When Santa Claus needs to get away, he vacations in Cascade.
That’s been the case since 1956, when the North Pole: Home of Santa’s Workshop, was created by Wesley Spurry. Following the model of a park in Lake Placid, N.Y., Spurry and investors Art Herzberger and George Haggard brought the Christmas-themed concept to the foot of Pikes Peak. Today, George’s son Tom owns and operates the park with his family.
“This park has never changed from what it was designed to do,” Haggard said. “That’s entertain families with young children.”
Built on approximately 25 acres, the park includes 27 rides geared toward younger children, eight different gift shops, three restaurants, a petting zoo, a magic show and, of course, Santa.
Haggard visited the park for the first time when he was 5 years old. Every summer thereafter, he would travel from his home in Jefferson, Texas, and work at the North Pole before moving to Colorado in the early 1970s.
He took over the business in 1987, following the death of his parents.
Haggard said there are some unique challenges in owning such a seasonal business, which opens in May and closes Christmas Eve.
“You better store your nuts,” he said. “It’s a long winter.”
Haggard said the offseason is when rides are maintained or replaced and the park is thoroughly cleaned and painted. Buying for the gift shops is also completed during the four months of downtime.
“We try not to wait until January to start [maintenance],” Haggard said. “We start on some projects in September when it slows down. The weather tends to be better in September and October than even March and April.”
Haggard said the busy season used to be the summer, but the past 10 years have brought a significant increase in business between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We used to do OK the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving, and December was nothing to shout about,” Haggard said, adding the park can accommodate more than 2,000 people a day. “This October was a good October. Of course, the weather was so nice. Weather plays a big part in our business.”
Haggard said weather is partly why they close for a third of the year. Another is simply to take a break.
“I like the fact that we have an opening and a closing [date],” he said. “You’re ready for both of them. It gives us a chance to be enthusiastic and not get tired of the business. I get excited about opening in May and so does the staff. And you’re ready at Christmas to hang it up for a while.”
Part of the family
Austin Haggard, 31, is the park’s merchandise buyer and Tom’s daughter. She, along with her younger brother Shane, have grown up at the North Pole, much like their father. Austin said being part of so many family memories is a privilege.
“We are in people’s picture books,” she said. “We’re in their memories and we have been for years. That’s why we have grandparents and larger family units visit us. A lot of our customers are returning with their kids and have memories of the park when they were a kid.”
Austin said she had a college roommate from San Diego, but her family would vacation in Colorado. The roommate’s grandmother passed away and, while rummaging through the old belongings, Austin’s roommate found a picture of her father at the North Pole when he was younger.
“People have an emotional connection to the park that you won’t see at many other businesses,” Tom Haggard said. “If they think you’ve done something wrong, they’ll let you know. … It’s not like selling hamburgers or cars. People [become attached] unlike any other business I know.”
Fire, floods and funds
Tom Haggard will tell you Santa Claus delivers most years the park is open, but the past several busy seasons equated to a lump of coal in the Haggards’ stockings due to the lingering recession, the Waldo Canyon fire and the aftermath of floods along U.S. Highway 24.
“The summers have slowed mainly due to the economy since 2008,” he said. “We’ve dealt with fires and floods the last two years. From a business standpoint, that was a nightmare.”
This year, though, Haggard said business has rebounded.
“This summer was much better than what it has been,” he said. “It’s not what it should be, and won’t be until more people are employed and have better jobs.
“We’re fighting the same thing everybody is from an economic standpoint. Until more people have better jobs, that’s just how it will be.”
Haggard said the disasters affecting his business never made him think twice about his occupation.
“Not everything is going to be easy,” he said. “You just have to buckle up and meet it.”
During the fire he was allowed to bypass blockades along the highway in order to feed the animals in the petting zoo.
He would post to social media to update patrons on the park’s status.
“I was giving reports online to people nationwide,” he said. “We were talking to people all over the country — guests, people who used to work here — about what was going on.
“It was humbling.”
Haggard said the floods last year were more disruptive than the fire.
“The fire came and went. It hurt for a little while,” he said. “But the flood threat the next year was all summer long. Every time it rained, people were scared to death they would close [Highway 24] and would get stuck up here. And they did several times.
“You have to be optimistic to be in this business,” he added. “[The Department of Transportation has] worked on Highway 24 and things have gotten better.”
Despite celebrating the same holiday every day for eight months, Haggard said he doesn’t feel as though he’s stuck in an alternate dimension of Groundhog Day.
“Every season seems to have its own personality,” he said. “Right now I laugh at cell phones. We don’t have good cell phone service up here, and some people come in and don’t have service.
“You’d think they were on the moon. They’re vulnerable and scared that they don’t have that attachment.”
Haggard said adults seem to change year after year, but children have stayed the same.
“They just have fun,” he said, adding it’s easy to identify the reason for the park’s appeal.
“It’s a safe environment,” he said. “I used to think our location hurt us because we’re up Ute Pass and far from the city. There’s no public transportation.
“Now I look at our location and I think it’s helped us to be away from some of that. It’s hard to find places to take young children. As a parent, I didn’t fully appreciate the park until I had my own kids and tried to take them places.”
Haggard said consideration for families dictates his every decision about the business.
“You feel a little extra responsibility about what you’re doing, and when you set your prices,” he said. “You need to think about your customers and their families. That’s where you need to look when you’re deciding these things. Not the business side as much as the customer side.”
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom
An additional responsibility Haggard and his staff have accepted is opening and responding to all regional letters they receive addressed to Santa Claus or the North Pole.
“The Post Office is going to deliver the mail. They ain’t keeping it,” he said. “If it says ‘Santa’ on it, it comes here. From Thanksgiving to Christmas is crazy. We get hundreds of letters a day.”
Haggard said they respond to each one with a postcard from Santa Claus, complete with a North Pole postmark.
“The letters are so cute and children will say anything,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the letters are nice and funny. But you can’t fool children. Don’t think that you can. They know what’s important. When you have a child in trouble, they believe Santa can do anything. They’ll write Santa and they’re not asking for toys. You see what’s going on in their life and their family’s life. They have a problem and they think Santa can solve it.”
Haggard added that he and his elves keep their correspondences old school — letters only.
“We don’t do emails,” he said.
“We won’t get to a point where we’ll do emails. I guess we’re just old-fashioned.”
Where: 5050 Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade
Hours: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., May 1 through Dec. 24, weather permitting; closed some weekdays in the fall. Park is closed Dec. 25-May 1 of each year.
Admission: Free for children younger than 2; $21 for ages 2-59 ($3 off coupon on the park website); free for seniors 60 and older; $16 with military ID.
Contact: 684-9432 or northpolecolorado.com.