Legend has it that the community got its name at a town meeting on Christmas Eve a few years after it was settled. As the elders discussed what to name their community, a child heard the sound of bells outside and exclaimed "Santa! It's Santa Claus!" Town leaders took that as a suggestion and approved the idea.
St. Nick plays a powerful role in this oddly monickered town, at its post office and at Holiday World & Splashin' Safari amusement park. A century after the town was settled and nine full years before Walt Disney got into the theme-park business, Santa Claus became home to the world's first themed amusement park, Santa Claus Land.
The park, which started with a Christmas theme, changed its name to Holiday World as it branched out to celebrate such other holidays as Halloween and Independence Day. It lays claim to Indiana's largest water park, Splashin' Safari, a host of family-oriented rides and two of the country's top wooden roller coasters according to Amusement Today: the Raven and the newly opened Legend, ranking first and seventh.
Add in ticket prices much lower than at corporate parks, a free-soft-drink policy, a staff voted "World's Friendliest" and grounds honored as "World's Cleanest"--honors that place Holiday World ahead of such major names as Six Flags, Cedar Point and the Disney parks.
"We've tried to focus on families and growing in that direction," says Will Koch, president of Holiday World operator Koch Development. "We've acknowledged there are bigger parks out there with taller roller coasters and more people.
We try and cater to the family. We're good about friendliness, cleanliness and take a lot of pride in it."
Holiday World is the town's biggest employer. "We employ about 50 people year-round, but during the summer we hire another thousand or so. We do a lot of construction services in and about the area as well. We're a regular economic engine," Koch says.
"During the summer we're the center of attention," he continues. "Business-wise we drew in just under 600,000 visitors. Of those visitors, 20 percent will stay overnight in the area, So, they're spending money for restaurants, hotels, campsites in and around the area,
The amusement park is the central hut far from only attraction in an economy driven by tourism. Nearby is the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Set on the location where Abraham Lincoln grew up, the site includes a visitor's center, walking tour and Lincoln Historical Farm a working pioneer homestead with rangers in period clothing performing a variety of activities typical of the 1820s.
People even visit the local post office. It's especially busy around Christmas as an official recipient of letters addressed to Santa.
Tourism dollars support a number of local accommodations. Nearby hotels include the 87-room Santa's Lodge, which includes an indoor pool and hot tub, a pond with paddle boats, an exercise room and special children's playground, along with the St. Nick's restaurant and Blitzen's bar. Camping options include the Lake Rudolph Outdoor Resort and accommodations at Lincoln State Park.
What else drives the local economy? "This is a big agricultural area," says Spencer County Bank president Merle Kendall, "and a number of farmers help to contribute to the area's economy." In addition, the town now offers a 325-acre industrial park, home to Kimball International's Heritage Hills Division and National Office Furniture.
Then there's Kendall's bank, a family-owned and -operated institution that has served the Spencer County community since 1907. The Santa Claus branch that opened in 1966 is now the bank's headquarters.
"We opened this bank in the middle of a cornfield. There was nothing around but an American Legion post, a couple of houses and the park, which was called Santa Claus Land at the time," Kendall recalls. "With the growth of the town the bank needs to grow as well and will be adding an addition. Also, we'll be renovating the outside."
When Kendall started with the bank 35 years ago it tallied roughly $2 million in deposits. Today the bank boasts $50 million in deposits and four offices.
Santa Claus has grown from a population of 64 in 1964 to its present population of close to 2,000 residents. Construction of 60 homes is expected in the coming year.
A major housing development is the 2,000-acre Christmas Lake Village golf-course community, launched in 1967. Lots surround three lakes, the largest of which is Christmas Lake. It is more than a mile long and is suitable for powerboats, skiing, sailing and swimming. The other centerpiece of Christmas Lake Village is the championship 18-hole golf course.
Local industrial development could follow infrastructure improvements along State Road 231. The road is to be widened to four lanes, with a new bridge across the Ohio River and an improved connection with Interstate 64 north of Dale.
"Everyone is anticipating large industrial growth because of this," Kendall says. "We look forward to any growth here. From day one we've made loans throughout the county. We originally had all the loans on the area of Christmas Lake Village. We've helped everyone throughout the county, whether it's farmers, small business or the park. We're always looking for ways to help the community."
The company behind Holiday World also is a major force in local development, Koch says. "The company itself through the years--mainly my father Bill Koch--has been responsible for the development of the town of Santa Claus: Christmas Lake Village, Holiday Village, a smaller subdivision and getting the initial water and sewer systems set up for the town. He donated acres of land for the town ball, the industrial park and other places."
And Holiday World continues to grow and improve, he says. "We're building, we're fresh, we're expanding and new things are always happening here. We're not a worn out, old park."