Santa’s Workshop: Enchanting Children for 57 Years

  • By John Ryan

Santa’s Workshop in Wilmington, NY opened on July 1, 1949. It was America’s first theme park. Walt Disney appreciated the park’s concept so much that, in 1949 and 1950, he sent

his staff to Wilmington to study its operations before opening Disneyland

in 1955. Our conversation with Bob Reiss,

the park’s longtime owner and general

manager, centered on the Workshop’s

wonderful history; however, we also learned that Santa’s workshop is a complex business involving merchandise, food, entertainment, crafts, animals, and constant maintenance.

While many visitors live hundreds of miles from Santa’s Workshop, most North Country residents have visited at least once, either as a child or with their children or grandchildren, to see Santa, his reindeer and all the workshop’s storybook characters. The typical comment after a day’s visit is, “What a wonderful day we had. We loved it!” Bob Reiss says that another comment he often hears is, “I’m so glad you kept it the way it was.” The workshop continues to center on Santa, his elves and a host of storybook characters. People of all ages enjoy the workshop’s joyous atmosphere in Whiteface Mountain’s glorious setting. A multitude of beautiful flower gardens and a tumbling stream further enhance the beautiful environment.

Reiss says most families spend about four hours on site visiting Santa’s house, attending the shows, enjoying the Nativity pageant, watching the parade, feasting on delicious food, admiring the beautiful Christmas decorations and crafts, feeding reindeer and other animals, and riding on the train or other amusement rides. The activities are geared for children up to ten years of age.

The park’s 45 to 50-person staff is very friendly and multi-talented. Reiss says several staff members have worked at the workshop for many years and some families have had a family member working at the workshop for generations. High school students from schools such as AuSable Valley, Peru, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake get their first job experience at the workshop.

Given the seasonal nature of the jobs, Reiss says that sometimes it is difficult to have an experienced person assigned to every job, explaining, “Everyone has to do more than one job.” The park’s head of maintenance actually trains cast members who appear in the workshop’s shows.

Santa’s Workshop has been a Reiss family passion since Bob’s father Julian Reiss conceived it in 1945. Julian Reiss was a New York City native who moved to Lake Placid in 1925 while suffering from tuberculosis. He was an imaginative person who was always telling wonderful stories to his six children. One day, Julian told his five-year-old daughter, Patricia, a story about a baby bear that was lost and hungry in the woods. The bear found refuge in a village populated by Santa Claus and his elves. When Patricia pleaded with her father to visit Santa, Julian Reiss formulated the idea of a village where Patricia and other children could live out their fantasies.

Fortunately, the North Country was also the home of two other very talented men who worked with Julian Reiss to make his idea a reality. Arto Monaco lived in nearby Upper Jay and had worked as a studio artist for MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Walt Disney in the 1930’s. After being drafted in 1941 and serving in World War II, Monaco returned to Upper Jay to make toys for the children of the North Country. Monaco loved Julian Reiss’ concept and sketched out the fantasy village made up of legendary storybook characters living with Santa Claus at the North Pole.

Bob Reiss said, “Arto Monaco was more than an artist. In another era, he would have been a Michelangelo.” In 1954 Monaco founded his own fantasy village, The Land of Make Believe, in Upper Jay.

Lake Placid logger and builder Harold Fortune was the third important person who made Santa’s Workshop a reality. Fortune was busy constructing the Whiteface Inn in Lake Placid when Julian Reiss told him about his idea. Harold Fortune owned or had options on 500 acres of land adjacent to Whiteface Memorial Highway. It was this land that ultimately became the home of Santa’s Workshop. At that time some 50,000 cars traveled up and down the scenic highway every summer and the original Whiteface ski area located near the present-day Atmospheric Science Center was opening (The ski area was later moved to its present location at the other side of Whiteface Mountain.) Building the workshop on property where today’s Charcoal Pit Restaurant is located in

Lake Placid was considered; however, Whiteface Mountain seemed to be the more appropriate spot for Santa and his elves. Bob Reiss said, “At that time, many people saw this side of Whiteface as the next Sun Valley.”

Julian Reiss, Arto Monaco and Harold Fortune didn’t have any elaborate business plan, market research or architectural drawings for Santa’s Workshop and they didn’t have to deal with zoning regulations or labor departments. Bob Reiss describes the three men walking the workshop site with Monaco’s simple sketches, driving stakes in the ground and constructing the workshop in the spring, summer and fall of 1948. They hoped the theme park would attract about 300 daily visitors.

The opening day admission price was 76 cents with children ten and under allowed in free of charge. The crowd of 212 fell a little short of the goal, but good luck soon propelled crowds to a level Reiss, Monaco and Fortune never imagined. On July 9, 1949, a vaca-tioning photojournalist visited the workshop and snapped a picture of two AuSable Forks children (Sarah Richards and Carol Lagoy) with Santa Claus at the North Pole. The photo and follow-up photos by the Associated Press and other news organizations were featured in over 700 publications across the United States and Canada. A theater newsreel company also filmed a workshop story that was shown to 30 million theater viewers.

On Labor Day 1951, three years after its opening, Santa’s Workshop set its single day attendance record of over 14,000 visitors. Reiss has aerial photos taken on that day showing hundreds of cars lining the Whiteface Memorial Highway, as well as Route 86, extending for several miles toward Lake Placid and Jay.

In 1953, the workshop received more invaluable publicity when it was awarded its own United States postal address – North Pole, NY.

Julian Reiss’ “Operation Toylift” was also very well known. Coins retrieved from the park’s wishing well and donations from the park’s suppliers made it possible for Reiss to deliver toys using his private plane, to orphanages in Northern New York and Vermont. When Esso Standard Oil of New Jersey lent a larger aircraft to the effort, “Operation Toylift” was expanded to 13 states and two Canadian provinces.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the workshop’s daily attendance ranged from 2,000 to 3,000. In 1973, at the time of the Arab oil embargo and hyperinflation, Reiss said, “Attendance started to drop. We thought it would come back. Finally, by the mid-80’s, we said, ‘Where are all the people?’ They weren’t coming back.”

Ironically, 1973 was also the year when the workshop introduced its first Yuletide Christmas Program. Reiss said, “The whole weekend concept happened as an accident.” In the late ‘60s, Santa’s Workshop was asked to produce a weekend Christmas festival at Bear Mountain State Park in the southern Catskills. The family-oriented weekend was a great success; however, when New York State wanted budget cutbacks and the Bear Mountain manager asked Reiss how much money he could save by cutting back the number of reindeer, Reiss knew that a change had to be made. He recalled a lady from Ohio saying, “I enjoyed this weekend so much I’m going to bring all my family back next year.” He thought, “Why not bring the Christmas program to Santa’s Workshop?” Today, every weekend from mid-November to mid-December, 100 to 125 families pack five Wilmington motels, inns and lodges to enjoy two days of family entertainment at the North Pole and in Wilmington.

Reiss said, “The number of people who come back year after year is what’s amazing about this program.” Events start on Friday evening and continue until Sunday morning. The weekend includes a trim-the-tree party, an evening of caroling, magic shows, story telling and family meals. Santa makes a visit to each of the host lodges and the families spend one day at the workshop. Every child receives an individualized gift from Santa. Family package prices range from $650 to $1,000 and Reiss reports that 2006 bookings are 30 percent above last year’s.

Reiss spoke about the challenges facing any family oriented business, especially in the North Country. He said, “Today’s family rarely gets away for a leisurely two-week vacation as many did in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Today’s vacations are shorter and more structured.” Reiss says his typical customers vacation for a few days in the Lake George or Lake Champlain region and, at a certain point, they begin to look for a day’s family activity. Many campers in the Port Henry and Plattsburgh areas bring their children for a day of fun.

Reiss remarked that, while Lake Placid is a very popular tourist venue, it’s more geared to sports-minded participants and specta-tors rather than families. He added, “We need vacationing families coming into the Adirondacks. We need more Santa’s Workshops to get people driving long distances. I look at other attractions as partners rather than competition. We need a stronger partnership between those that are left.”

Wilmington’s economic vitality is also important to the workshop’s continuing success. Reiss sees “eco-tourism” as offering potential to Wilmington’s lodges and motels. He believes certain accommodations could offer photographic, bird watching, hiking, and rock climbing experiences. He mentioned the Hungry Trout as one Wilmington business that has taken advantage of its fishing expertise, offering a guide service, fishing lessons and even private fishing waters. Reiss said, “Even their bartender talks fishing!”

Although Bob Reiss is 80 years of age, he has the vitality and vision of a much younger man. In 2001, after 39 years as the workshop’s general manager, he entered into a partnership with Douglas Waterbury of Oswego. Waterbury has been a success in the real estate business and, hopefully, has the vision to lead Santa’s Workshop to many more years of success.

Reflecting on his years at Santa’s Workshop Reiss said, “We’ve had a lot of fun here.” Certainly Bob Reiss and the staff of Santa Workshop’s have every right to be proud of the joy and happiness they have brought to millions of people over the past 57 years.

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