For many, Walt Disney was the king of theme parks, at least, for as far back as I can remember. Yet America’s first theme park wasn’t Disneyland—it was Holiday World in a little town called Santa Claus in southern Indiana. The park is still going strong today, winning national awards and serving as home to some of the most exciting roller coasters.
When my family and I entered the gates of this 100-acre (0.4 km²) park on a recent summer morning, local Indianans were already turning out in shorts and swimsuits to enjoy the sunny, spring weather, while my southern–bred family was still a bit cool in the early morning hours in our short sleeves and shorts. But the park soon made us forget the chill, for it was obvious that Holiday World was no ordinary theme park—it was built out of love for people, for children and for holidays. How can you not feel it, when every day there is Christmas, Halloween and American Independence Day all rolled into one? The park is a child’s dream. And the staff reflected it—everyone was just plain cheery.
Located in southern Indiana in the rural American Midwest, the town of Santa Claus is just a tiny dot among the region’s expansive rolling hills, or “knobs,” as Indianans call them. Home to some 2,000 residents, Santa Claus holds a unique place among Indiana cities, with a giant statue of Santa, surrounded by cornfields, marking the town “entrance.” It’s not quite certain if Holiday World put Santa Claus on the map, or Santa Claus helped put Holiday World there. However, it remains the heart and soul of the little town.
Santa Claus’ name is something of local legend. On Christmas Eve of 1849, when the town was not yet named, the area council met and had a Christmas party. During the course of the party, Santa appeared, and someone suggested the name of Santa Claus. The motion was passed unanimously, and seven years later it was “officially” accepted by the U.S. Postal Department. It remained a speck on the map until Louis J. Koch realized his dream.
The Evansville, Indiana industrialist started the park, first called Santa Claus Land, in 1946 during his retirement. (That was some some nine years before Disney opened Disneyland in California.) The park remains in the Koch family today. Though not from the town himself, it troubled Koch that children who visited this small community in his state were usually disappointed to find out that Santa wasn’t there. And Koch himself was crazy about holidays, celebrations and children, with nine children of his own. Some may have thought him a bit kooky to develop a park like this but he didn’t care. He had a dream.
Koch had planned to open the park sooner, but World War II caused him to wait until 1946. When the park finally opened, it consisted of a toyshop, themed children’s rides, one restaurant, toy displays and the big man himself—Santa Claus. It was a family business that embraced the children of the community and families from far and wide. It had that personal touch—and it still has today with Koch’s son, Bill, at the helm. It hasn’t gone “corporate.” In fact, you frequently may see the owners and their family roaming the park, doing whatever needs to be done.
Over time it was this tiny park that helped the town of Santa Claus to flourish. In fact, the town and the park almost became synonymous. Children from all over the U.S. wanted to come here to sit on the “real” Santa’s knee, and people wanted that special postmark on their Christmas cards. Among celebrity guests was the late President Ronald Reagan, who visited the park in 1955.
As the park grew and time passed, it became evident to the Koch family that it could not remain merely dedicated to the Christmas holiday. So, in 1984, Santa Claus Land became Holiday World, featuring Halloween and Fourth of July sections, including rides, shows, games, shops, restaurants and more.
The family took it another step in 1993 when Splashin’ Safari Water Park was added, with a wave pool, family raft rides, water slides, action river and several interactive children’s and family water play areas.
Over time, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari has set high standards that many other theme parks try to live up to, a steadfast adherence to values such as safety, service, cleanliness and friendliness. It didn’t take long to realize this—the park has won awards for the “Cleanest Park” and the “Friendliest Park from Amusement Today.
Will Koch’s mom still supervises, I am told, and really makes sure it stays clean, having the same attitude about the park as she would her own home. Bathrooms here are cleaner than any I’ve ever seen in a theme park, and garbage cans abound. The “streets” throughout the park are immaculate.
In addition, its first roller coaster, the wooden speed machine called “The Raven,” has taken the top wooden coaster spot among coaster enthusiasts, while its second coaster, “The Legend,” was named #5. While I take a lot of pride in my fearlessness for coasters, I have to admit, my legs were trembling when I got off the Raven – it’s one wild, fast ride, and its turns, dips and speed took my breath away!
Splashin’ Safari, the park’s water park, has remained the world’s #2 Water Park in the survey, and its new Zinga won the #1 spot for Best Water Park Ride, while the parks ZOOMbabwe was named #3 – all quite a feat for a small park in southern Indiana. Interestingly, the park outranks major parks such as Disney World, Kings Island and Busch Gardens.
Along with its commitment to families, Holiday World some time ago decided to make all soft drinks free within the park. A spokesperson says they’ve tried “not to nickel-and-dime” their guests, and while its bucking an industry trend to constantly raise prices, the Koch family feels it was the right thing to do. The family has also enhanced the experience by providing free sunscreen stations throughout the park.
Today, you can ride the Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride (July 4th area) and Frightful Falls (in the Halloween area) where you’ll get wet. You can shop for great souvenirs and enjoy the Christmas decorations and lights. You can also pose for pictures with a statue of the big guy himself, or find the “real” Santa wandering the park to talk to children and pose for photos.
And though the park is the heart of Santa Claus proper, it isn’t the only thing in this specially named town. Quaint gift shops, Santa’s Lodge and the Lake Rudolph Campground and R.V. Resort also attract visitors who can enjoy Christmas 365 days a year here. What am I saying? It’s Christmas 365 days a year all over Santa Claus, Indiana.
If You Go
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari
452 East Christmas Blvd.
Santa Claus, IN 47579
877-Go-Family or 812-937-3401
Lake Rudolph Campground & R.V. Resort
78 North Holiday Blvd.
Santa Claus, IN 47579
877-YESRUDY – information line
The “official” campgrounds of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari
Tent Sites, RV Sites, Deluxe RV Sites and RV and Cabin rentals available. Check the website or call for seasonal rates and specials.
91 W. Christmas Blvd.
Santa, Claus, IN 47579