This family found Christmas joy year-round by buying a theme park
A Toronto couple bought Santa's Village in November 2016 after the previous owner retired. (Santa's Village / Facebook)
Published Monday, December 17, 2018 7:30AM EST
As the Candy Cane Express weaves its way through the tall shady evergreens and beaming children board Santa’s Sleigh Roller Coaster before meeting the big man in red himself, the Christmas magic is inescapable at Santa’s Village.
It’s part of the reason why Sara Dunkley and her husband Brad jumped at the opportunity to buy the park when the previous owner retired.
From the charming log cabin titled “Mrs. Claus’ Bakeshop” to the lively petting zoo where “Santa’s reindeer” are on full display, families visit the park to revel in the holiday spirit during the park’s open season in the summer and during special events held over the rest of the year.
Dunkley herself has fond memories of taking a short 40-minute drive with her family from her childhood home in Orillia, Ont. to Bracebridge, Ont., where the theme park is located, approximately 190 kilometres north of Toronto.
It was those heartwarming memories that ultimately convinced Sara and Brad, who also visited Santa’s Village as a child, to keep the Christmas spirit alive by purchasing the 60-acre amusement park in November 2016.
“We love amusement parks,” Sara told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview from Toronto in November. “It just seemed like a really fun project for us to take on and a new challenge.”
Now living in Toronto, the couple has another reason to embark on the two-hour drive north to Bracebridge – their three young sons.
Aged 11, nine, and five, Sara said her three sons have become important collaborators in coming up with new ideas for the theme park. She said she often takes their children to other amusements parks in order to see how they react to certain rides and to gauge their enjoyment of the overall experience.
Armed with that useful information, Sara said she tries to determine what their theme park is missing and how it might be improved.
“It’s a really creative project,” she explained. “We’ve done some ride-building, some renovations… We’ve developed some mascots and we’ve really enjoyed it.”
Along with being able to spend quality time with her sons scoping out the competition, Sara said taking ownership of Santa’s Village has also allowed her and her husband to work on something together. Brad works in the investment industry and Sara manages Brad’s father’s business of selling billboards, so the couple hasn’t had a lot of time to embark on a project together.
“It’s been a good challenge,” she said. “A really fun one for Brad and I to take on together.”
Together, the couple – who are in their early forties – have already made a number of changes to the theme park in their two years of ownership, including several new rides.
Some of the latest additions to the family-oriented park include two new mascots named Peppermint Penguin and Snowbo (a dog), a spinning rollercoaster that is also penguin-themed, a tower ride with decorative air balloons, new pirate-themed paddle boats, and a classic-style carousel.
The pair appears to have no plans to slow down, either.
Sara said construction is currently underway for a farm-themed ride involving the park’s popular petting zoo. The plan is to have children board a cartoony tractor that will move along a track through the petting zoo.
“It’s going to be really fun. It’s really cute,” she explained. “The tractors are kind of themed to look like tractors that Dr. Seuss would have imagined. They’re very colourful and vibrant. I think that will be a very exciting attraction and really beautifully fit in to that area of the park.”
The Dunkleys’ dedication to keeping the Christmas magic alive is evident in their long-term plan to have the amusement park operational all-year round.
Sara said attendance has been up at the park since they’ve introduced their newest attractions.
“The feedback has been wonderful,” she said. “They love the new rides, the new characters.”
Even with the shiny new Peppermint Penguin Coaster or the storybook carousel, Sara said the highlight for families continues to be the much-anticipated visit with Santa Claus himself.
“Those special moments that children have with Santa and the conversations they’re having, that continues to be the area that kids really enjoy the most at our park,” she said.
Dunkley said it’s those tender moments that create memories for generations to come and why she and her husband wanted to become more involved in Santa’s Village in the first place.
“[We have] an appreciation for how much love there is for the park and the community,” she said. “It’s a generational experience that our customers are having. So we just really deeply value and appreciate that.”