran out of food and gas. When people couldn’t get all the way to Santa’s Workshop, they got out of their cars and walked up the mountain.”
Arto Monaco is often associated with the park, but it was actually the brainchild of Julian Reiss, a businessman who was introduced to the Adirondacks in the 1920s because of tuberculous. While traveling through the mountains with his family in the 1940s, he would spin tales. One involved a lost baby bear happening upon a village with Santa’s house, elves, and reindeer. When Reiss’s daughter Patti asked to visit, the concept of Santa’s Workshop was born.
Monaco was born in Elizabethtown and his family later moved to Upper Jay where Rockwell Kent discovered Arto’s murals in the family restaurant. Kent helped Monaco enroll at Pratt Institute. Other connections with vacationers, including John Steinbeck and movie director Lewis Milestone, led Monaco to Hollywood. In addition to working for MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Walt Disney, he moonlighted for Hasbro, Mattel, and the Ideal Toy Company. World War II disrupted his run in Tinseltown, but the skills he’d developed resulted in the military asking him to create a miniature Bavarian village as a training ground.
After the war, he returned to Upper Jay to build a toy factory with his brother, which is where Reiss found him.
“Reiss explained that he was interested in creating a little park where children could come and meet Santa and his reindeer and see where Santa was living in the summer,” Robards says.
The site was chosen because of its proximity to the Whiteface Memorial Highway, already a major tourist attraction.
Although open in summer and fall, the busiest time of year is the holidays. Part of the charm is riding amusement rides, albeit small ones, bundled up and covered in snow.
“The train is the most popular,” according to Gregg. Other kiddie rides include a carousel, mini coaster, Ferris wheel, and “Peppermint Swing.”
Keeping the vintage rides running, especially in the cold, can be challenging. “The maintenance crew run the rides, and it helps because we have the eyes for it. Plus, we all enjoy happy kid faces and the stories ‘of when I was a kid, I was here.’”
Three generations of the Reiss family were involved with the park. The current owners, Doug and Carol Waterbury, became partners with Julian’s son, Bob, in 2002.
Many of the Waterburys’ business ventures involve projects “that need a loving hand and some vision for the future.” When they learned Santa’s Workshop was for sale, they decided to “go for it.”
The Waterburys also operate the Sylvan Beach Amusement Park and Sterling Renaissance Festival. This spring, after an extensive restoration, they plan to reopen Yesterday’s Royal, an historic hotel and restaurant also in Sylvan Beach.
“It takes dedication and passion to invest in these kinds of projects, and the North Pole has struggled for years whether from the economy, weather, or COVID,” said Doug Waterbury.
As they near retirement, the Waterburys recognize the need to find “capable hands who share the love and passion” for the park’s long-term survival. They’ve considered an application to the National Register of Historic Places, which would provide grant opportunities. Creating a not-for-profit is another idea that might garner public support.
Santa steals the show
Gregg explains how Santa “is the real deal. When my girls get a little unruly, I’ll text him and say, ‘Hey, could you call real quick.’ A few moments later, ‘It’s Santa’s calling. He wants to talk to you.’
“And he always dresses the part. It may be a Hawaiian shirt, but it’s a Santa Hawaiian shirt. He was in Florida and some kids asked, ‘What are you doing Santa?’ And he replied, ‘Santa’s on vacation kids. I’m doing some fishing, enjoying my time off.”
Whenever we visited, Santa bellowed to the kids as if he’d known them for years. “Come on there, Big Guy. Come over here and see me. You too, Pretty Lady. Let me talk to you.” (I have all the encounters on video).
When Daniel asked for a pool table, Santa looked right at my wife who was furiously shaking her head. Santa rubbed his chin and said it was too late in the year for his elves to make a pool table. Daniel asked for a marble run, Carrie nodded her head, Santa took his cue, and the deal was done.
As visitors to Santa’s Workshop know, Santa takes his time with each child. As our kids looked up in awe, he advised them to be “extra good” along with a host of other suggestions such as “go to bed when you’re supposed to, eat all your vegetables,” and, of course, “pick up your toys.” He even told Daniel, “Keep an eye on your little sister ‘cause they get into trouble sometimes.” Remember, I have it on film. His finale was the coup de grâce, “Most of all, be good for your parents and love each other and I’ll come see you on Christmas and we’ll have a jolly time.” And then he laughed gleefully, “Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho.”
More information about specific hours and activities be found at https://www.northpoleny.com/.
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