I’ve longed to fill my lungs with pine-scented, mountain air and wander a deep forest. Little did I know that visiting a childhood vacation spot would fulfill that dream. When I discovered that one of my favorite fantasy theme parks, Santa’s Village in the San Bernardino National Forest, was celebrating its 66th Anniversary, I booked a quick getaway.
Reliving Childhood Memories
For my parents, the mountains were a refuge from the heat and humdrum of life in the Pomona Valley. At least once a year, they packed the station wagon, my siblings and I jumped in the back, and within 2 hours we were cruising through the San Bernardino National Forest.
While I was merely excited, my sister, the only one of us to get car sick, was always relieved when my parents pulled into Santa’s Village. We rode the little train and watched “elves” making toys in their workshop. There was a petting zoo and reindeer! My youngest brother loved the fudge in the Gingerbread House and if it was the holiday season, we’d wait in line to give Santa our gift wishes.
On this recent solo trip, decades later, I pretended to be a scout investigating the mountain playground for my infant granddaughter, but really the kid in me wanted to see the place again and how the new owners, Michelle and Bill Johnson, resurrected the park. I wasn’t disappointed.
Storybook Style Makes Way For Medieval Times
The original park theme splashed the grounds in pink and pastel storybook colors, which was a big trend when the park was built in the 1950s. Some of the original Disney Imagineers helped founder Dick Holland create the happy place he never had after growing up during the Depression. From the day it opened (just before Disneyland!), families flocked to the mountain playground, but after 40 years, as the world became a bit more cynical, Dick’s family sold the enterprise.
Time wasn’t kind to the park. Bark beetles decimated many of the trees and a logging company stored the downed trees on the grounds. Later, a fire ravaged the hillside but spared much of Santa’s Village. Enter Michelle and Bill Johnson, locals with a passion for outdoor adventure. With grit and patience, they renewed the park with lots of activities and a Medieval overlay.
There are pedal-powered carts, and the old Bumble Bee Mini-Monorail is getting a make-over as an elevated bike track (scheduled to open in late 2022). Several of the original yellow and black carts are now climbing gyms for the smallest visitors and Instagram-worthy spots. One of the biggest innovations is the Royal Games area on the hillside. It includes Princess Evergreen’s Archery Range, King Celwyn’s Ax Challenge, and the Northwoods Sharpshooting Gallery.
The new park has the same basic footprint, and the forest is the star of the show. Friendly, woodland characters wander the grounds, and the staff fully inhabit their glitter and caped elfin personalities. Gumdrop, the concierge elf, enthusiastically answered my questions about the magic show and the best way to visit Santa’s house (sign up for a visit as soon as you enter the park). I even met a reindeer (the costumed kind) who high-fived kids as he rode past in an elf-powered cart. A magician performs and there’s a sing-along troupe and a puppet show. All good fun.
Michelle, Bill, and their creative team have focused on more authentic, less fantastical experiences. And from the moment I entered, it was clear to see how much fun families were having. Parents and minions held hands as they twirled on the little ice-skating rink. A slow kiddie train ran in circles and older kids raced down a low-lying zipline. Small bikes and helmets were stacked near a woodsy track and tiny bikes were available on demand. Little riders, their legs barely reaching the ground, held one parent’s hand as they tumbled and twisted along a meandering track. Floki’s Frozen Falls Climbing Tower challenged young and old climbers.
Each Season Has A Theme At Skypark/Santa’s Village
Each season has a different theme at Skypark/Santa’s Village. Fall features Pumpkins In The Pines and in post-January, the Winter Wonderland Festival emerges. After dark, lights mesmerize visitors as a Village of Lights springs to life, and a story-themed Fantasy Forest Walk beckons. Summertime is all about adventure and mountain biking is king.
Eating In The Village
Hungry after a few hours of brisk walking, I followed the aroma of baked cookies into the Gingerbread Bake Shop. My giant peanut butter cookie was a bit tough, but the cappuccino was delicious. Kringles Coffee Shop downhill has a bigger hot and cold drink menu with sandwiches, too. Heartier fare is available at Billy’s BBQ and St. Nick’s Grill. I was pleasantly surprised to find a selection of beers and my favorite, low-alcohol Stiegl Grapefruit Beer on tap in the pub. Outdoor tables and a roaring fire pit made the pub a perfect spot to relax away from the kiddie action and to schmooze with bicyclists fresh off the trail (it terminates next to the pub).
But watching families walking their bikes up to the forest trail made me wish I was staying longer with my little tribe in tow. I can imagine escaping the summertime heat, as my parents once did; to hold my granddaughter’s hand as she toddles along the mini-bike track.
Where To Stay
Playing in all that fresh air makes for a good night’s sleep and there are dozens of places to stay in the Lake Arrowhead area. Across the street from Santa’s Village is an RV park and campground. I’d love to spend a few nights in one of their vintage Airstreams.
Lake Arrowhead Village Reborn
Lake Arrowhead was manufactured in the 1920s. It’s about 10 minutes from Santa’s Village. The vacation destination was originally a lake and second-home development, but fell out of favor, and even housed recuperating WWII soldiers for a spell.
“If the termites stop holding hands the buildings will fall down,” warned one of the new 1980s developers. But before it was rebuilt, a month-long “Burn to Learn” firefighter and Sky Corp exercise took over and burned down the original village. Today, stately homes still ring the lake and I wondered how the original owners felt about the smokey activities.
The enlarged village, recreated in the original Tudor style, opened in the 1980s. Today, shops ring a central square and the original dance pavilion houses Papagayo Restaurant.
The Luxury Of Lake Arrowhead Resort And Spa
My parents couldn’t afford Lake Arrowhead and favored renting a little cabin for our clan at Big Bear Lake, which is another 25 miles of twisting mountain roads away. I didn’t make it to that lake this trip but found the Arrowhead Lake Resort and Spa a picture-perfect, luxury hotel, and family-friendly. I entered the spacious lobby highlighted with a birchwood décor that brings the outdoors inside. The dining room and bar have wood-beamed ceilings and the blue of the lake flickers beyond tall windows.
I almost missed the walking path into the village. It begins right outside the resort entrance. The leisurely, 5-minute stroll took much longer as I stopped to admire the lake views. The raised trail passes boat docks and ends up near the circular pavilion. A flock of ducks napped along the beach, and I imagined a summer day as the grandmother with a book in her hand, sunbathing and cheering on the family, paddle boarding, and waterskiing.
While I had breakfast in the Lake Arrowhead Resort restaurant and thoroughly enjoyed my eggs Benedict, on the next trip, I’ll stroll into the village to enjoy fine dining or casual, French, Italian, or Mexican fare.
Tips For A Mountain Village Trip
- In the winter, prepare for cold weather and possible snow. Don’t expect to pick up tire cables in the area unless over-paying doesn’t bother you. I was told to bring cash to pay helpers to attach the cables.
- The road up the mountain is beautifully maintained but expect switchbacks and bring ginger chews in case passengers are susceptible to car sickness. The road between Santa’s Village and Big Bear Lake is 25 miles of twists and turns.
- Be sensitive about altitude and how it can affect your endurance. Lake Arrowhead and Santa’s Village are at 5,100 feet. Big Bear Lake is 6,700 feet and that altitude difference draws skiers and sledders to fresh powder that south-facing Lake Arrowhead may not get.
- Big Bear Lake draws crowds and Lake Arrowhead, while popular, has fewer visitors. Take that into account if you’re cautious about traveling during times of COVID-19.