Santa Land visitors weigh theme park’s Wild West future

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(Host) Back when billboards flanked Vermont’s highways, any motorist entering the state could see that Santa’s Land U.S.A. was a big attraction. In recent years, the 50-year-old Putney theme park has struggled to open weekends from May till Christmas. Now a Massachusetts business man wants to turn Santa’s Land into a Wild West Village.

But as VPR’s Susan Keese discovered during a recent visit, Santa’s Land still has plenty of fans.

(Keese) The train at Santa’s Land USA doesn’t stop at FlapJack Junction anymore. The lights have been off for years in the igloo-shaped restaurant where customers used to wait in line for pancakes and Vermont syrup.

(Sound of train engineer thru megaphone) “Now if you look to your right, originally if you had been here in 1950 when this….”

(Keese) Santa’s covered bridge is out of service, too. But dioramas of tree-trimming animals still light up Santa’s tunnel. The figurines are right out of the Mickey Mouse club era.

A lot of the visitors are from those days too. Like the Leitkowskis from East Lyme, Connecticut.

(Leitowskis, talking together) “We used to bring our kids here. This is our grandson now. You want to see Ho Ho? Ho Ho’s in there. I mean it needs a little sprucing up but it’s just neat to bring the kids here, you know?”

(Keese) No one seems to care too much that the icebergs in the pond are a little on the gray side. The geese and baby goats are eager as ever for handfuls of grain from a nickel-eating machine. (Sound of kids cranking the feed machine, laughing, feeding the ducks.) There’s a giant slide, a creaky carrousel and of course the main attraction:

(Kids) “Santa!”
(Santa) “You going to be a good girl? Of course you are!”
(Parent) “Say thank you, thank you Santa.
(Santa) “Hello there!. Come on in and talk to me.

(Keese) Santa’s heard the news that Santa’s Land is under option to a Massachusetts man who wants to turn it into a Wild West theme park. His outlook is characteristically cheerful.

(Santa) “I don’t think it’s going to happen. We may falter along for another year or two, but things are going to come along.”

(Keese) John Fanelli, the park’s owner, has a slightly different point of view.

(Fanelli) “The deal is still on, you know, legally.”

(Keese) Fanelli purchased Santa’s Land five years ago. He lives in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and travels up on weekends to keep it going.

(Fanelli) “I was in the amusement business and I thought I could handle it a little easier. But it’s just a little too much for me.”

(Keese) Jim Balzotti is the prospective buyer. He’s made a career marketing dude ranch vacations in the real West. When Balzotti looks at Santa’s Land he sees Silverado.

(Balzotti) “We’d like to have panning for gold for the kids, and an actual working saloon, and cowboy poetry and a cowboy band and of course horseback riding, pony rides.”

(Keese) Balzotti says he’d like to keep buffalo and long horn cattle on the 40-acre property. He’s asked the state for a couple million in loans to help the project happen. But Santa’s Land visitors Sal and Ann Marie LaRosa aren’t so sure that’s a good idea. They come here every year with their children.

(LaRosa) “Think about it. Cowboys in Vermont? A Wild West theme park in Vermont? Think about that for a minute.”

(Keese) LaRosa says he wishes Vermont would step in to redevelop Santa’s Land.

(LaRosa) “Look at the people. Just look at their faces. The kids are happy. The parents enjoy it. Just look at their faces. That’s all you gotta do, you know.”

(Keese) Santa’s Land owner John Fanelli says maybe there’s room for both: a wild west town in one part of the park, a Christmas village somewhere else. Because no matter where you are – or when for that matter people are always looking for Santa.

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Putney.

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