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Holiday World is a real life demonstration of that old cliche, "if you build it, they will come." This was born as a retirement project for Evansville industrialist Louis Koch. It began in 1946 as Santa Claus Land, a Christmas gimmick where parents from Louisville, Evansville and Indianapolis could bring their kids to pet reindeer, get a picture taken with the jolly fat man in the red suit and white beard, and meet a few elves. Even the name Santa Claus Land was a quirk of history. The park was named after the village of Santa Claus. But the village had originally been named Santa Fe when laid out in 1842. In 1852 the Postal Service informed the people there was already a town named Santa Fe, so they would have to change theirs, but it was already using the code Santa for their mail, so whatever they came up with had to begin with that word. Not coming up with anything else, they decided to change the Fe to Claus. Then they began getting children's mail every Christmas.
The mail kept increasing until the town was receiving five million letters a year. The Santa Claus American Legion Post volunteered to help answer each piece. Pretty soon people started driving to Santa Claus to see if the man in the red suit was there. Thousands drove home disappointed. So Koch decided to give them a place to visit. He bought an old farm. The barn was dismantled and the wood used to build Santa's Lodge down the road. It's been expanded and remodeled since but the original beams can still be seen in the lobby. Santa Claus Land opened in 1946 with Jim Yellig as Santa Claus, a job he would hold for the rest of his life. Koch was a huge train lover. He assigned Ted Buehn to build him a 1/8 scale outdoor model passenger train large enough to haul kids around the hilltop. Soon they began adding nursery rhyme scenes along the way, and the train ride became as much of a tradition as Santa Claus himself.

They outfitted a stagecoach to bring passengers from the train station in Dale over the unpaved roads to the park. They added Santa's Toyshop and a Bavarian Village that purported to be a model of Santa's original hometown in Germany. The herd of "reindeer" became an attraction in their own right and children could buy food pellets to feed them. In 1947 they added a miniature jeep circle ride to go along with the train, and one by one they kept adding a ride a year, including a fleet of pedal cars which kids pedalled around a winding track.By the 50s, they had added enough miniature rides to become an actual kiddieland. The campground was opened, and a water skiing show was added to the lake. By the fifties, Bill Koch had assumed operation of the park from his father. Jim Yellig's daughter Pat had gone off to college and become a nurse. In 1960 she returned to marry Bill and become a critical part of the park's history. Sometime in the 1960s it morphed into an actual amusement park, and most historians think it deserves the title "first theme park." The flying scooters (1976), bumper boats (77), and antique autos (78) were the park's first really "big time" adult rides.

The place settled into a niche as the once a year draw for mostly rural families, church and school groups for Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky. By the eighties, they had taken the Santa Claus motif about as far as they could, so in 1984 the park officially became Holiday World. Bill's son Will came back from Notre Dame with an engineering degree and a love for roller coasters and thrill rides. As he slowly took over the park's management, he guided HW on a steep upward curve. His first major project was the white water rafting ride, which opened in 1990. They opened the water park, Splashin Safari, in 1993. But the park needed a major ride, something to grab attention in the distant cities. And so after much discussion the Koch family hired CCI to build Raven, a wooden roller coaster Will hoped would update the old classic formula. In 1995, the year it debuted, Raven earned worldwide attention. People came all the way from Europe to ride it. Magazines, newspapers and tv covered it. Holiday World was in the big time.

Will pressed the advantage by commissioning CCI to build Legend, which opened in 2000. Coasterbuzz and the American Coaster Enthusiasts began holding annual conventions at Holiday World. Charter buses of coaster fanatics began arriving from both coasts. Groups began flying into Louisville and St. Louis and busing down. HW was struggling to serve numbers they had never anticipated. Halloswings was added in 2002. And as part of a whole new section of the park, a new TiltaWhirl, dark ride and full scale sit down restaurant opened in 2005.

But that wasn't all that opened in 2005. The crowning achievement debuted that year : Voyage. Now rated the number one roller coaster in the world, Voyage reinvented the roller coaster concept for the 21st Century. Holiday World now has three of the top 15 coasters in the world, the number one water park in America, and eight rides rated number one in America in their category.

But, somehow, impossibly, it is still a small, leafy, family park. Parking, soft drinks and sunscreen are free. Bill has died but Pat, now in her 70s, still walks the park every day, helping out where needed, keeping a close eye on cleanliness and friendliness. Paula Werne posts regularly on coaster enthusiast web sites. John Warner still creates glass figurines while fascinated crowds of children look on. Santa Claus still hugs kids, poses for photos and laughs heartily. The homemade model train chugs on, Little Jack Horner and Mother Goose still on display. The original Santa Claus post office is still in the park, housing the old doll collection. A couple of presidents have been here. Schools make annual trips a tradition to open or close their years.

Pat Koch, who has become the First Lady of the amusement park industry and President Emeritus of Holiday World, stops and talks to visitors as she makes her way around the park each day. Looking about 20 years younger and more fit than her actual age, she's proud of the family empire but a bit nostalgic for the old days.

"People used to come to the park for a quiet day of relaxing," she recalled one recent day in Splashin Safari. "They would bring a picnic lunch, spend time walking through the trees, appreciate the doll collection, toy museum and glassmaking shop, play a few ganes, and put the kids on a few rides. You'd hear the wind rustling through the trees mixed in with children's laughter. Now it's all about the rides. People come for a nonstop grind of hitting one ride after the next. They don't bring their picnic; they buy it here. And you hear the mechanical roar of coasters mixed in with screams. It's a whole new world for a whole new century."

Indeed, between Memorial and Labor Days, Holiday World has become a destination park. It takes two hard days to hit every ride on both the dry and water side, especially if you try to squeeze in a few shows, lunch and dinner, and some games. One of the largest campgrounds in America serves this huge weekend crowd, many of whom buy HW season passes and haul their RV back every Friday night. They wear park t shirts and display a park spare tire cover on the rear of their RV. Some even rent the space and just leave their RV parked at the campground all season. Holiday Worlders have become a cult.

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