Bringing Santa Claus to Indiana was just the beginning.
“It’s like a rush. I would ride this again . . . a bunch more times,” raves Marissa Missinne, 14, of Corydon, Ind., following her first scream-inspiring ride aboard The Legend, the fearsome new wooden roller coaster at Holiday World.
Bill Koch, 85, beams upon hearing of her enthusiastic review. “That makes me feel like it’s all worthwhile,” he says, grinning. “I am happy with the happiness of others.” Others in this case refers to the roughly half a million people expected to enjoy the 55th season at Koch’s family owned amusement park in Santa Claus, Ind.
Koch (pronounced cook) is patriarch of the family, but admits he was initially a grinch about the business when it began as Santa Claus Land in 1946.
Bill Koch’s father, industrialist Louis J. Koch, decided to create the theme park after learning that visitors to the town of Santa Claus (especially children) often were disappointed to learn that Santa didn’t live there. He bought land for the park in the 1930s, but development was delayed until after World War II.
Bill Koch returned from the Navy in 1946 to find his father ready to open Santa Claus Land with its fairyland trail, miniature railroad, toy shop, restaurant, and the jovial presence of Saint Nick. Unbeknownst to either of them at the time, the senior Koch had established America’s first theme park.
“I thought it was screwy,” son Bill recalls. “I didn’t want any part of it.”
Before long however, as Bill recognized the park’s potential and its community benefit, he got into the spirit of the family business. He began running it in 1948 and was named president 11 years later.
A Family Affair
“All five of our children worked here from the time they were about 10,” Bill recalls. As youngsters, they played elves and dwarves. As they grew, so did their responsibilities. “Even though we weren’t the biggest (park), we wanted to make it the best, and every one of us worked toward that goal.”
“When we would go home at night, all we did was talk about the park,” he continues. Vacations were spent at other theme parks across the country, making comparisons and gathering ideas.
“We were the test subjects,” laughs Will Koch, 38, the eldest child of Bill and his wife, Pat, and one of two offspring still involved in Holiday World’s daily operations (the others sit on the board of directors). “We would go on all the rides and Dad would ask us, ‘How do you like that?’ or ‘What do you think if we added this?’” says Will, park president and general manager.
After working his way through college as a park employee, Will left the family business for a California computer corporation. Within three years, however, he was ready to go home. “You have one little piece of the whole puzzle that you work on, but I was used to being here,” Will recalls. “Dad always brought home whatever the issues were at the park, and we talked about them.”
Eager to regain that level of involvement, he returned to Holiday World in December 1986 as director of operations and became general manager two years later.
Meanwhile, the park had expanded dramatically with new sections and attractions celebrating the Fourth of July and Halloween. To reflect its broader vision, Santa Claus Land became Holiday World. Today it also has an affiliated water park called Surfin’ Safari.
Like Will, the Kochs’ youngest daughter, Natalie, 32, was inclined to leave the family fold and pursue work consistent with her master’s degree in Latin American studies. “I had no intention of being back here,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to make my own mark in the world.”
That mark, it turns out, would be in Santa Claus, Ind. The pull of the family business was strong, especially with the 1993 startup of their expansive water park. Natalie returned to work seasonally, then full time, eventually becoming director of human relations and operations.
“I can’t imagine working somewhere where I can’t wear my polo shirt and khaki shorts and tennis shoes to work,” she jokes. “And it’s certainly been more rewarding. I see how (employees) benefit from working here and grow and improve. It sounds kind of corny, but they do become part of our family.”
One of the Kochs’ biggest challenges is keeping the park staffed with the required 1,000 seasonal employees in a county with only 1,800 residents and an increasingly competitive job market. “We have to work hard to try to be a better employer for these young people,” Will says.
One distinct advantage is the park’s longevity. It’s not unusual for the parents or grandparents of today’s teenage employees to have worked at Holiday World in their youth.
Rides and Slides
Today, Holiday World offers something for everyone, including rides, shows, and games — not to mention Indiana’s largest water park, featuring a wave pool, tubing rides, and giant slides.
Thrill seekers find a variety of vintage midway rides, including a Tilt-A-Whirl and a Spider, as well as water rides and its giant wooden roller coasters, the Raven and, most recently, The Legend.
“People are telling us that we have the best one-two punch of roller coasters in any theme park,” Will says. To ensure that this latest addition would be a real crowd pleaser, he posted initial blueprints of the $3 million Legend on their website (holidayworld.com) and presented preliminary plans to roller coaster fan clubs for their input. “That had never happened before,” he says. “We had over 200 suggestions on what to do with The Legend. A lot of them got incorporated into the design.”
Tamer rides for children include the original train built by George Koch Sons, the manufacturing company founded by Bill’s grandfather. The park also boasts an enormous playscape which, in keeping with Will’s vision, encourages parents and children to interact.
Such family thinking permeates virtually every aspect of Holiday World. “(Because we’re a family park), we’ve always been concerned with value,” Will explains. To that end, both Holiday World and Surfin’ Safari are offered as two parks for one price. Parking and inner tubes are free, and this year they’ve added a first in the theme park industry: free unlimited soft drinks. “Some people have told us that we’re crazy for doing this, but we just don’t like to nickel-and-dime families,” he says.
As the designated “queen of clean,” Pat, the family matriarch, is a stickler for keeping Holiday World shipshape. “Almost everybody knows whose park this is, so you feel very responsible, like people are here at your house,” she says. Her vigilance has paid off: the park was ranked No. 3 in cleanliness by readers of Amusement Today magazine in 1999, just behind Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and top-ranked Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va.
That same survey rated the park No. 1 in friendliness — not surprising, given that the Koch family mingles daily with visitors and responds to feedback. “It makes a huge difference if you’re out there hearing it in person from a guest instead of through three layers of management,” Will says.
Reflecting on his life’s work, Bill, once the admitted skeptic, finds great satisfaction. He is gratified to see people “anxious to get in here and to see them smile throughout their visit.” And though he and his wife, who serve as company co-chairs, plan to retire this year from daily involvement, Bill says he hopes his family never rests on its laurels. “This operation has never been completed, and it never will be completed,” he says.
Sharing his father’s vision, Will concurs: “This park is just as much a part of our family as any of the people are. It’s hard to imagine the park not being a part of us.”