Santa's Village celebrates 60th anniversary, looks to the future
Santa's Village in East Dundee celebrated the 60th anniversary of the park's original opening with a ceremony Saturday afternoon.
Santa told the small crowd that he remembered standing in the parking lot with Mrs. Claus and their eight reindeer on that day in late May 1959. He said he used a big red key to magically open the gates and reveal the park within.
While the red key is real and remains on display at the park, the park's longevity isn't the result of a magic trick, according to Jim Futrell, a historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association, who said it is thanks to committed management changing with the times.
"Any business celebrating its 60th anniversary is a really big deal," Futrell told the crowd. "But what really makes this anniversary here more special is that for all intents and purposes we should not be standing here right now -- we should be standing in the parking lot of a Mariano's or an apartment complex."
The park failed to open for the 2006 season because of financial problems and for a time it seemed like Santa's Village was going to go the way of Riverview, Kiddieland and Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom and have its attractions slowly sold away before a developer came and knocked it all down, Futrell said.
But in 2010 a former employee named Jason Sierpien reopened the park with a focus on being a petting zoo and rebranded it and "Azoosement Park." Ever since, the park has added more attractions and rides, continuing to bring in families and children.
"They recognize their position in the marketplace and they don't try to be something they're not," Futrell said of the current Santa's Village management. "It's so great they've been able to enjoy a second life."
Just feet from where children rode rides and fed animals, construction crews were working on a new water park area called Santa Springs, which is set to open this summer. The area will have a 10,000-square-foot, 8-inch deep wading pool with a two-story play structure that will have dozens of water toys and six waterslides.
Santa Springs will also have lounge chairs and private cabanas for parents and a bath house for families to dry off and change before returning to the rest of the park.
The National Amusement Park Historical Association and the East Dundee board of trustees each presented Santa's Village with plaques to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the park's opening.
After the ceremony the crowd got to take their pick from dozens of artfully decorated cupcakes made by the park's new head chef, Mark Stutz, that had been arranged into the Santa's Village logo.