The Hoosier Home of America’s First Theme Park: Santa Claus Land
Amusement parks have been around in various forms for several hundred years, with the modern, American version being established in Brooklyn in the late 19th century.
Theme parks, on the other hand, were a uniquely 20th century invention and the first one wasn’t invented in California, Chicago or Coney Island – it set up shop right here in Indiana, back in 1946.
In 1941, retired Evansville industrialist Louis J. Koch found himself in Santa Claus, Indiana. The father of 9 children himself, Mr. Koch wondered why there was no Santa Claus to entertain children, who surely must grow disappointed when traveling to the town and not meeting St. Nick. A devoted family man, Koch took it upon himself to make sure that this wouldn’t happen and set out to provide year-round access to Santa for kids in Indiana and beyond.
The second world war delayed the project, but construction commenced in 1945 and on August 3rd, 1946 Santa Claus Land opened to the public, becoming America’s first theme park.
When it first opened, the park was free to enter and consisted of Christmas theme toy displays, a toy shop, a restaurant, children’s rides and Santa. Shortly afterwards, Bill Koch, Louis’ son, assumed control of the park and added a number of new attractions, including new rides, a second restaurant and even a deer farm.
In 1955, the park began charging adults 50 cents to enter, though children still visited for free. Attendance continued to grow – then future president Ronald Reagan even stopped by for a photo with Santa. With added revenue, the park added numerous rides and attractions named after Santa’s reindeer, some of which still exist today. The park also began incorporating live acts and children’s choirs.
In 1960, Bill Koch married Patricia Yellig, whose father Jim was the park’s Santa Claus. The couple had five children, including Will Koch, who ran the park for over twenty years.
In the mid-1970’s, Santa Claus Land began courting adult and teenage visitors and added Americana-themed amusement park rides in the years that followed. In 1984, Santa Claus Land, now under the presidency of Will Koch, was rebranded as Holiday World.
The park expanded, and added sections celebrating the Fourth of July and Halloween. In the early 1990’s, the park added an adjacent water park and three wooden roller coasters, including ‘The Raven’ a ride which is consistently ranked among the world’s best.
Although it is now known as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, and contains sections for Halloween, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, guests still enter the park through the Christmas section, where Santa is waiting to welcome kids to Santa Claus, Indiana.