Resurrecting childhood memories at Santa's Land

Santa's Land reopens after three-year hiatus

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PUTNEY — Santa's Land opened its doors for the first time in three years on Saturday, and staff and customers alike were pleasantly surprised by the steady flow of people coming in and out of the park.

"That parking lot," said Bill Davis, pointing to the nearby lot as the Santa's Land train chugged by, "was full all day."

David Haversat, who purchased the park earlier this year, didn't really know what to expect when he woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday.

"At 10 a.m. I looked here and I could see a sea of cars," Haversat said. "There were people waiting to get in."

As Haversat raced around the park trying to make sure everything was up to snuff, families sought him out. His first customer told him she'd been to Santa's Land 60 years ago and came Saturday with her grandchildren.

"It was what I had hoped for, that generations of families coming back," he said.

Davis, the train conductor, said he joined Santa's Land because his home is within walking distance of the park, and added he used to visit as a child.

"Just like the owner," he said.

The train is one of the park's most popular attractions. Davis said he'd been conducting non-stop train rides all day. He, like many of the employees, was happy that Santa's Land was open again.

"We're really happy about the new owners," he said.

Many of the employees had some sort of connection to the park. They distinguished themselves by wearing Santa hats.

Kali Gauthier, who worked the sweet shop, and Laol Short, who worked the sifting-for-gemstones exhibit, both started working at Santa's Land because their parents recommended them.

"I'm fourth generation," Short said.

Gauthier came to the park as a child. Her favorite attraction was the slides. Working in the sweet shop, she saw a steady flow of people throughout the day.

"We sold out of the cookies," she said.

Santa Claus (aka Walter Smith) had never performed professionally as Santa before. He's brought both his children and grandchildren to the park before.

"The new owner, Dave, has done a fantastic job remodeling the place," he said.

But still, not everyone was satisfied.

"It seems like they weren't quite ready to open," April Gilbert said. She and her family were disappointed by the park's lack of animals.

The previous Santa's Land had reindeer, miniature donkeys, a petting zoo and other attractions. But in 2014, one of the previous owners was charged with animal abuse after 16 reindeer were found dead from neglect, along with a pheasant and a pot-bellied pig. Haversat decided to not include animals in this iteration of the park. In addition to the incident involving the animals, Haversat was aware of the upkeep, price and many permits he'd have to hold to add animals. He decided to keep the pens empty of exhibits, in case he wants to add animals to the park in the future.

"It is very much a disappointment without the animals," Lilyan Sargent said.

The group admitted, though, that what the park did have was good. Sargent liked Bear Mountain, which features animated penguins and polar bears. Tim Farren liked sifting for gemstones.

"It's a nice souvenir," Levi Gilbert said.

Anastasia, April and Levi's daughter, enjoyed the train ride and helping shift for gemstones. Overall, the members of the group said they were still happy it was open and hope to come back next year.

Geneva and Bob Preble also checked the park out on opening day, to see if they should take their grandchildren there. Bob Preble loved the train and rode it multiple times. Both of them thought the park was amazing.

"He's put a lot of effort into it and you can see how much," Bob Preble said. "It's resurrecting childhood memories."

Geneva Preble said she'll definitely bring her grandchildren.

Overall, Haversat was satisfied with the day.

"The goal is to keep it going well beyond my lifetime," he said. "It's been here for six decades so let's keep it going another six decades. It just needs that maintenance and care and someone that loves the place."

The park will be open Saturdays and Sundays until Christmas.

He intends to open the park up either in May or June next season.

"Even Santa needs a vacation," he said.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.

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