Another World: Sky Forest at Santa’s Village

Kathie Gibboney

I wanted something otherworldly, something with autumn atmosphere, something inspiriting. I longed for weather full of whispers and promises that make your heart dance with the joy of seeing colored leaves of orange and rambunctious reds, instead of dusty chaparral baked by ninety-degree heat that swept up from the valley through our Topanga Canyon. The continuous dry hot days mocked the season, robbing me of the thrill of fall. 

Then the idea formed.  Santa’s Village up near Lake Arrowhead was celebrating, Pumpkins in The Pines. Now there’s atmosphere! What could be better than Christmas and Halloween together? And there were bound to be some trees up there in that higher altitude that would be properly and proudly dressed in their garish and gay autumnal apparel.  Ah, but would the Beleaguered Husband go for it? 

“I have an idea to celebrate my birthday,” I announced innocently.

“Isn’t your birthday over?” responded Michael distracted by some baseball game.

“Wasn’t it last week or something?”

I persevered, “Well yes, but it was eighty-five degrees. We went to the beach and that was nice, but I need Autumn. 

Let’s go up to Santa’s Village!  We’ll drive up and spend the night in a cabin. We’ll see the trees and pumpkins and Santa. It’ll be great!”

Bless his willing heart. On a Sunday morning we headed out San Bernardino way, music on the radio, donuts in a bag on the seat between us, hearts hopeful of adventure.

What an odd and wonderful thing is Santa’s Village. Originally opening in 1955, two months before Disneyland, it was a family destination with whimsical fairy-land structures, rides in pumpkin coaches, little trains, puppet shows and Santa. Christmas was celebrated every day. Jingle bells were in the air. It was built on the family property of Putnam Henck and developed by Glenn Holland.   

Back in the early ‘60s, I remember visiting and seeing an actual reindeer while munching on a gingerbread cookie. Little Brother was not too sure about the large animal with its big muzzle and antlers and slipped his hand into mine as we stood in our Keds, waiting to see if it would fly. That day was long ago and memory muddles but maybe, just for a moment, Prancer did actually become airborn. I like to think so.

The quaint village was situated in the middle of a forest, an actual forest with tall trees.  It all appeared enchanted and I fully expected to see an elf emerge from one of the many colorful toadstools that decorated the grounds. I sensed the great presence of the namesake of the place. I realized it wasn’t the North Pole, but I believed, in fact I knew Santa could travel anywhere at any time. Finally, we turned a corner and there was the Big Man himself. He sat in his plush chair in a magical house with a big clock outside that counted down the days until Christmas. Although Little Brother was a bit shy, my parents and I encouraged him to sit on the Jolly Old Elf’s lap and ask for the train he wanted. I’m pretty sure I requested a, Deluxe Dream Kitchen, (Yes! I got it, and Little Brother got the train). Ho, Ho, Ho!

Many years later, in the ‘90s, we paid a nostalgic visit to the Village, bringing our young son.  Although falling into some dilapidation, the colors being not quite as bright, the reindeer gone, the sound of bells more distant, I still found it a fantastic place. St. Nick was still ensconced in his forest house and we encouraged our son to sit on his lap. “Wish for a little sister,” I advised, but Riley went for a Hot Wheels set. Santa must have known my heart’s desire because just a few Christmases later, Baby’s First Christmas stocking joined the others hanging on our fireplace. Thank-you Santa. I am and will remain ever grateful for our daughter. 

What with ever-changing times, and the development of new theme parks with their wicked, wild rides, video games, paintball, and the rock and roll of KROQ’s “Almost Acoustic Christmas,” it seems puppets and gingerbread were left in the once-magic dust. Santa’s Village closed in 1998.  A lot of the decorations, signage, and mementos, including toadstools were auctioned off. The elves had the place to themselves.

But elves have their own magic and can get lonely without boys and girls and those who are young at heart somewhere in close proximity. So, they spread an enchanted net to catch someone with a big heart and a bit of know-how.  That someone was a local realtor and developer named Bill Johnson. Johnson and his wife Michelle loved the forest area at the closed park and admitted to sneaking in to bike ride and snowshoe. A For Sale sign was posted on the property and over the years some interest was occasionally raised but nothing really came of it.  Nothing, until the day Mr. Johnson came home to his wife with an idea, “Why don’t we buy Santa’s Village?”

When Michelle was asked if five years ago, she had known what a challenge reopening the park and implementing their new vision would be, would she have gone forward? She answered, “No.”

Fortunately, Elves kept them innocent and ignorant of what lay ahead for the husband and wife team. Married for 25 years, they are youthful and in great shape being avid sports enthusiasts, so why not take up the reins of the sleigh and fly off into unknown skies? 

It has not been a smooth ride, what with permits, bureaucracy, and their dedication to refurbishing the mid-century structures and bringing them up to code while maintaining their original integrity. They are visionaries and gifted with building and design skills that pay attention to detail that blends tradition with their far-reaching, ambitious imaginings for the future.

Bill and Michelle Johnson have indeed brought, like a big Christmas present, a splendid new adventure to the community and all of Southern California: Sky Park at Santa’s Village.

Combining their appreciation of extreme sports, they have melded off-road biking with trails through the forest, rock climbing, zip-lining through the trees, skating, fly fishing, and camping with the traditional candy cane, family flavor of Santa’s Village itself.

When we arrived, an exciting wind blew through the mountain air. And there in front of us were those charming, old village-style buildings nestled in the forest and I am sure I heard the elves whisper, “Welcome back.”

I had come wearing a whimsical pumpkin headband, tipped cockily, and as we checked in, someone in line behind us said to me, “I believe in you.”  I knew it was going to be a good day. We entered a visual delight of autumn decorations with riotous orange pumpkins displayed everywhere, real trees with autumn leaves, all mixed with the glory of Christmas.

Children and families milled about on their way to hear forest stories, see puppets, create crafts, as mountain bikers headed over to the Peddle Pub (yes, we joined them).  Guests are required to sign a waiver absolving the park of lawsuits in case of accident or death, so right away one knows this is not your Ma and Pa’s old Santa’s Village and as we sat on the edge of the forest, sipping a handcrafted beer, I knew we were in brave new world.

We rode a peddle car through an enchanted tunnel, walked in the forest and took in a magic show.  And then I saw him, though not dressed in the red-suit, I’d know him anywhere. Santa! in his forest attire, suspenders and plaid shirt. I said hello and wished him luck for the upcoming season.

I didn’t think of asking him for anything, for at that moment, in that mythical mountain place, somewhere between Halloween and Christmas, with the Beleaguered Husband happily sitting amongst children, witnessing wacky magic, I had all I needed.


Kathie Gibboney

It has been said that Kathie Gibboney invented the Unicorn, which she neither admits nor denies, as it might reveal her true age. Kathie is an essayist, reporter, and poet for MMN with her column, "My Corner of The Canyon." She lives happily in a now-empty nest in Topanga, CA with The Beleaguered Husband and a marmalade cat.

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