Equipment: Empty Pepsi can, swimsuit and towel, athletic shoes
Time: Less than two hours driving from Bloomington, IN, all day at the park
Cost: $31.95/general admission to both parks (discounts available)
Santa Claus, Indiana is a town that has always tried hard to live up to its name. Legend has it that the German immigrants who founded the village struggled to come up with a name in a gathering that happened to take place on Christmas Eve, and a mysterious jingling of sleigh bells outside the meeting became the deciding factor. Whether Santa Claus actually visited that night or not, the residents have made sure the myth lives on; Christmas decorations pepper the streets and shops all year long, a 22-foot concrete statue of Kris Kringle himself stands off the highway, and kitschy business names like “Ho Ho Ho Video” are ubiquitous. Then, in 1946 a new kind of theme park emerged from the heart of a man named Louis Koch, saddened by the waves of children who would visit Santa Claus and leave disappointed when their jolly old friend didn’t live there at all: Santa Claus Land.
When I was little, a trip up there was like a trip to the moon. Before the water park was added on, before the Raven was voted “best wooden roller coaster in the world”, and before they tried to “hip up” their family-oriented image, the park was the be all, end all of adrenaline pumping, migraine-inducing day-long parties. There were rickety-looking rides that would leave my sister and I dizzy for hours, futuristic ice cream and more fried food than you could shake a stick at (although it never compared to the Fall Festival, a little further south, in that regard). Santa and Mrs. Claus were everywhere, posing for pictures and patting little girls on the head, and when we’d leave at the end of the day, baked by the Indiana sun (the park is open May through October), we’d sleep the exhausted sleep of the happily pooped on the ride home.
Things are a little different now, but I suppose times change. The first bit to go was the single-holiday theme. Since 1984 the park has been called Holiday World, as opposed to its original Santa Claus Land, and while you still enter at the ‘Christmas’ section, surrounded by reindeer and elves and a powerful smell explained only by the mingling scents of scores of flavors of fudge, you may now walk through to your choice of lands: ‘Halloween’ or ‘Fourth of July’. From there, you can head on into Splashin’ Safari, the water park. Each section is decorated appropriately, and the rides are named in keeping with the themes; i.e. you might ride the ‘Liberty Launch’ and the ‘Freedom Train’ in the ‘Fourth of July’ area, or ‘Frightful Falls’ and the ‘Scarecrow Scrambler’ in ‘Halloween’.
There is free parking, free inner tube usage and sunscreen in the water park, and free unlimited soft drinks all over the park thanks to what appears to be a lucrative contract with Pepsi; this is also why I recommend bringing an empty can of Pepsi – there are major discounts on admission prices if you can prove that you, by golly, sure do like Pepsi. There are rides especially for the little ones and rides especially for the adults, food booths every five feet (although if you’re considering eating healthily, you should probably bring your own lunch), entertainment of the singing and dancing variety, the acrobatic diver variety, and the wax museum variety, and plenty of souvenir shops.
The main draw here, besides how cutesy the holiday references can get, are the high-quality roller coasters and diverse rides. I mentioned before about the Raven’s status as #1 wooden coaster; while I can’t seem to pin down exactly where survey that came from, it’s one of the park’s proudest bragging points. Then there’s the Legend, another wooden coaster in the same poll’s top five. There are definitely some neat aspects about the coasters – you can get your picture taken on the way down while riding the Raven and the results are pretty funny – but can you spend a whole day riding them?
I am no purist when it comes to amusement parks, and therefore I can say without shame that the water park is definitely the best part of Holiday World. They seem to expand more on Splashin’ Safari every year, starting with a wave pool and a few slides and mutating over the years into a full-fledged water extravaganza. Now, you can take your pick of a number of waterslides – enclosed, family-style, tube, and so on – or float through the park on the ‘Congo River’, or play on ‘Monsoon Lagoon’, a strange tree house/jungle gym type of thing. They’ve spent a lot of money and it shows.
I’m not the only one who likes the water park, though. If you come on a weekend or a holiday, don’t be surprised if you have to wait half an hour to get on a ride, and don’t even think about it if you’re disinclined to ignore slimy floating masses in the wave pool (could be anything) or if the idea of swimming in the combined pee of 300 little kids makes you queasy. Monday through Friday is the best time to visit, and use common sense – if you want to eat lunch at 12:30 in the afternoon, you’re probably going to have to wait in line.
Too far away for a day trip? Not a problem. The closer you get to Holiday World, the more inundated with helpful billboards for nearby hotels you’ll be. Or, try camping at Lake Rudolph, directly adjacent to Holiday World, if you want a discounted admission and are okay with camping in a big field surrounded by other people camping in a big field. Lots of bugs. Noisy. Not my personal choice.
Don’t debate too long over who to bring with you. This is an extremely family oriented park. In fact, you will get in trouble if you use profane language, and you’re not allowed to wear “revealing swimsuits” in the water park. Yes, you. Leave your thong at home. There are attractions geared toward every age, and while it’s not exactly a resort getaway, it’s something everyone can enjoy. Even if you or your kin aren’t too fond of massive throngs of people, come any weekday except in July and August, and you’ll probably have the park mostly to yourselves.
There are better theme parks in the Midwest, but Holiday World is the only one I know where you can enjoy Halloween, Christmas and the Fourth of July all in one day. The enormous growth of the park says a lot about its staying power, too. The workers are friendly, the rides are fun, and it’s one of the only places you can walk around all day drinking free Pepsi. The admission price is a little steep, but it’s one of those things you should try if you’re ever in the neighborhood. Happy Parking!