Oh what fun it is to ride
New book celebrates 75 years of Holiday World
One of the most wonderful theme parks is located in one of the most unlikely places. After driving for miles past cornfields (and little else) in rural Indiana, there it is: Holiday World. How did the park, which boasts an impressive lineup of coasters, one of the nation’s premier water parks, and lots of other appealing attributes, end up pretty much in the middle of nowhere? And get this: The tiny town in which it is located is called “Santa Claus.” What’s up with that?
The answers to these questions can be found in a new book, “Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari: 75 Years of America’s First Theme Park.” It chronicles the history of the park and the town and traces Holiday World’s evolution into one of the Midwest’s best and most beloved theme parks. Just as significantly, it traces the four generations of the Koch family that have shepherded the park with bold foresight, determination, and zeal.
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Originally known as Santa Claus Land, founder Louis J. Koch developed the park to provide an attraction for visitors to the town and to capitalize on its peculiar, endearing name. Opened in 1946, the modest park slowly expanded, adding kiddie rides, shows, and other features through the 1950s and 1960s. It continued to grow into the 1970s and was made considerably more accessible when Louis’ son, Bill Koch, along with others in the region, successfully petitioned the government to move Interstate 64 closer to Santa Claus.
That paved the way for more growth, including a new Halloween-themed land in 1984 and with it, a more expansive name for the property: Holiday World. It was third-generation leader, Will Koch, who aggressively expanded the park by adding additional lands, a trio of highly regarded wooden coasters, and the water park, Splashin’ Safari. With an incredible array of attractions, including three water coasters, it is one of the largest and best water parks in the U.S., let alone one that’s bundled with admission to a theme park.
He also pioneered the industry-defying concept of free soft drinks, which, combined with the park’s policy of complimentary parking and sunscreen as well as its commitment to spotless grounds and cheerful employees, solidified its reputation for great value and friendly service. In 2010, Will unexpectedly passed away at a relatively young age, leaving his wife and children with the difficult task of carrying on the family legacy.
About that “America’s first theme park” claim: Fourth-generation family member Leah Koch, who serves as Holiday World’s director of communications and is one of the book’s authors, admits that the title comes with some caveats. Other parks, most notably Knott’s Berry Farm, also claim to be the country’s first theme park. The Southern California park traces its origins to 1920 when the Knott family began a farm and produce stand that specialized in berries. It wasn't until many years later, however, that anything resembling a park debuted. It could be argued that the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893 and is among the seminal events in the amusement industry, shared some qualities with what we now think of as a theme park. Likewise, New York’s Coney Island, another industry pioneer, offered attractions in the early 20th century that could be construed as “themed.”
Yes, the Indiana park predates Disneyland, which is often cited as the original theme park. (The term, “theme park,” by the way, did not come into regular usage until a few years after Disneyland opened in 1955.) But, when Santa Claus Land welcomed its first visitors in 1946, it was really more of a roadside attraction than a theme park. Its offerings included a restaurant, a toy exhibit, an outdoor trail adorned with characters from nursery rhymes, and a miniature train. There were no roller coasters, carousels, dark rides, or other attractions typically found at theme parks. Only a handful of kiddie rides were added in its early years.
But Jim Futrell, who penned much of the book and is a noted historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association, contends that because Santa Claus Land was the first U.S. park to adhere to a central theme–in this case, Christmas–it qualifies as the country’s first theme park. Interestingly, a number of Christmas-themed parks, surely inspired by Santa Claus Land, subsequently opened, including Santa’s Village in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
There are some great anecdotes in the book, including one that involves The Voyage, a highly regarded wooden caster in the park’s Thanksgiving section. Instead of using water dummies or sandbags, which is the norm when testing new coasters prior to opening, the park used–what else?–100-pound sacks of corn. The stand-ins worked well enough; however, some of the bags ripped, and cornstalks soon began popping up around the ride. There is also mention of the touching tribute that the family made to honor the late Will Koch by naming the building that powers the park’s Thunderbird launched wing coaster, “Will Power.”
For Leah Koch, the book is partly personal.
“There’s a lot of history that gets handed down from one generation to the next,” she says. “Since my dad died [at an early age], there’s a lot of history that we’ve been missing and trying to fill in the gaps.” The “Holiday World” book is also a great way for fans to fill in the gaps of the important and long-admired park. It’s a great way, as well, to gain insight on the Koch family and their willpower to persevere and nurture their park. Family-owned and -operated parks are uncommon these days, and it’s rare for the fourth generation of a family to continue to lead and expand any business. “We put so much passion into what we do. We put our hearts and souls into it,” adds Leah. “It’s what makes [Holiday World] special.”
While the book covers all the way through the 2020, pandemic-era opening of Cheetah Chase, Splashin’ Safari’s third water coaster, Leah emphasizes that Holiday World’s story is far from over. “I have big plans for the park and the town of Santa Claus as well,” she says, hinting at what future chapters may hold.
Have you visited Holiday World? How do you think it compares to other theme parks? What makes it special? What are some of your favorite Holiday World attractions? Join the conversation.
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I’ve had the fortune of being a short hour drive from Holiday World my whole life, so it’s been great to watch it grow and change throughout the years. Sounds like I need to check out this book!