Santa's Castle goes to the DOGS

Friday, November 30, 2012

The reindeer aren't the only furry creatures at Santa's Castle these days. Each Monday is Bring a Pet Day at the Storm Lake seasonal showplace, where Santa poses personally with excited canine and feline visitors.

"The animals have all been pretty well behaved," Santa says. "The ones that aren't so well behaved are guided to the side door so they can get in and out pretty quickly."

A trio of dachshunds come in every season. At the other end of the scale, a St. Bernard weighs in to deliver Mr. Claus a juicy kiss or two.

"We did our first Pet Day three years ago, on a Saturday. Well, that day we had 300 people come in, people with antsy animals waiting in a big long crowded line - as you might imagine we learned our lesson in a hurry," says Ron Stevenson, curator of the castle. "People are really enthusiastic about it, though. We started having people being disappointed because they couldn't make it in on Pet Day, so we decided to make a Pet Day every week."

Stevenson admits that Santa was a bit nervous this first Monday. "He requested no big snakes."

There haven't been any exotic visitors as of yet, but Stevenson figures its only a matter of time before a donkey or the like shows up. The one caveat - animals should be trained and comfortable around people, for the sake of safety of staff and other guests.

"We had a brown dog Monday showing off his tricks. He would sit with a dog biscuit balanced on his nose, and on a signal he would toss it in the air, catch it and eat it," Santa said. "I was pretty impressed."

The Castle has even added a line of pet Christmas presents to its shop - animal stockings, pet dishes, dog bandanas.

There have been plenty of two-legged guests, too.

After opening on Thanksgiving Day, there had been nearly 1,100 visitors in the door by Tuesday night, including over 430 children - on pace with last year's excellent turnout. Thanksgiving fell earlier than normal this year, and Stevenson expects that attendance will increase as cold and snow arrives and people get into the holiday spirit.

"We had people in from Seattle, Washington last night, and they just had a ball - they said they had never seen anything like it," Stevenson says. "We've had people from Florida, California, South Dakota, Minnesota - we have a map with pins to show where guests come from, and it's just all over."

Santa is also quickly arriving in the technology age. The Castle has its own Facebook page, and students from Buena Vista University are shooting video footage. A marketing student is interning at the Castle and will be upgrading the castle's presence on the web and sites such as YouTube.

Still, it's an old tradition that is attracting attention this season. Music album collector Randy Herrington of Honey Kissed Pizza is sharing his collection of classic Christmas vinyl albums, which play for visitors continuously. "We've had so many people say that the music has brought back great memories for them," Stevenson says.

Another big hit is the Santa-autographed books given to children - which replaced candy canes last year. Both children and parents are thrilled, according to Stevenson. Local businesses and clubs that help out during the evenings often see to it that there are small toys or some other gift for the first 25 young visitors most evenings as well.

This season celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Castle's model railroad, with a second railroad added to the show. Also, several newly repaired pieces of classic character animation have been brought back to life, seen by the public for the first time in years. Plans are already in the works for a 50th anniversary celebration of the Santa's Castle tradition in 2013.

Hours for Santa's Castle: Weekdays 6-8 p.m., Saturday 1-4 and 6-8 p.m., Sunday 1-4 p.m. Dec. 18-21, the Castle is open 1-4 and 6-8 daily. The attraction is closed Christmas Day, and reopens Dec. 26-29, 1-4 and 6-8.

Coming events at Santa's Castle:

* Pet Night - every Monday

* International Students - Dec. 5 and 6, BVU students will share their traditions from around the world.

* Quilt Sew-Siety - The craft members of this group will have handmade pillow cases for children.

* Key Club - High school students play host Dec.8, 11, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23

* Scout Night - Boy Scouts will host Dec. 15 and Cub Scouts Dec. 18

* Coca Cola Day - Dec. 22 with Coke toys and products for children.

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