America’s First Theme Park Was All Santa, All the Time

What was the first theme park in the nation? If you guessed Disneyland, you’re going on the naughty list. In fact, it was called Santa Claus Land—a year-round Christmas idyll in the middle of the country that came into being before Walt Disney decided to make his brand a tourist destination.

To understand Santa Claus Land, you’ve got to understand its location: Santa Claus, Indiana. The town became forever associated with Christmas back in the 1850s, when residents applying for a U.S. Post Office realized that their town, which had been established a few years earlier, had the same name as another Indiana burg. There was no choice but to change the name of Santa Fe, Indiana, to something else. After townspeople consulted among themselves, “Santa Claus” won the day. Little did the residents of the tiny town realize that they were setting themselves up for a cottage Christmas industry that would last for over a century.

Though Santa Claus was the town’s name, one nearby resident felt the place wasn’t respectful enough to the man himself. For years, the teensy town had been a beloved place to send letters to Santa, which the postmaster responded to (with some help from locals) along with the town’s unique postmark. However, a local industrialist named Louis Koch thought that wasn’t enough—he believed the town needed a better way to honor everyone’s favorite Christmas visitor.


Koch took matters into his own hands during early World War II, when he bought 260 acres of farmland with plans for an amusement park. The war intervened briefly, but when it ended Koch moved forward as swiftly as a reindeer pulling a sleigh. He and his son opened a Santa-themed park designed in an Alpine style and complete with adorable details like a toy shop, children’s rides, and appearances from Santa himself. It even had a House of Dolls aimed at little girls.

Amusement parks existed long before Santa Land opened in 1946, but a park with a specific theme was something new. One of its greatest assets was Santa himself, who was played by a man named Jim Yellig for close to four decades. Yellig earned a spot in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame for his trusty portrayal of the portly celebrity and is thought to have had over a million kids sit on his knee during his tenure.

Future president Ronald Reagan visiting Santa Claus Land in 1955, with Santa (Jim Yellig) on the left and Louis Koch on the right. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

Koch’s bid to put the Santa in Santa Claus worked. Despite being free initially (it started charging 50 cents admission to adults in 1955), the park generated enough revenue to make Koch’s son, Bill, think: Why not build out Santa Claus—the town itself—even further?

Bill Koch’s dream for Santa Claus was huge, and it didn’t stop with a mere kiddie park. Rather, like Disney after him, he saw his investment in the area’s tourism as a real estate bid, too. He opened a campground across from the park in 1958. Then, in the early 1960s, he told his son he wanted to build out the stagnant, small town. “He wanted a better place to raise his kids,” his son, Philip, recalled in a history of his father’s business. Bill's wife, Pat, told her husband he was "absolutely crazy. Why would anyone want to live in Santa Claus?”

Undeterred, Bill began to buy up farmland and work with local authorities to create the groundwork for a subdivision—featuring street names like Chestnuts-by-the-Fire Drive. In 1966, Christmas Lake Village opened—and today the upscale gated community has about 2000 residents. (The family also built another, non-gated community called Holiday Village.)

Santa Claus Land Brochure 2

Things changed at Santa Claus Land over the years. In the 1970s, the park began adding more daring rides in an effort to compete with a growing rollercoaster trend. In the 1980s, it changed its name to Holiday World and incorporated other holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. These days, it also contains a water park called Splashin' Safari and several noteworthy coasters, like The Raven and The Legend

It may no longer be called Santa Claus Land, but Holiday World is still a local destination and has plenty of Christmas tributes (Santa still makes daily appearances). And perhaps the best part of the park is the fact that it emerged from one small town’s Santa obsession.

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Want to Recycle Your Christmas Tree? Feed It to an Elephant
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the holiday season finally comes to a close, people get creative with the surplus of dead Christmas trees. One San Francisco-based artist transformed brittle shrubs into hanging installation pieces. Others use pine needles for mulch, or repurpose trees into bird sanctuaries. For the average person, sticking it into a wood chipper or "treecycling" it as part of a community program are all eco-friendly ways to say goodbye to this year's Douglas fir. None of these solutions, however, are as cute as the waste-cutting strategy employed by some zoos around the world: giving them to elephants.

Each year, zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin—a facility that bills itself as “Europe’s largest adventure animal park”—feed the elephants unsold pine trees. The plants are reportedly pesticide-free, and they serve as a good (albeit prickly) supplement to the pachyderms' usual winter diets.

A bit closer to home, the residents of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee rely on local residents to take part in their annual Christmas Tree Drive. In addition to being nutrient-rich, the tree's needles are said to help aid in an elephant's digestion. But beyond all that, it's pretty adorable to watch.

5 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Your Christmas Tree

What’s the environmentally safest way to dispose of your Christmas tree? It’s hard to say. Grown, managed, transported, and recycled efficiently, a real Christmas tree’s environmental impact should be near neutral. Unfortunately, not all Christmas tree plantations are equal in their environmental impact.

The most eco-friendly way is to leave the tree in the ground, where it belongs, so you never have to dispose of it. But then you don't have a Christmas tree in your house to bring festive cheer. One thing you can do is be environmentally smart when it comes to the tree's disposal. After this festive season, why not try one of these eco-friendly methods.


If you’re lucky enough to have access to a big wood-chipper, you may be able to chip the entire tree. Wood-chip is great as a decorative landscaping material. But if you really want to do great things for the environment (and if you have access to a lot of Christmas trees), you could make a bioreactor to denitrify water. Nitrates are put on farms across the world to help increase crop output, but a considerable amount is washed away into lakes and rivers where it’s disastrous for fish and potentially toxic for people. A wood chip bioreactor encourages the growth of bacteria that break down the nitrates in the drainage water, reducing the amount that gets into the water supply. It's not a simple project, however. To make one, you have to dig a big trench, get the water to flow through said trench, and fill it with wood chips. More info can be found here [PDF].



If your tree hasn’t yet let go of its needles—and you haven’t yet let go of Christmas, get crafty with it. Cut off small branches and bind them around a circle of wire to make an attractive wreath. This looks even better if some of the cones are still attached. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could set up an essential oil extractor to get a supercharged Christmas scent. If you are already distilling alcohol, you have everything you need (here's how to do it). With a little less effort and equipment, you can make a weaker liquid called hydrosol, which is a fragrant condensate water containing water-soluble parts of the needles.


Many legumes, such as garden peas, are thigmotropic, meaning that they respond to objects they touch, growing in coils along or up them. Needle-free Christmas tree branches have lots of twigs, texture, and knobby protrusions for peas and beans to get a grip on. This allows them to grow upwards strongly toward light. Simply stick a small tree branch in the soil next to each new shoot for a free, effective legume-climbing frame. Another advantage of this technique is that it makes grazing animals less likely to munch those tender green shoots, as they tend to avoid getting Christmas tree twigs spiked up their noses.


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Come January, it’s cold, the festivities are over, work looms, and you’ve got too much on your mind to be thinking about dead Christmas tree horticulture or crafts. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand: Most counties and municipalities now provide Christmas tree recycling points where you can take your tree for chipping. Some “TreeCycle” points will even exchange your tree for a bag of wood-chip or chip mulch. OK, this probably means that you’ll have to jam that Christmas tree into your car once more, but as long as you don’t have to drive too many miles out of your way, Christmas tree recycling is a quick and easy environmentally-friendly option.


After you’ve had your Christmas cheer, why shouldn’t fish have some fun? Several communities have programs in place where they’ll take your old Christmas tree, drill a hole in the base, tie a brick to it, and throw it in a lake. When humans create artificial lakes, they tend to be relatively featureless on the bottom for easy dredging. That’s great for us, but it means baby fish have nowhere to escape predators. Christmas trees provide a nice, temporary place for the fish to hide out and explore.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to see your Christmas tree mauled by a pride of lions, that’s OK too! Some zoos around the world take Christmas tree donations (but please remove all the tinsel first) and allow the animals to play with them.


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