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America's First Amusement Park: North Pole, N.Y.

Northern New York gets a lot of flak for not having as much development or as many “things to do” as some more metropolitan areas of the state. The general scarcity in leisurely establishments presents a unique conundrum to business proprietors in the region. Consequently creativity is a great competitive asset. Of all the possibilities for entrepreneurial imagination in the Adirondack region, one wouldn’t necessarily think of an amusement park as the premier idea for raking in the dough. Furthermore, a theme park based around the already sensationalized Christmas holiday would be an idea entirely out of left field, colloquially put. If you think it’s an idea destined to sink, you’re probably not a true believer. And you probably also haven’t been to North Pole, N.Y. Opened in 1949, the holiday village was the first amusement park established in the U.S., and created a blueprint for the year-round “Santa Town” parks which have been replicated in multitude across the country. These imitators spawned in hopes of capturing the imaginations and price of admission from unwitting tourists, but there are several aspects behind the history of the North Pole in Wilmington, New York which lend the park a certain degree of sincerity the others may be lacking. As the story goes, in the 1940s, creator Julian Reiss purchased land near Whiteface Mountain, a popular tourist destination at the time, and also well into the present day. Reiss crafted a story in which a baby bear embarks on several misadventures, eventually leading him to Santa’s workshop. Piqued by his daughter’s interest in the idea of visiting Santa at his summer home, Mr. Reiss realized that a park established for the reason of becoming a tourist attraction could be a timely investment. With the Second World War having just drawn to a close, Reiss wagered American families would be traveling more often and spending money now that the dire need to ration resources was no longer looming. Reiss’ vision would be realized with the assistance of local artist Arto Monaco, whose concept drawings represented a distinct, ergonomic style of construction and arrangement. During the war, Monaco left a career as an animator and prop and set designer in Hollywood (where he worked for studios such as MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Disney) to enlist in the U.S. Army. His unique skill set did not go unnoticed by the Army; Mr. Monaco became the first employee of what would become the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Training Division. During his military tenure, Arto Monaco designed a Bavarian village in the mountains above Los Angeles to provide a combat training stage set for Army personnel. Monaco’s ability to render storybook-style Eastern European architecture was demonstrable, and his proficiency was a prime factor in the original success of the North Pole. What constituted success for America’s first amusement park after it opened? Ten thousand daily attendees, eventually peaking at 14,000 in 1951. The earliest visitors during this time had the opportunity to meet Santa and his elves, see the frozen North Pole, and pet goats, sheep and deer in what was also the country’s first petting zoo. Though the animals were originally given free reign to travel the park as they see fit, they are now confined to specific pens. There was such buzz surrounding the attraction following its opening that developers planning the first Disneyland came to Reiss’ creation to glean ideas.

In addition to Reiss’ (correct) prediction about the expanding travel habits of American families, this golden era of the park was achieved due to a general enthusiasm for the Christmas holiday. The 1950s saw the production of classic movies “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”? Barbie and Mr. Potato Head also were also produced in the 1950s, successfully becoming two of the first “must-have” toys of the season. Decorative lighting was popularized, Elvis released his first album of Christmas tunes, the White House expanded the breadth of recipients of the official Christmas card to foreign ambassadors — all in the 1950s. Those warm and fuzzy sentiments seem to have gone by the way of aluminum trees, however, as whenever the holiday seems to pop up in the media anymore it’s typically regarding Fridays after Thanksgiving, aggressive advertising, and the appearance of the politically neutral phrase “Happy Holidays.” The North Pole, though, has battled this growing apprehension by adopting a very selective policy regarding new additions or changes to the park so as to retain the original charm created in 1949. Those letters to Santa that children request their parents to send to the North Pole? Well, North Pole, N.Y. is technically a hamlet in New York State, and therefore has its own post office (P.O. Box 1768, North Pole, N.Y. 12997). As a result, the park receives thousands of letters yearly from devout believers with requests to be met by Santa and his staff of intrepid elves. Looking to experience a bit of the magic yourself? Perhaps talk to Tannenbaum the Talking Tree Christmas Tree (a mechanical tree manned by staff members with a microphone who responds to one’s inquiries), touch the frozen North Pole pole, enjoy some rides, monogram your own Santa hat or visit the big man himself. You can find the North Pole in Wilmington, New York, about 15 miles northwest of Lake Placid, with accommodations available in the towns of Placid, Tupper, and Saranac Lake.

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