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A beloved Santa-themed kiddie park has reopened in Vermont

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PUTNEY, Vt. (AP) — A beloved Santa-themed kiddie park has reopened in southern Vermont.

Dave Haversat visited Santa's Land a dozen times growing up and dreamed of owning it. The 1950s-era park closed several years ago, but Haversat bought it earlier this year and reopened it.

"The kids when they see this, you know, it's wonderment and enchantment," said Haversat, who's also a magician. "Very similar to magic."

Located in a grove of evergreens on 42 acres, the park reopened in late November with a train ride, holiday dioramas, painted cottages, a kiddie slide, toddler car rides and a carousel. Visitors driving in on Route 5 are greeted with a bright red sign flanked by wooden candy canes and oversized alphabet blocks.

Some of the families who toured the park on a recent weekend said they'd been coming here for generations. "I just love this place. I've always loved it," said Elaine Fortier of South Glastonbury, Connecticut, as she warmed herself near a stove in the miniature train station. "I brought my grandson here and he's 40, so that was years ago."

This time Fortier brought her great-grandchildren to meet Santa, an experience that's still a highlight, even for 21st century kids. "They get to speak with him, they get to tell him what they want for Christmas," said Haversat. "So, an iPad or an app will never take that place."

Santa's Land opened in 1957. Many original structures remain, including the train track and statues of Santa Claus and Rudolph the reindeer.

The park faced operational troubles in recent years and closed in 2014 after officials discovered more than a dozen dead deer on the premises. Empty cages remain onsite at the park, relics of the defunct petting zoo. No animals are currently housed at the park and there are no plans to restart the petting zoo, according to Haversat.

A gift shop sells plush gingerbread dolls, ornaments and maple syrup. A sweets shop offers baked goods. Laol Short of Putney, Vermont, manned the shop with her cousin and said that working at Santa's Land was a family tradition: Her great-grandmother, grandmother, father and two aunts had previously worked at Santa's Land and her grandmother had baked some of the items in the shop.

Haversat said the park fell into disrepair after it closed. Structures were vandalized, including a Humpty Dumpty statue damaged beyond repair. Trash filled the gift shop entry and statues were stolen from a nativity scene. He's been working hard at restoring and maintaining things, including cabins featuring moving displays of polar bears and penguins.

"The internet has changed a lot of things. Sometimes people don't spend as much time together as a family," Haversat said. "This is something that you could spend the day, something that may remind you of the past."


If You Go...

SANTA'S LAND: Bellows Falls Road, Putney, Vermont. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Dec. 23, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Dec. 24, then closed until late spring. Admission, $12.95 ages 2-64 and $10.95, age 65 and older.

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