North Pole; Santa's Big Helper
Haggard Family Lives Spirit of Christmas at Local Attraction
It helps to know a little history, and this is how owner Tom Haggard tells it. There was a North Pole park in New York that caught the eye of a fellow named Wesley Spurry, who decided the perfect place for a similar park would be on the flanks of Pikes Peak. He looked for local investors and found Colorado Springs businessman Art Herzberger and a Texan named George Haggard.
Long story short, Haggard ended up sole owner and operator of the attraction, which opened in 1956. The first time young Tom visited the site, he was 5 years old. Now his hair is gray but his step is lively as he shows visitors around the park, jokes with Santa and answers questions from staff.
Tom Haggard grew up there. He recalls the first ride added to the village was a Magic Mine Ride, circa 1958, where passengers in a wagon drawn by a burro went through a “mine tunnel.”
“It was real high tech,” he jokes, adjusting his ever-present baseball cap. Next came a train ride in 1960, followed by others. Now the park has 27 rides, all sized for kids, though many also accommodate adults.
“We really try to keep the rides suitable for kids and families,” he says. There’s a show house where a magician and others perform, and – of course – Santa’s House (complete with a Santa so real he’ll revive anyone’s Christmas spirit). There are no video games, no electronic entertainment. Skeeball and similar games are as modern as it gets.
Rides include teacups, a tilt-a-whirl, grant candy-cane slide, umbrella ride, cars, carousel and Ferris wheel. There are fallow deer (tiny things) to feed and pet. Reindeer never did well here, so they are gone.
He doesn’t recall how it got started, but his dad began Operation Toy Lift in the late 1950s.
“In those days, there were still orphanages,” he recalls. A service club in a nearby state would organize an event and the park had its own plane to fly Santa, a magician, a Santa’s helper and bags of toys to Omaha or Amarillo or an Indian reservation in New Mexico. They’d have a Christmas party for the kids.
But as Tom got involved in the running of the park, he felt like charity should begin at home. In the 1970s, Operation Toy Lift, in conjunction with El Paso County Social Services, arranged a free day in the park for local foster kids and their families.
“Orphanages were pretty much replaced by the foster care system and these were the kids we were trying to reach,” he says. The first such event hosted about 200. Now it draws more than 1,000 people. They all get in free.
“It’s really a heart-wrenching day to see these kids, who don’t often get a lot, just having fun in the park,” Haggard says.
The park also hosts groups of disabled kids, special-needs kids of all kinds, and some schools. They do dozens of free events each year.
“We’ve always had such great support from the local community, it’s the least we can do to give back,” Haggard says. “The only thing we ask is, when possible, that a parent accompany each child, so it becomes a family experience, a family memory, not just a trip to a theme park.”
Another park perk is that seniors 60 and older get in free. “We get a lot of grandparents bringing grandkids; this way they can afford it. A lot of them say they came here as kids and now they’re bringing their little ones.”
And then there are the letters to Santa.
“I’m not sure exactly when or how that started, but it’s been going on for more years than I can remember,” Haggard says. “It may have started as a way to advertise the park – you know, send a letter to Santa and get a post card back.”
Each year, the park gets thousands of letters–some with no postage, no return address and addressed simply to Santa. “Somehow the post office, bless their hearts, gets them to us anyway,” he says, then laughs. “I guess they’d rather give them to us than deal with them themselves!”
Letters come with requests for everything from baby dolls to the latest electronic toys, some with catalog pages cut out and items circled. Some are funny–urging Santa to go on a diet or tattling on a naughty brother or sister. And then there are some that break his heart.
A child will write, “Santa, please make my dad stop hitting us,” or for mom and dad to stop fighting, or for kids at school to stop bullying them. Kids will “pour their hearts out” to the jolly old elf.
“If there’s any way to figure out who this kid is, we turn it over to the sheriff’s department and they get involved,” he says.
Adults write to Santa, too.
“We get quite a few letters from adults who just need to tell somebody about their problems, or maybe in the back of their minds still believe just a little bit in Santa Claus,” he says. Everybody still wants to believe in Christmas miracles, he adds.
They’ve had requests, Haggard says, “but we are NOT going to e-mail” for letters to Santa.
The park’s future won’t be in jeopardy when Haggard finally retires. Son Shane Haggard and daughter Austin Lawhorn are carrying on the family tradition.
“When they were younger, they were saying, ‘No way am I going to run this place,’ but now they are seeing that it’s a pretty good living.” And a way to connect with the community.