I’m not a Chicago native, so I don’t have fond memories of going to Santa’s Village or Kiddieland when I was younger. But Go West readers were so excited about our giveaway for four family passes to Santa’s Village AZoosment Park this spring, I knew I had to check it out myself.
Location: 601 Dundee Avenue in East Dundee, near the intersection of Route 25 and Route 72. You park in a grassy lot outside the park. Parking is free.
Hours: Fridays from 10 a.m to 6 p.m and Saturdays, Sunday and holidays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The park will close for the season on Oct. 30, 2011 and reopen in spring 2012. Click here for a list of special upcoming events, including a Harvest Festival.
Amenities: Carnival rides for smaller children; a petting zoo; a walk-through aviary; pony rides; horse sleigh ride; exotic animal show, etc. There is a picnic pavilion (you can bring your own food) and picnic tables throughout the park. Concessions are available at several locations. There is a changing table in at least one restroom facility. I didn’t see any space dedicated to breastfeeding mothers. But nursing mothers could find a quiet place to rest under the picnic pavilion, which was empty during out visit except around lunchtime.
Price: $16.50 per person (adults and children 3 years and up.) $13.50 for seniors (65 and up.) Children 2 and under are free. Active military members with a valid ID are free with one paid child’s general admission.
Good for: Toddlers through age 7 or 8. (Note: The park says it’s aimed at children ages 2-12, but I think children on the older end of that recommended range would be bored quickly, at least in the park’s current incarnation.)
History: If you’re like me and didn’t grow up in Chicago or the suburbs, you might wonder what this Santa’s Village thing is about. From the best I can gather, it was a theme park that operated in East Dundee from the 1959 until about five years ago. It was built to look like a child’s fantasy of a place where Santa Claus might live, and some of the rides and attractions had a North Pole or snow and winter theme.
The new owners also own a Marengo-based entertainment company called A Zoo to You, and so the re-opened (and renamed) park also includes a number of animal attractions.
Our Experience: For my trip on a hot weekday earlier this summer – accompanied by my nearly 3-year-old ride tester – I took a friend and her daughter, the same age as mine. My friend didn’t grow up in the Chicago area either, but she did live in northern Illinois and remembered being intrigued by the commercials about Santa’s Village she saw on TV as a kid. Who wouldn’t be?
Anyway, once we headed in, we could definitely get a sense of what the park might have looked like in its glory days: The wooden cottages certainly have an alpine feel about them, and we took a horse-drawn sleigh ride in a loop around “Reindeer Ridge” to see some reindeer. But there’s really not a lot left that screams Santa. And maybe that’s OK on a 90-degree day? (Note: It does appear Santa Claus visited the park on weekends this summer, and is supposed to be there again Aug. 27-28 and Sept. 3-5.)
The admission price allows for unlimited rides, and it was nice not having to ration tickets. Our girls had a great time “driving” in the “Convoy” of semi-trailer trucks and and in the Kiddie Swing. They rode many, many times in the Midge-O-Racers (again “driving” cars in a loop.) The Midge-O-Racers ride was originally at Kiddieland, as well as the fishtailing Kiddie Whip Ride. The moms joined the girls on the Tilt-A-Whirl, and while it was fun spinning at first, there was a shift change that caused the ride to go on much longer than really necessary. I had vertigo the rest of the day.
Other rides that were running but that we didn’t experience ourselves included a kiddie ferris wheel, an elevated “balloon race” ride, hand cars and a flying spaceship. A small roller coaster called the Dragon Coaster has become operational since we visited, too. In all, there are about 10 operational rides – a few of them too big for our girls -- and it looks like more are planned.
We spent a long time in the petting zoo, where we bought a paper cup of food for $1. I have mixed feelings about petting zoos, but the animals seemed well cared for and not aggressive. (Well, the goats did steal my daughter’s paper cup and eat it in its entirety, but a goat is a goat.)
The girls also took a pony ride (included in the admission price.) We had to wait a while for these; the handlers seemed to be giving the horses regular, well-deserved breaks on the hot day. We also walked through the aviary, where I tried to put my mother’s scary admonitions against ever getting near a bird to rest. (The birds were really tiny, and you could feed them a mix of peanut butter and seeds off a stick.) We didn’t make it to the Exotic Animal Show, which is performed throughout the day.
About halfway through our visit, we took a break and enjoyed food we brought. We ate on a picnic table under a tree, but the pavilion looked very nice as well, and that’s actually where we stored our insulated bags while we toured the park. I bought a soda from a nearby concession stand – the food was what you’d expect (hot dogs, burgers, ice cream etc.) and the prices reasonable. Bringing your own food, however, is the smartest choice.
The Takeaway: At one point during the afternoon, my friend and I turned to each other and chatted about how Santa’s Village was smaller and had less carnival rides than we expected. And then we laughed when we realized we’d already been there three hours. We ended up staying at least four.
Our daughters had a wonderful time visiting the animals and liked the sense of independence provided by the smaller, preschooler-geared rides. All of the employees we encountered were friendly and helpful. The wooden cottages are in need of some tender loving care, but everything was clean and well kept. I liked that all the attractions were included in one price. It was a memorable and unique way to spend an afternoon with some friends, and I envision visiting once a summer as long as my daughter is young enough to enjoy the rides.
Finally, I’m a big fan of nostalgia and Americana and of course family-friendly attractions. I hope that as Santa’s Village AZoosment Park is improved and updated, the new owners can keep the low-tech, innocent, early 1960s vibe.
Disclosure: As part of the giveway in May, Santa’s Village AZoosment Park provided me with a pass good for admission for a family of four. I used that pass to get entry to the park for me, my friend and our daughters. All opinions expressed here are my own.