- Holiday World, a theme park in Indiana, opened under the original name of Santa Claus Land in 1946.
- At the time, there were no other U.S. amusement parks with a central theme, making it the nation’s oldest theme park.
- Now, sisters and fourth-generation owners Leah and Lauren Koch are heading up the family business. This is their story.
If you drive down I-64 through Central Indiana long enough, you’ll come upon an exit for “Santa Claus, IN.” From the interstate, you probably wouldn’t think much of it.
But a few miles off the exit, you’ll find a giant Santa statue by the side of the road next to a sign that reads: “Welcome to Santa Claus, Indiana. America’s Christmas Hometown.”
Beyond the welcome sign, you can just barely make out a few roller coasters in the distance. Those coasters are part of what makes the town so special. Santa Claus, Indiana is home to Holiday World, the nation’s first theme park. When it was opened by Louis Koch in 1946, it was themed only to Christmas and operated under the name Santa Claus Land, but has since grown to 125 acres of coasters, kiddie rides, a water park, and lands themed to other major holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Independence Day.
The park has stayed in the Koch family since opening day, it’s won numerous awards for its roller coasters (and water coasters), and it’s well known for being family friendly. It famously offers complimentary soda, sunscreen, and parking every day to every guest.
Insider spoke with fourth-generation owners and sisters Leah and Lauren Koch to learn what it was like growing up in a “theme park family” and taking over such a unique family business.
As kids, the Koch sisters didn’t realize it was out of the ordinary to grow up with a theme park as their playground
Leah Koch currently serves as the park’s director of communications and Lauren as director of entertainment. But as kids, their father, Will Koch, was president of Holiday World.
“Holiday World was like an extension of our back yard,” Lauren Koch told Insider. Leah chimed in with a similar response.
“I didn’t realize until I was five years old that other people don’t have parents who work in a theme park,” she said.
Of course, the flip side to that is a whole theme park full of team members who will report back to your father if you step out of line.
“They were like an extension of our dad’s eyes,” Lauren Koch laughed. “We couldn’t even put one toe out of line, because he would know what we did before we could even make it back to his office.”
While the girls spent their younger years enjoying the park, they both donned the Holiday World uniform as soon as they were old enough. Lauren Koch started in cash control at age 14 before auditioning to work as a performer in the entertainment division at age 16, splitting her time between both departments..
“Even when I went to college, if I came home for a few weeks, I got put to work,” Lauren Koch said.
Leah Koch started as a cashier in food and beverage, and has since spent time in cash control, entertainment, and attractions.
“I was a ghost for several years during Halloween,” she said. “When I decided to major in journalism, I wanted to give PR a try, so I did an internship in our PR department as well.”
The Koch sisters didn’t set out to take over the family business
Lauren Koch always had fun during her time working at Holiday World as a teen, but didn’t want to make it her career. The untimely death of her father in 2010 changed everything.
“I wanted to go to college far away and have a life of my own,” she said. “What changed it all for me was my father passing away.” It wasn’t her original plan, but she said she’s very happy with how things turned out.
Leah Koch felt more of a pull toward Holiday World than her sister, but still expected to go off to college, get her masters degree, make a career somewhere, and eventually make her way back to the park.
“I thought it would be far off,” she said. “Not right after college, and certainly not so suddenly. My dad and I operated on similar brain waves, and I think I had some of his same gut instinct. I always felt my path would lead me back here.”
The sisters never felt obligated to take the reins, but they looked at Holiday World as their home.
“We knew it was our dad’s hope to pass the park on to us,” Lauren Koch said. “He was never going to force us. Even though the timing wasn’t what anyone wanted, we felt we needed to try our best to see if we could make it work. Once I started getting involved in the day-to-day and long-term planning, it just grabbed me.”
“We wanted to see our father’s vision through,” her sister added.
Though it’s been 11 years since they lost their father, Leah and Lauren are still working to realize his dreams for the park
The park currently has a few sections geared toward kids, but Will Koch had often discussed building a kids’ section with an all-new theme.
“Dad had wanted to build a new section somewhere in the park, and Mom mentioned it to me one day,” Leah Koch said. “I immediately called him and told him we should do a birthday theme, so that’s one of the things we would love to do eventually.”
Like the park’s other holiday-themed lands, in a “Birthday” land, kids could celebrate their birthday every time they visit.
Outside of the park’s walls, Leah and Lauren Koch want to further Santa Claus, Indiana as a vacation destination with more lodging and dining. Because of their tucked away location, the future of Holiday World and the future of the town are intrinsically intertwined.
Holiday World makes you feel like family when you visit because it’s a family business
In their current roles, the sisters are often working behind the scenes, but they’ve also been known to make pizzas or run rides. “Whatever we need to do to get through the day,” Leah Koch said.
They carry this attitude of egalitarianism through to their interactions with other team members.
“We have our own departments we manage, and we also sit on the board of directors,” Leah Koch said. “So we do have an attitude toward structure, but at the end of the day, structure doesn’t matter.
“Ideas matter, and we’re gonna listen to ideas from anyone on the team.If someone on the front line has a good idea, we’re gonna do it.”
When asked if she could explain why Holiday World has such a family-friendly atmosphere, Leah Koch said: “We each live five to 10 minutes from the front gate, so it’s basically our home away from home.” It’s because of this family-oriented mindset that they treat visitors like family, too. “We’ve always put value on the guest experience, first and foremost,” she added.
You only have to hop off that easy-to-miss Santa Claus exit off I-64 to visit Holiday World and find out for yourself.