Sampling the local SantasBetter not pout, better not cry, because Santa Claus has already come to town. You may claim that there’s no such thing, but he’s here anyway ― more than one of him, in fact. And he’s only a subway ride away.
One Santa is vying for kids’ attention at the Santa Village in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. Another one (actually, a number of them) can be found at Santa’s Kingdom in Ilsan, in Seoul’s northwestern suburbs. These theme parks are definitely not the place for a romantic Christmas, but they’re just right for the children who’ll be hanging their stockings tonight. If you’re running out of ways to convince the kids that there is in fact a Santa, buy a subway ticket and make your way to his village or his kingdom ― whichever you prefer.
So where are these Santas holding court? First, meet the ones at Santa’s Kingdom in Ilsan, Gyeonggi province.
The theme park was created under the general direction of David Atkins, an Australian stage designer whose resume includes the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Other Atkins-approved Santa’s Kingdoms can be found in Dublin and Melbourne.
Seoul’s version is in the exhibition hall in Ilsan’s Hosu (Lake) Park, perhaps best known for its annual transformation into a flower exhibition hall in the spring; it’s a short walk from Jeongbalsan station on subway line No. 3, exit 6.
To meet Santa in this all-too-modern cement building, visitors first have to pass through what’s called Christmas Tunnel, decked out with as many as 20,000 colorful lights and artificial boughs of holly. The tunnel creates a pretty effective glitzy atmosphere, until the voice of an “elf” is heard, saying “Welcome, dear children, to Santa’s Kingdom.” The elves’ green polyester uniforms and thick makeup aren’t appealing to grown-up eyes, but children are dauntless when it comes to being impressed; at any rate, a group of children visiting last Thursday heaved sighs of admiration.
Thus begins a two-hour journey through the kingdom. The next sight that greets visitors is a “toy factory” with piles of dolls and toy trains (children can snap pictures, but aren’t allowed to take anything). After that comes a visit to what’s dubbed Santa’s Farm; Santa has live (and feeble-looking) rabbits, sheep and pigs, and a lone deer, curled up in a far corner. Asked whether there are any reindeer, a staffer gives a look and curtly answers “No,” as if it’s the strangest question she’s ever heard. The smell from the farm is not so Christmasy, but the children, again, are quite entertained.
Next come 12 small cells, their entrances hidden by black velvet curtains; inside each one is a Santa Claus, available for a photo shoot for a few thousand extra won. Don’t be too surprised if Santa looks stressed out. It’s tough to be Santa Claus, what with watching every kid on earth, updating a list of which ones are naughty and nice and even posing for photographs while locked in a cell.
The next chamber, the biggest and the noisiest, is a miniature amusement park, with a merry-go-round and an airplane ride. Between the rides stands another group of elves, these hailing from Russia, wearing gaudy, winged outfits that aren’t terribly elegant. In another corner of the room is a small ice rink, where Russian skaters in Santa outfits demonstrate their skills, alternating with a musical on a stage nearby featuring a hip-hopping Korean Santa.
After that comes what’s billed as the highlight of the theme park: the Wood of Magic, which is made up of artificial Christmas trees, standing in white plastic balls that serve as snow. Last and least is a “snow sleigh field,” a gentle, 30-meter slope covered with fake snow, with no one-horse open sleigh to be found.
Again, not very impressive to grownups, as the park’s Na Il-bong admits: “Well, please let it be noted that this is designed for the sake of children, not necessarily for adults.” Indeed, children rejoice at the kingdom’s splendors,not least six-year-old Han Il-gyeong, whose family defected from North Korea in June. “I want a doll’s house for this Christmas,” she says, beaming. According to Mr. Na, Santa’s Kingdom gets at least 2,000 visitors a day.
Christmas is also good business for the Santa Village nestled in the COEX mall in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul (the mall is easily reached from Samseong station, subway line No. 2).
The sales pitch for Santa Village is that it features a “real” Santa Claus, “licensed by an authentic Santa Claus village called Rovaniemi in Finland.” Rovaniemi Village, home not just to numerous Santas but to a lot of reindeer, has been visited by more than 2 million tourists; if you mail a letter to “Santa Claus, Finland,” Rovaniemi is where it goes.
Seoul’s Santa Village has a few reindeer and, like Santa’s Kingdom, some less-than-convincing Christmas items, from trees to elves. There’s Santa’s Post Office, where visitors can write letters that will be posted by the staff elves; for an extra 5,000 won, you can have your wish written on a piece of paper and hung on the Christmas tree in the hall.
The highlight, though, is Santa himself ―an actual Finn, standing six-foot-five (2 meters) with a curly, silvery, meter-long beard and an elf translator by his side so he can communicate with Korean children. To the smiling kids on his lap, he’s a kind-hearted grandfather figure; to a skeptical, grownup reporter, he’s a tough interview.
Asked how old he is, he just strokes his beard and answers, “I was born a long, long time ago. Even my reindeer driving license says so.” Asked if he’s the real, one-and-only Santa Claus, his answer is, “I am real, as much as you are.” Then where is red-nosed Rudolph? “Oh, Rudolph is now in Sydney on some business, but will be back shortly before tomorrow morning. We’ve gotta stop in Tahiti tomorrow. You know, we’re busy, busy, busy at this time of year.”
Santa was adamant that he reads every letter. What about the ones in Korean? Holding a letter upside down, he says reading Korean is no problem with a little help from his elves.
Where does his budget come from? For the first time in the interview, Santa hesitates, then says, “I don’t think I understand you. Budget? Money? What is all that?” After a long pause, he continues: “Oh, you mean that nice little piece of paper with some numbers on them. Well, I do not quite need them. I am Santa Claus.”
Seoul’s Santas will remain in town for a while after Christmas; Santa Village in COEX is open until next Thursday, Santa’s Kingdom in Ilsan until Jan. 30. Admission to Santa’s Kingdom, which is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily except Mondays, costs 25,000 won ($20) on weekdays, and 29,000 won on weekends; admission is 70,000 won for a family of three, 90,000 won for a family of four. At Santa Village, the cost is 10,000 won for adults, 8,000 won for kids; it’s open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call 1588-3955 for more information about Santa’s Kingdom, or (02) 797-1307 for Santa Village.
by Chun Su-jin