A theme park in the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, celebrates the holidays year round. Here’s what it’s like to visit.
When Holiday World first opened its gates on August 3, 1946, the park made history as one of America’s oldest operating theme parks dedicated solely to spreading the holiday spirit.
Back when it was founded by Louis J. Koch, it was known as Santa Claus Land and every corner of the park had a festive Christmas theme. In 1984, however, the Koch family (who still owns the park to this day) realized that one holiday may be a bit limiting as they continued to expand and the park was renamed Holiday World.
“There’s a wide world of Christmas, but we felt like it was getting to be a little limiting,” Leah Koch, a fourth-generation descendant of the park’s founder and its director of communications, said. “I’m very grateful that they did that back then because now we get to play with things like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July and we have the freedom to add completely different sections and feelings to each section, too.”
With areas of the park now devoted to Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas, Holiday World is still making history today, frequently winning awards for safety, cleanliness, and fun.
I visited the family-friendly park in mid-June with my husband and oldest son, on the day of Holiday World’s grand reopening after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Riding and eating our way through every holiday in just one day, it was easy to see why it has such a long list of accolades.
Editor’s note: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not currently recommend nonessential travel within the US and internationally. If you do choose to travel, it’s best to check each state’s health and travel advisories and the CDC’s travel recommendations for each country.
When we entered the park, it was like walking straight into a Christmas card.
Most families stop for a photo with this Santa statue at the front entrance to Holiday World.
As soon as we entered the park, it felt like we’d left Indiana and entered the North Pole. Our eyes were immediately drawn to the ornament-filled spouting fountain and the large Santa statue (two irresistible photo ops), and all around us were Bavarian-style shops and restaurants that look like they could belong to Santa and his elves.
The rides and games in this section are all about the kids. Unlike most theme parks, where you wait in line for an hour or more so your child can enjoy one ride, when you enter Rudolph’s Reindeer Ranch, your kids can bounce from ride to ride with almost no wait. The maximum height for most rides is 54 inches, meaning kids get to ride all by themselves while parents watch and help them onto Dasher’s Seahorses or Prancer’s Merry-Go-Round.
My younger kids love this area, but my 7-year-old was ready for something a little more daring, so we went straight to the coasters.
Holiday World has four wild coasters (and one mild one) with different festive themes.
The Thunderbird launches riders from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds.
Our first stop of the day was in the Halloween section of Holiday World, aptly named The Raven. I like to start my day with this wooden coaster before moving on to Holiday World’s more extreme attractions coasters, but The Raven is no kiddie ride. It twists and turns through the woods surrounding the park and roars to speeds over 50 miles per hour.
The Legend, another coaster, is also in the Halloween section of the park. This coaster is based off of Washington Irving’s classic tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and I felt like I was about to become the Headless Horsemen as I was charging toward each of the five tunnels on this ride.
The tallest and most intense of Holiday World’s wooden coasters is The Voyage. Named the No. 1 wooden coaster in the US by Time Magazine in 2013, I haven’t quite worked up the courage to try this one yet, but it’s on my list. When you see the lift hill towering 163 feet in the air as you approach the ride, you’ll know why. This one is set further back in the park in the Thanksgiving section, so it’s close by Holiday World’s soaring steel roller coaster, Thunderbird.
This wing coaster — which means that the cars stick out on both sides of the track and your legs are dangling in mid-air — launches riders to 60 miles per hour straight out of the gate. My son was a bit too short to ride (riders must be at least 52 inches tall) so we hung back while my husband tackled the tall loops and winding hills on this one and loved every second of it.
There is one other steel coaster at Holiday World that’ll cheer up any kids who are disappointed they aren’t quite tall enough for the big-kid coasters. The Howler is small enough that kids over 42 inches can ride all by themselves, but that didn’t stop me from screaming and giggling through the whole thing. They even let you ride twice if you give a good howl at the end of your first go-round.
Even the food at Holiday World is themed to the different sections of the park.
The festive fun at Holiday World extends way beyond the rides. At the front of the park is Santa’s Merry Marketplace, where you’ll find traditional theme park foods like pizza and burgers, but also the Candy Cane Confectionary, Christmas Cupboard, and the Sugarplum Scoop Shop. I did my research before our visit and knew I wanted to try the Monster Cookie Festive Flurry, a mix of cookie-filled ice cream, whipped cream, and cookies. It was delicious, but plenty for the three of us to share so I’m glad we only got one.
But the biggest draw for food fans is the chance to eat a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings any day of the year – even in the middle of summer. The park’s Plymouth Rock Cafe, located in the Thanksgiving section, serves turkey, green beans, sweet potato casserole, and anything else you probably associate with the holiday all season long.
In fact, guests were so eager to get their hands on Holiday World’s green beans, that they begged for the secret recipe. “The green beans are famous, especially among our season passholders,” Koch said. “We’ve got a recipe online and I’ve tried to re-create it. I do OK, but I still can’t quite get it the same.”
Holiday World takes safety and cleanliness very seriously and has the awards to prove it.
On my first visit to Holiday World, a ride attendant asked me to untie my sweater from around my waist and put it in one of the provided baskets while I was on The Raven. I knew from that moment that Holiday World does not mess around when it comes to ride safety. Before hopping on most rides, we took off our hats, emptied our pockets, and placed all of our belongings in a cubby for safekeeping until the ride was over. It may seem like overkill, but these strict safety measures have resulted in Holiday World winning multiple awards, including a few specifically for their ride operators and lifeguards.
Holiday World is also surprisingly clean, something I don’t always expect to see at a smaller theme park. I’ve never seen a piece of garbage on the ground, and it turns out that’s because the employees are highly attuned to keeping the park free of trash — so much so that Holiday World has been awarded the Amusement Today Golden Ticket Award for “Cleanest Park” every single year since 2000.
Koch, who started working at the park when she was only 14, says she still can’t walk past a piece of trash in the park without picking it up.
“That’s just been the company culture for years and years,” Koch said. “Actually, at one point you could get fired for walking past a piece of trash. We still take it very seriously, but we now lean toward coaching rather than immediate termination.”
During our COVID-era visit, masks were recommended but not required. While not many guests wore masks, all employees wore them (and thanked us for wearing ours). Floor markings were in place to enforce social distancing in lines and other high-traffic areas, hand sanitizer was available throughout the park, and we frequently observed staff members cleaning handrails and other high-touch areas.
Holiday World has a family-friendly atmosphere that’s great for young kids.
One of my favorite things about Holiday World is the balance between kid-friendly attractions and grown-up ones. At some theme parks, I feel like I’m dragging my younger kids along for the ride instead of actually giving them a day of carefree fun, but Holiday World really does have something for everyone.
We stopped for a few minutes to dance with Holidog, the official park mascot, before heading off to Holidog’s FunTown, where all of the rides are kid-approved and my 6’7” husband can barely fit in the seats. In addition to the rides, there are two play structures (one for big kids and one for little) and a Mother Goose train that circles the whole area. It’s always fun on our trips to get a break from the thrill rides and take the kids to a spot that’s just for them.
Splashin’ Safari, Holiday World’s water park, is an ideal place to cool down in the summer with water slides, a wave pool, and an area for little ones.
Splashin’ Safari is situated right in the middle of the map so it’s easy to pop in and cool off for a few hours or make a full day of it. Splashin’ Safari – the world’s best outdoor water park, according to USA TODAY – wasn’t yet open for the season on our most recent visit in mid-June, but I can’t wait to go back because they’ve added something brand new this year: a water coaster called Cheetah Chase.
Cheetah Chase is the park’s third water coaster and (currently) the only one in the world that can claim to be a flat-launched water coaster. “All kinds of other water coasters have something that feels like a launch, but this one specifically has that flat track that has the same mechanism that you use to go uphill and that’s really where you build your speed to go up that first highest hill of the ride. I’ve gotten to ride it and it’s a ton of fun,” Koch said.
In my experience, planning a visit to Holiday World is easier than larger theme parks.
I’ve traveled to plenty of theme parks over the years, which means I’ve also mastered the fine art of planning a theme-park visit. Larger theme parks sometimes require you to make plans months or even years in advance if you want to secure a spot at your favorite restaurant or ride. While Holiday World does have busier times (they advise avoiding weekends and most of July and August if you want smaller crowds and shorter wait times), you can still visit with only a minor amount of preparation.
The park is also well-known for its generous freebies, which include soft drinks and parking. If you forget sunscreen, it’s available for free at Splashin’ Safari and in a few spots around Holiday World.
On our recent visit, we didn’t do much planning other than purchasing our tickets online to guarantee our spot and familiarizing ourselves with the park map. To better accommodate social distancing, the park recently implemented a new inLine reservation system that allowed us to choose a return time from our phones. Instead of standing in line with other guests, we were able to wander the park until it was our turn to ride. Even on past visits, though, I’ve never waited longer than 30 or 45 minutes for a ride, and the wait for most of the family-friendly rides was 15 minutes or less.
After speaking with Koch, I’m already getting excited for future visits because she has big plans to expand on the themes that I love so much. She mentioned vision board dreams of Christmas lodge and Halloween castle hotels, but it sounds like Holiday World has a few more practical ideas on the horizon.
“I can’t share exactly what we have in the making for the future, but I can say that that theming, that’s the way we want to go. When you’re in the Christmas section we don’t want there to be a doubt in your mind that you are celebrating Christmas right now,” Koch said. “So we’re trying to find ways that we can really amplify the spaces and immerse people in each section.” For example, Thunderbird, with its station’s fog effects and flickering lights, is the first attraction Koch, her mother, and siblings worked on after her father’s passing. It is by far the most highly themed coaster in the park to date.
“There’s no other park in the world where you get to celebrate all of these different holidays all at once,” Koch said. “We just really want to make it feel like a celebration of what makes those holidays unique in each section, so that’s the way we’re heading.”
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