It was supposed to be like Christmas morning 365 days a year.
A theme park with a Santa House, a sleigh ride to the north pole complete with giant polar bear, a dinosaur ride, pet farm, kart track, soft play, hall of mirrors, crazy golf, vintage car ride and Gingerbread House cafe… paradise for kids, right?
Wrong. If you ever took your family to Santa Claus Land in Aviemore, or were taken to it as a child, you might have a very different story.
Santa Claus Land opened in 1975, part of a drive to maximise the Aviemore Centre’s potential as a tourist destination.
It was to be open all year round, and as well as providing entertainment for children, it was to give Highland craft makers a shop window for their products.
From the get-go, it didn’t have its troubles to seek.
The first Santa walks out
The very first Santa quit, for reasons unrevealed, not long before the opening in November 1975, and management was left putting a brave face on the situation.
To try and find a replacement, advert was placed in the P&J: “Will Santa Claus please contact the managing director of the Aviemore Centre who wishes to advise him that his log cabin in Santa Claus Land, fully furnished, is now ready for him to receive guests all year round. Suitable persons with right temperament apply straight away.”
Morris Marshall, Aviemore Centre MD said the first Santa had failed to report for duty.
“It’s unfortunate that we have been let down but we will have a Santa for November 12,” he promised, adding: “We have been inundated with applications. Everyone wants to be Santa Claus. But we’ve got to find someone with the right personality and right approach.”
A Santa must have been found, for the park was duly opened on schedule by — a top celebrity surely, you’re all thinking?
In fact it was Sir Andrew Gilchrist, former British ambassador in Reykjavik.
Things went well for a while, and by the mid-Seventies Santa Claus Land was pulling in 450,000 people a year.
But by 1982, the cracks were beginning show, pushing unhappy visitors towards the press to spill their disappointing experiences.
Fife farmer John Nicol told the Evening Express he had been promised a ‘memorable day’ when he rang the Aviemore Centre to check that Santa Claus Land would be open for the family treat he had promised his children.
Unforgettable…and not in a good way
“The chap I spoke to said it was wonderful and they really looked after the kids. There were sleigh rides and a North Pole. It was a great day out he said. I think ‘a memorable day’ were the words he used.”
For the Nicol family, memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“Mr Nicol said that when they got to Santa Claus Land, the woman on the turnstiles said: ‘Terribly sorry. But half the things are not working because the staff aren’t here due to the weather conditions.’
“He added: ‘Santa was sitting at his desk. There was no-one else in the place.’ ”
Things rapidly went downhill
Mr Nicol continued: “Karen-Anne [aged 3] had a carrot for his reindeer and she went to him with the carrot. He looked up, took the carrot and laid it on his desk. He never even said: ‘Hello little girl.’
“There was no ‘Ho ho ho, little girls’ or the kind of thing you would expect from Santa.”
Only one trip was working, the trip through Alice Land, it turned out.
Mr Nicol said: “I think we were more disappointed than the kids. We had been building up our hopes. It could have been a big happy occasion.”
Management rejected Mr Nicol’s criticisms, saying the weather was very bad that day, and he did not accept that Santa had been indifferent.
“We are not talking about a seasonal, temporary Santa, we are talking about a permanent professional Santa of some six or seven years experience,” the manager said. Which perhaps he shouldn’t have, for oh, so many reasons.
Mr Nicol’s verdict? “I don’t mind paying money for something if you are getting your money’s worth, but that was a rip-off.”
One disillusioned blogger dubbed it Santa Claus Land Scotland’s strangest failed theme park.
In their blog, which shows photos of what it looked like after closure, the attraction was described in a tongue-in-cheek manner as a “horror show”, and “distinctly sinister”.
“Right from the start, it seems to have had this distant air of slapdashery to it,” the blog says.
“Like many kids who grew up in the Highlands, a trip to Santa Claus Land was a sort of grim inevitability at a certain point in your life. It’s there, it’s cheap, it’s Christmas-themed, you’re a kid —a rainy weekend let loose in the soft play area is as good as any other.”
As early as 1981, the theme park was in the sights of the Health & Safety Department.
A five year old girl had fallen through a hole in the floor of Santa’s Sleigh Ride, injuring her leg and stomach.
Staff were highlighting other defects, and refused to operate the Santa Claus land train because of its state.
One employee left and became a whistle-blower, providing a damning list of defects, from the train ride carriages coming off the line with passengers on board, to sparks and flames coming from the vintage car’s pedals, and staff suffering electric shocks.
After a six-year closure and £500,000 refurbishment, the park reopened in 1993 and somehow limped on, but by 1999 was looking pretty tired again.
An EE reporter took his family to the park that September, wondering if his two young boys would find the same magic in it as he had when young.
Certainly not where the main man was concerned. Santa’s Highland home was a ‘dusty old building full of crusty toys and an empty chair and bed. Even Santa had legged it!’
Barely three weeks later came news that Santa Claus Land had been closed.
Macdonald Hotels and Probus Estates wanted it as part of £50m plans to redevelop the run down Aviemore Mountain Resort.
Iain Glen, then chairman of the Aviemore Partnership explained the thinking behind the changes, including new facilities for children as part of the redevelopment plans.
He said: “I think most people would agree that Santa Claus Land had become jaded and faded.
“The whole change is about families being able to do things together but not necessarily in a Disneyworld way.”
Who said anything about doing things Disneyworld-fashion at any point in the park’s 24 year history?
A year later, fire destroyed a good part of the Santa Claus Land complex.
But phew, the P&J reassured us that Father Christmas and all his little helpers were never in danger since his grotto had been closed for months.
There was an unsettling rumour that the fibreglass models would be transferred to Kingussie for a playpark there.
Were they? Perhaps readers closer to the matter can let us know, along with their own memories of Santa Claus Land.
Meanwhile, you can enjoy footage of the park in its hey day here.
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