Everyone can use a little getaway time in cottage country—including Santa Claus. For the past 65 years, Muskoka has provided one of his seasonal sanctuaries, Santa’s Village in Bracebridge.
For many towns across North America during the post-Second World War era, the construction of new traffic-diverting bypasses raised fears that businesses geared to travellers would fail and tourism would dry up. The diversion of Highway 11 around downtown Bracebridge in the early 1950s spurred local businessmen to come up with an attraction that would help pull people off the bypass, as well as extend the traditional tourist season and provide more employment for teens.
Bracebridge’s location along the 45th parallel—halfway between the Equator and North Pole—inspired the idea for a Christmas-themed attraction such as the North Pole near Lake Placid, New York. A site was chosen along the Muskoka River at a point known as Devil’s Elbow. A series of log cabins were built, surrounded by paths filled with characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales, played mostly by local high school students. A carousel was purchased from Eaton’s department store. An outdoor theatre was erected to present classic children’s stories and folk tales. Santa was provided with a home and workshop, where elves would carry on their work amid, as an early ad put it, “18 acres of enchanted evergreen forest.” It was largely a local project, with 95 percent of the initial 160 shareholders residing in Muskoka.
Around 5,000 people attended Santa’s Village’s opening ceremonies on May 21, 1955. On hand to cut the ribbon were Ontario Premier Leslie Frost and distance swimmer Marilyn Bell, who had completed her landmark swim across Lake Ontario several months earlier. Despite 11°C water, Bell and marathon swimmer Cliff Lumsdon entertained attendees by swimming from Santa’s Village to the main dock in Bracebridge.
Over time the park expanded, adding rides and boat trips. The Elves Island playground built in the 1970s boasted the same designer, Eric McMillan, as Ontario Place’s Children’s Village. Among the park’s presidents during this era was Frank Miller, which provided the press with plenty of material for jokes when he served as Ontario’s premier in 1985.
Santa’s Village held its own after the opening of Canada’s Wonderland in 1981 threatened to draw away some customers. But in many ways both parks had different audiences. ‘Wonderland is a 10-year-old’s fantasy,” Roy MacGregor observed in the Toronto Star, “Santa’s Village a 6-year-old’s.” In the midst of 50th anniversary celebrations in 2005, the park welcomed its five millionth visitor.
Today, Santa’s Village consists of the core park, campgrounds, Sportsland (which offers activities ranging from go-karts to mini golf), and Muskoka Zip Lines and Aerial Park. While new attractions are continually added, Santa remains at the heart of the park’s appeal, spreading the spirit of the holidays throughout the sunnier parts of the year.
Sadly, John McTavish, the man known as Santa at Santa’s Village, passed away this past October. Adored by thousands of children over the years, his enduring legacy will never be forgotten.