JEFFERSON, N.H. — Working 14-hour days, Normand and Cecile Dubois spent more than a decade building their dry cleaning and clothing businesses until they owned a block on Main Street in Lancaster, on the northern edge of the White Mountains. When they decided to open a Christmas-themed amusement park here, a few miles down Route 2, their friends scratched their heads in disbelief.
“Poor Normand,” they said. “He’s inhaled too many dry cleaning fumes.”
More than 60 years later, that amusement park, Santa’s Village, is one of the most successful in the country. Each year it draws tens of thousands of children and their parents, prospering as a family-owned business even as many other attractions, including the nearby wildlife park Natureland and Western-themed Six-Gun City, have come and gone.
Santa’s Village, which marked a fifth straight year of record attendance in 2014, was the only New England attraction to make TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of top 25 amusement parks in the nation (The 2015 list comes out later this summer).
As the park’s 63d season kicks into high gear this weekend, Santa’s Village is in the hands of a third generation that has committed itself to the mission of their grandparents — “Pure Joy. Family Style” — while keeping abreast of the latest trends in entertainment and marketing. Surviving into the age of the Internet and megaparks like Six Flags and Disney World has meant investing and reinvesting in the latest rides, technology, and amenities — while always making time to chat with guests in the park and respond to what they post online.
“What my parents did is amazing. And what my grandparents did is equally amazing,” said the Dubois’s grandson, Christian Gainer, who runs the park with his sister, Melanie Staley, and her husband, Nick. “There’s no way we’d ever want to let them down.”
Santa’s Village is among the few survivors of a surge in amusement parks in the ’50s and ’60s spurred by the baby boom and the expansion of interstate highways. Subsequently, many fell victim to complacent ownership, the spread of megaparks, and soaring real estate values.
Today, the industry has about 400 amusement parks, roughly half the number of its postwar peak. Only 13 have been in the same family longer than Santa’s Village, according to Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. “These places give the industry its soul,” Futrell said. “It’s a testament to the families.”
Santa’s Village is part throwback to simpler times and part high-tech entertainment. You’ll still find Santa (in triplicate on busy days), the blacksmith shop, gingerbread houses, and a life-size Nativity scene, but attractions have advanced from a performing mule to 3-D light shows, and publicity from bumper stickers and brochures to Facebook and Instagram.
In 1953, the entrance fee was $1 and a pony ride cost 25 cents. Now, the $30 admission includes unlimited rides and, if you need it, a stroller. About half the park’s revenue comes from food, gift, and souvenir concessions.
The family won’t disclose attendance, revenues, or other financial information. The park employs 25 people year-round and 350 — students and retirees — during the season.
Profits are reinvested; the owners draw salaries, but not dividends. Gainer estimates that over the last 15 years, Santa’s Village has replaced or renovated three-quarters of the park, most recently installing You Tubing for a summertime sledding experience. Five years ago, the village opened a water park called Ho Ho H2O, featuring a Rube Goldberg-inspired array of interlocking slides and sudden downpours that has significantly boosted attendance.
In addition, the village has expanded its season, staying open most weekends after Labor Day up to Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve. Come dusk during the holiday season, the park sparkles with 400,000 lights.
A fawn, and an idea
The origin of Santa’s Village goes back to one night in 1951, when Normand Dubois was delivering dry cleaning accompanied by his 2-year-old daughter, Elaine. When she spotted a fawn darting across the road, her dad said to her it was one of Santa’s reindeer.
At the time, Dubois had been looking to leave the dry cleaning business because the fumes were affecting his health (his doubting friends were half right). That got him and Cecile thinking: Why not open a summer park with a Christmas theme?
While they lacked experience in the amusement industry, they knew how to start a business and work hard. Plus, destiny was on their side. After looking all over for a site for the park, a friend recommended a property that fit their bill. It had evergreens and a brook. It also happened to be the same spot where their daughter had spotted the fawn.
When the village opened in June 1953, it didn’t have any rides, except for ponies. Recorded Christmas music filled the air, as it still does, and deer, ducks, and goats roamed the grounds — the last occasionally gobbling women’s floral dresses. The park had a sign: “Please beware, Goats Eat Everything.”
“Mother stressed village,” said Elaine, adding that her parents “wanted a good, wholesome interactive experience.” Now Elaine Gainer, she and two younger siblings practically grew up in the park.
In the early ’60s, the park installed its first mechanical ride, a sleigh with reindeer that traveled on a circuitous track. Today, visitors can take a tree-top tour on the Sidewalk Sleigh monorail.
Keeping it in the family
While Normand and Cecile Dubois relied on instinct, observation, and trial and error, subsequent generations came with business degrees. Elaine Gainer’s husband, Mike, a graduate of New Hampshire College, now Southern New Hampshire University, and her brother Paul Dubois, an alumnus of Babson College, took the helm around 1970. They broadened advertising to include TV and radio, and instituted more sophisticated accounting, planning, and market research.
Elaine Gainer left her job as a guidance counselor at Lancaster Elementary School to join her husband at the village in 1990, after her brother died in a car accident. Among her innovations was the Elfabet Game, in which kids punch a card marked with all the letters at 26 elf statues scattered throughout the park.
The third generation assumed the reindeer reins about a decade ago, but Mike and Elaine still help out wherever needed — as did Elaine’s mother, who worked at the park until she was 90.
For any business to remain in the same family for three generations is an achievement, family business specialists said. Relationships can tangle chains of command; descendants may lose interest or squabble over their fair stake in the business.
Specialists say two keys to longevity are “pruning the tree” of heirs and setting out a clear division of responsibilities.
“My brother [Christian] is the numbers person. He has an unbelievable vision, and he loves to study amusement parks,” Melanie Staley said. “I’m more interested in the hospitality side.”
An older sister, a landscape architect in Seattle, keeps her green thumb in the park, selecting plantings and flying in to oversee their placement.
One of the newest employees is the oldest of the Staleys’ three children, 14-year-old Owen. He, like all the family before him, will have worked at just about every job in the park by the time he graduates high school.
Melanie and Nick Staley, each with business degrees from Plymouth State College, share an office within “woo-woo” range of Santa’s Express Train. They don’t see much of each other at work, however.
“I’d rather be out there on the front lines,” said Nick, “stopping in each of the shops, stopping by the rides, checking with the helpers, talking with our guests.”
Christian Gainer initially worked as a financial adviser in Boston after he graduated from Bentley, but couldn’t resist the tug of the family business. “I spend all my free time thinking of thousands of scenarios for Santa’s Village,” he said.
Puns, too. The sparkling restrooms near the entrance are housed in the North Bowl.
An eye toward awesomeness
To set the stage for the next generation, the park just bought the nearby Lantern Resort. Gainer said he hopes to see Jefferson, a community of about 1,100 in one of the poorest parts of the states, become a destination. About 70 percent of families who visit the park travel more than two hours, and Gainer envisions expanding the old Lantern with family cabins, recreational activities, and dining options. Gainer said he’s not ready to announce the resort’s theme. But, he promised, “It will be awesome.”