Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

The 10-foot-tall snowman with the crooked grin is just as weirdly enchanting as I remember. Flanked by two ginormous candy canes and wearing a top hat tilted at a rakish angle, he stands at attention and ushers us into the half-full parking lot of Santa’s Village Azoosment Park like he doesn’t realize it’s 90-some-odd degrees out.

This harbinger of the holiday appears without warning along an otherwise cheerless stretch of Route 25 in suburban East Dundee. But the incongruity of the “winter wonderland in the summer” concept is of no concern to my two daughters, who can barely contain themselves as we pass the ancient neon entrance sign.

The beloved amusement park had a solid 47-year run until it closed in 2006, when a Grinch-like judge ruled to evict its operators. But in 2010, like a Christmas miracle (read: a bad Hallmark Channel movie), a savior stepped forward to reopen the landmark. Jason Sierpien, who had worked at the park as a teenager in the 1990s, was at the time running the company that had supplied animals to the park during its last two seasons. He added the “azoosment park” tag to the name to better incorporate the critters that had long shared the stage with the big guy. Sierpien, now 41, has been slowly rebuilding the park with his wife, investing in spiffy new roller coasters and bringing back classic rides from its heyday to lure nostalgia-starved parents like me.

Mission accomplished. The last time I strolled those grounds was more than 35 years ago with my own parents. When I heard about the revival, I wasn’t sure an old-school mom-and-pop attraction—just an hour from one of the Six Flags behemoths—could summon enough thrill factor to make a comeback. But I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit my youth, so I loaded my personal fun barometers (5-year-old Gemma and 9-year-old Josephine) into the car with my wife and me.

“Daddy, are we going to see the real Santa Claus?” Gemma asks as we near the ticket booth, sounding even cuter than the kid in Miracle on 34th Street. “Definitely,” I assure her. “He lives here in his summer house.” The truth is, I have no clue what the day holds. What I recall most vividly from my last trip here is the petting zoo, where a crazed donkey bit my shoulder. I’ve been leery of barnyard animals since.

The pungent scent of sunscreen and sweat greets us like an old friend as we pass through the entrance and scan our Ultimate Experience passes, which include coupons for free animal feedings at the aviary and barn (great, a visit to the latter is like walking into a real-life Hitchcock flick for me). Jarringly, I notice that Santa’s Village now shares space with an outfit called Paintball Explosion, which leases half of the original 50 acres. The repurposed area, including the once-tranquil Polar Dome ice rink, is now host to war gamers dodging enemy fire among the remnants of holiday characters and signage from old rides, such as Santa’s Slide. Jolly old elves under siege? Definitely not cool.

Creepy paintball aside, I’m surprised by my girls’ genuine excitement as we walk among the chalets covered in faux snow. Both have experienced the over-the-top thrills of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee and Cedar Point in Ohio. In particular, the not-even-preteen Jo has become a wildcard during family outings, describing most activities that don’t involve staring at a screen as “borrrrrrring.” But she flashes a huge smile when we reach the Snowball Ride. “I want to go on that,” she says, pulling her mother’s arm. The winter-themed spinning teacups, a longtime staple at Santa’s Village, were bought at auction by the new owners and made a grand return last season, their classic appeal only mildly marred by the heavy metal version of “Carol of the Bells” blaring over the speakers.

Jo loves them, but what she’s really interested in is the Super Cyclone, the park’s newest, most grown-up ride. While it’s no American Eagle—the famed wooden coaster at Six Flags—the sneaky four-story drop is a blast. The best part: no waiting in line for three hours. Score one for the little guy. “Now that’s what I call fun,” Jo says, and I can see her delighted grin in a future Santa’s Village TV ad. As we peel ourselves from the sticky plastic seats, I savor the fact that she’s still a kid (for now).

Since reopening, Santa’s Village has brought back some favorites from another dearly departed local attraction: Kiddieland in Melrose Park. Shuttered in 2009 and demolished to make way for a Costco, it never got a second chance. But rides such as Space Invasion and Roto-Whip live on here. The 54-inch height limit means my wife and I settle for watching the girls get spun like they’re stuck in a cotton candy machine, but then I spot the Star Jets, a Village original I rode as a kid—and it’s open to adults. I practically knock a few kids over to giddily squeeze my 170-pound frame into the sardine can of a cockpit. “I think I like this place better than Great America,” says Jo, following my lead.

As we venture to the far end of the park, a familiar aroma hits me: Old MacDonald’s Barn. It sounds innocent enough, but my hand trembles as we approach. A pair of employees in overalls hand us our feed cups, and I notice a foreboding sign: “PLEASE! Feed Animals with a Flat Open Hand.” The flashbacks come fast and furious while baby goats converge on us. Gemma, usually the bravest of the bunch, looks nervous. Steeling myself, I muster enough fatherly courage to shield her from the hungry critters and hold out my own handful of pellets. You could call it immersion therapy.

Next up, a swing through Santa’s House at the North Pole. (Yes, there’s an actual seven-foot-tall pole that is freezing to the touch, and yes, of course there are sweaty parkgoers gyrating around it like strippers.) I’m pleased with the happy, tired faces on Gemma and Jo as Kris Kringle shares with us how he delivers gifts all over the world in one night (sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy), and we take his advice to visit Dasher and Dancer before we leave. We can see them from the safety of the Alaskan Railway train cars, which is exactly how I like it. No need for the feed cups, thanks. We’ve made enough memories for one day.