Celebrating Christmas with his nine children and living in a place named Santa Claus, Indiana simply wasn't enough for Louis Koch. He wanted more.
Koch, pronounced Cook, felt sorry for the children who came to this small town in southwest Indiana searching for Santa. They didn't find him. So, in 1946, Koch, an Evansville, Indiana industrialist, started Santa Claus Land as a kind of retirement project, said Paula Werne, director of communications for what is known today as Holiday World and Splashin' Safari.
It's a theme park rolled around four holidays - Christmas, Halloween, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving - and a water park featuring all kinds of pools, rivers, slides and rides. Holiday World calls itself the oldest theme park in the world. Every year, park officials have worked to make it better and more entertaining. Several members of Koch's family are still involved in the operations of the park.
The park offers free sunscreen, free rafts, free parking and free soft drinks. That's right - free. No costly plastic cups to purchase, and you don't have to pay for the first drink.
The park re-opens for the season on May 3, and that's when the fun begins.
Santa Claus is located in the townships of Carter, Clay and Harrison, just a few hours from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Nashville. The park is in the middle of farm country, with plenty of accommodations - like a RV park and campground, motels, resorts, even a monastery with reasonable, overnight rates - nearby.
Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home is just four miles down the road from the park. There's also a national park, a living history farm, a state park and a covered amphitheater.
About half an hour away, there are opportunities for family caving and canoeing. One family restaurant nearby has a breathtaking view of a horseshow curve in the Ohio River, said Werne.
The park that opened so many years ago included a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed children's rides and, of course, Santa Claus. When Koch's eldest son, Bill, returned home from World War II, he married Patricia Yellig, Santa's daughter, and stayed to run the family business until his death in 2001
Bill and Pat had five children. Their eldest son, Will, was president until his death in 2010. Will's brother, Dan, was president until 2012. Longtime employee Matt Eckert is now president.
Santa Claus Land flourished over the years. Former President Ronald Reagan visited the park in 1955.
Santa Claus Land expanded in 1984 to also include Halloween and the Fourth of July, and the park's name was changed to Holiday World. Splashin' Safari Water Park was added in 1993. The water park now covers 30 acres and features two wave pools and rivers, family raft rides and numerous water slides.
The Bakuli starts in a dark tunnel and drops you into a giant bowl for a dizzying spin.
Rides at the theme park include Dancer's Thunder Bumpers, Dasher's Seahorses on a merry-go-round, a train ride called Doggone Trail, Eagles Flight, Frightful Falls and Geraffica. Gobbler Getaway is an exciting, interactive ride where park visitors are asked to track the missing turkeys.
There's also Hallow Swings, Holidog Express, Holidog's Treehouse, Prancer's merry-go-round and Raging Rapids.
Shows include Holidog and Friends, Real Country, 80s Revival, Rejoice, Santa's Storyhour and Legacy, an a cappella group that appears all over the park.
Starting this year, there are Friday Night Fireworks and, on the Fourth of July, there's a fireworks "extravaganza."
There's also a contemporary Christian music festival.
Beginning on September 20 and going through October 26, Happy Halloween weekends move into the park. It's "Halloween without the gore," said Werne, totally family entertainment. General admission for the event is $29.95' It's $19.95 if you're under 54 inches tall or over 60 years old.
The legacy of the wooden roller coasters belongs to Will Koch, said Werne.
"Will Koch, who passed away unexpectedly in 2010, was our wooden coaster aficionado," she said. "During his presidency, he opened our three wooden coasters - The Raven, The Legend and The Voyage. He also had three children."
"Wooden coasters require a devoted maintenance team," she said. "We take really good care of our wooden coasters and all of our rides."
Other wooden roller coaster aficionados like Koch gather at the Indiana theme park from around the world to ride the wonders.
Werne said she's been with the company since 1991.
"I'm heading into my 23rd season," she said. "Of all the rides, The Raven is my favorite, since it was our first wooden roller coaster. It was the start of our tremendous growth. This goes hand-in-hand with our HoliWood Nights event for roller coaster enthusiasts. It's essentially a huge annual family reunion of enthusiasts from all over the world. It's a blast!"
Daily admission to Holiday World is $44.95, slightly less if purchased online. The cost at the park is $34.95 for guests under 54 inches tall and seniors over the age of 60.
There are all kinds of foods available, from a full-course Thanksgiving dinner at the Plymouth Rock Café to snacks and ice cream at Mrs. Klaus's kitchen.
"We also have special menus for those with food allergies," said Werne.
In 2004, Holiday World and Splashin' Safari won the highly-coveted International Applause Award. It was the smallest park to ever receive the award, which honors "foresight, originality and creativity, plus sound business development and profitability," said Werne.
In 2007 through 2011, the readers of Amusement Today voted Voyage roller coaster the Number One wooden roller coaster in the world.
The park, which now covers 120 acres, was named the world's friendliest and cleanest in 2011.
In 2007 and again in 2012, Consumer's Digest named Holiday World the "Nation's Top Value Park."
Holiday World has more than one million visitors a year.