For her eighth birthday, my niece Evaline had an unusual request: “I want to go to the North Pole.” My sister was nonplussed; I was bewildered. But, like any good aunt, I was up for whatever would make her happy. That’s how I found myself in the car with my sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew, headed to a little slice of roadside nostalgia in Colorado Springs.
It was a beautiful day in July, 2019. The skies were that quintessential Colorado bluebird color and at 9:30 a.m., the temperature was a balmy 82 degrees. As we drove along Highway 24, Pikes Peak stood sentinel in the distance. Signs for Garden of the Gods, one of the city’s main attractions, beckoned. We passed the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Cave of the Winds as we wound up through the pines and turned onto Pikes Peak Highway. Just when I thought we might be chasing a figment of my niece’s imagination, a sign declared that we had reached the North Pole, home of Santa’s Workshop.
I glimpsed the tops of rides among the trees, just one example of the magic the North Pole has been bestowing on a younger set of thrill-seekers for more than 60 years.
Artisans and animals
Inspired by the opening of Santa’s Workshop in Wilmington, New York in 1953, a group of businessmen from Colorado Springs decided that their town needed a Christmas-themed park as well. In the 1950s, the great family road trip was becoming increasingly popular, and roadside attractions popped up on major thoroughfares throughout the country. Highway 24 was a main route from Colorado Springs up to Pikes Peak and the mountains, so it seemed like a natural fit. Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole opened on June 16, 1956.
As we enter the park, my 8-year-old niece and 6-year-old nephew squeal in pleasure and make a beeline to the nearest ride, a set of vintage Model Ts that loop around a track with noisy effort. In the distance, a giant Santa waves from the top of a tall slide; a sign with multiple arrows points visitors toward attractions such as Santa’s Sleigh Ride, the Candy Cane Coaster, a glassblowing hut, and a magic show.
When the park first opened, there were no rides. Instead, artisans had booths selling their wares; theatrical shows were performed; Rufus Porter played his hurdy-gurdy while his monkey danced and James Gamble staged elaborate puppet shows. Animals including burros, ducks, goats, sheep, white deer, and peacocks roamed the grounds. The first rides—the Mine Ride, the Stage Coach, and an authentic Fire Engine—were added in 1958.
George Earl Haggard was one of the initial investors in Santa’s Workshop. Haggard and his wife spent their summers in Colorado and their winters in their home state of Texas, since the park wasn’t open in the winter at that time. By the 1970s, most of the investors in Santa’s Workshop realized that running the park was more work than they had bargained for and, after buying out A.B. Hirschfeld in the early ‘90s, Haggard was the sole owner of Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole.
Haggard’s son, Tom, grew up at Santa’s Workshop in the summers. As he got older, the park started to transform from an artisans’ village to more of an amusement park.
“It just kind of grew into what it is now, mostly under my dad, Tom Haggard,” explains Austin Lawhorn, who is now the third generation of her family to work at the North Pole. “He was collecting and restoring rides. Certainly from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s on, anything added to the park other than the basic infrastructure has been in the form of rides that we have found and restored that you’re just not going to find everywhere else.”
Today there are more than 25 rides and other attractions at the park, including a Ferris wheel and a 1919 band organ. The carousel is 100 years old and the Midge-O-Racers are from the 1950s. Lawhorn says that they’ve made some changes to the vintage rides, mostly for safety reasons.
“I don’t know how kids didn’t lose their fingers in the Midge-O-Racers in the ‘50s,” she says. “It seems like such a little ride and I don’t think people would even give it a second thought. But when you think about where it’s been and how people are just not going to see it again, it’s kind of special.”
But that’s the beauty of this park: It’s meant for younger, smaller kids and families. “There are not a lot of places for little kids aged 12 and under,” Lawhorn says. “It is a small demographic, but it’s an important demographic. That’s when parents are building magic with their kids and having experiences with their kids. You know, we’re not a place where parents just say, ‘Go, play,’ and sit down on a bench.”
Immersed in the magic
Parents and adults seem equally immersed in the park’s magic. At Santa’s House, you can get an audience with the big man himself, even in July. Venture into Santa’s Show House and you’ll be swept away by magician John Bryan and his lovely assistant and wife, Michele. Bryan, who has an extensive history with the park, performs five shows a day.
“I’ve kind of been a part of this park since it opened,” Bryan says. “Not working here, but I started coming here as a tourist when I was 6 months old and I came every year until I was 16. When I was 16, I applied for a job doing the magic show and I got it.”
Bryan performed at The North Pole for about five seasons, from 1972 to 1976, before leaving to perform on passenger cruise ships. He met his wife and they decided there was no better place to raise a family than Colorado. He returned to the North Pole in 1984.
With six different shows, three featuring Michele and three in which Bryan performs solo, guests can return again and again and see a different performance. During our visit, we watch “Christmas Around the World,” a new show that features Christmas traditions from various countries and includes audience participation. Bryan also designs all of his lighting, backdrops, and other elements that come together to transport the audience to a new and magical place.
Walking around the North Pole with my family, it’s easy to get swept up in the charm and nostalgia. No one is on their phone (service is spotty up here at best) unless they’re taking photos. Grandparents are walking with strollers; older siblings and cousins are riding rides with their younger family members. Lawhorn says that they’ve even seen guests who visited the park as children bring their great-grandchildren to the North Pole.
“When you think about your life and your childhood, there are some things that you remember,” Lawhorn says. “We have stayed the same through the years. I mean, we may have added things and kept paint jobs up, but we have not changed the park and who we are. We are an experience that parents and grandparents can give to this younger generation that is very similar to what they remember. I think it’s a gift.”
Cuddling up with my nephew on the roller coaster, watching the kids run from ride to ride, marveling at the North Pole that remains frozen in time, and meeting Santa is a gift—one that anyone can appreciate and share year round in Colorado Springs.
If you go
Santa’s Workshop at The North Pole is open Thursdays through Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., weather permitting. It closes at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve so Santa can start his deliveries.