Santa Claus may visit department stores every December, but he lives in the North Pole.
That's North Pole, N.Y., a colorful place rich in imagination located in the deep north of Essex County. Small children - and people who remain eternally young at heart - believe Santa makes his toys and entertains his friends at Santa's Workshop.
The Adirondack hideaway is located near Wilmington, near the foot of Whiteface Memorial Highway. The workshop, a brightly painted village and collection of children's rides, has been entertaining kids since 1949.
Tradition keeps some customers coming back. Parents who remember riding the Candy Cane Express train, reindeer carousel and bobsled rides like to pass on those experiences to their children.
The workshop, which began its summer schedule in June then switched to an autumn weekend schedule in early September that continued into October, is now open weekends through December 23.
Hours are 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Admission gates will close 30 minutes before the park's official closing time.
The park's "Village of Lights" will brighten the night Dec. 9, Dec. 16 and Dec. 20-23. Caroling, a roaring outdoor fire and Nativity pageant are all parts of the light show.
Past employees always said Santa's Workshop was the first theme park, a place that opened before Disneyland's much celebrated 1955 debut. People flocked to the Adirondacks and used their summer vacations to visit the jolly one before he started his autumn ramp-up to Christmas.
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The early days brought big business. The park's single-day attendance record was set Sept. 2, 1951, when more than 14,000 visited. The park was also behind Santa's Operation Toylift, which began delivering toys to poor children in northern New York. The operation eventually expanded into 13 states, the District of Columbia and parts of Canada.
In 1953, the North Pole's Santa and his reindeer waved and pranced in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Later in '53, the U.S. Postal Service awarded the North Pole its own post office.
Former owner Bob Reiss recalled the glory days in past interviews with the Gazette.
"You were at a time following the Second World War where the family reunited and children began to appear," Reiss said. "It was traditional at that time to take a two-week summer vacation; that's what everybody did.
"And one of the things that became popular was to go out and see the U.S.A.," Reiss added. "You'd pack the family in the car and find the destination of your choice. Many of them came up here through the Adirondacks; they became the source of all the visitors to these parks."
Reiss said parks like Santa's Workshop received free advertising from people who slapped stickers on their Chevrolets and Buicks.
"People wanted to have that when they went back home," Reiss said. "They wanted those things hanging all over their cars, proof of where they'd been and what they did."
People still travel to the North Pole in December. A visit with Santa Claus is still something treasured by small children ... and their parents.
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]