Inside Holiday World, a theme park where every day is Thanksgiving

·5-min read
Photo: Tarah Chieffi, Holiday World
Holiday World, formerly Santa Claus Land, is an Indiana theme park where every day is Thanksgiving. (Photo: Tarah Chieffi, Holiday World)

The nation's first theme park, Santa Claus Land, opened in Indiana in 1946 and has kept on growing.

Today, the holiday hot spot is aptly named Holiday World and also has sections that pay tribute to Halloween, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, where a turkey dinner is always on the table.

Leah Koch, fourth-generation owner and director of communications at Holiday World, tells Yahoo Life that, although the park started out all Santa, all the time, "parks dedicated to Christmas were popping up in several locations and [their park] needed to expand."

Her grandfather, Bill Koch, often called the park "a holiday world of fun" and, in 1984, his words became reality when Santa Claus Land officially became Holiday World and sections for Halloween and the Fourth of July opened. In 2006, Thanksgiving, the park's newest land, came strutting into the line-up.

With two of the park's award-winning roller coasters located inside its Thanksgiving-themed gates, the land quickly gained favor with guests as one of the most thrilling to visit. But, while the Voyage, an intense wooden coaster ranked among Time magazine's top five coasters in the country and Thunderbird Steel Roller Coaster delight thrill-seeking visitors of the Santa Claus, Ind. theme park, there are a few other rides that, like Thanksgiving's favorite bird, don't travel quite so far off the ground.

There's Gobbler Getaway, a dark ride where guests use a turkey caller to round up missing turkeys. On the Turkey Whirl, guests hop into a turkey-shaped ride car and take a spin. The real draw for many visitors, though, is the Plymouth Rock Cafe — a restaurant serving up a full Thanksgiving feast all season long.

But what's on the Thanksgiving menu when you're a theme park dedicated to holidays?

"We serve all the traditional items like turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, macaroni and cheese, rolls and corn," Lexi Hartman, director of food and beverage at Holiday World explains. "We serve our signature Plymouth Rock Cafe's green beans and then pumpkin or pecan pie for dessert."

There are other entrees on Plymouth Rock Cafe's menu like pulled pork, chicken and dumplings and beef brisket, but roasted turkey is by far the favorite among park guests.

"We probably bake anywhere from 100 to 150 pounds of turkey breast over a weekend," Hartman shares, "so, yeah, we make a lot of turkey."

At Plymouth Rock Cafe, guests can choose from a variety of Thanksgiving side dishes like macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn and stuffing. And yes, there's also plenty of turkey. (Photo: Tarah Chieffi)
At Plymouth Rock Cafe, guests can choose from a variety of Thanksgiving side dishes like macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn and stuffing. And yes, there's also plenty of turkey. (Photo: Tarah Chieffi)

Hartman's tip for cooking the moistest bird is to use a brine: a salty blend of liquid, herbs and spices that, when used as a pre-roast soaking liquid for a turkey, can help the bird absorb more water and flavor during the cooking process.

"We also use an herb butter to add to the flavor," she shares.

Hartman recalls that last year, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how many people celebrated Thanksgiving, leading Holiday World to put their Turkey Day expertise to good use.

"We were looking for ways to bring Holiday World home to our guests," Hartman says. "It seemed like a lot of people were doing smaller get-togethers, so we put together a take-home Thanksgiving box that would feed six to eight people."

The meals were even more popular than they hoped.

"We had two different individuals who drove more than two hours each way to come pick up their meals," says Hartman.

Commenters on the Holiday World HoliBlog, were enthusiastic about last year's kits, which included a 12-14 pound turkey with herb butter finish, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, green beans, cranberry sauce, yeast rolls and a pumpkin pie.

"I. Can't. Wait." wrote one commenter.

"Are you offering something similar for Christmas?" mused another.

Hartman says the response in 2020 was so great that Holiday World will bring the to-go meals back in 2021.

This year's kit feeds up to eight people and, like last year's, comes with a 12 to 14 pound turkey, many of the same sides you can find served at Plymouth Rock Cafe and a pumpkin pie for dessert. Everything is fully-cooked and wrapped up for easy transport — patrons simply reheat and enjoy.

Not within driving distance of Holiday World? You may not be able to brave that wooden coaster or round up lost turkeys this year, but there's still a way to enjoy a piece of their famous Thanksgiving dinner from afar: The recipe for their fan-favorite green beans is available on the park's HoliBlog so you can easily add it to your Thanksgiving Day menu.

Lexi Hartman, director of food and beverage at Holiday World, says their secret for moist delicious turkey is to brine their birds before cooking. After cooking, Holiday World turkeys get finished with herb butter. (Photo: Holiday World)
Lexi Hartman, director of food and beverage at Holiday World, says their secret for moist delicious turkey is to brine their birds before cooking. After cooking, Holiday World turkeys get finished with herb butter. (Photo: Holiday World)

The secret to Plymouth Rock Cafe's famous green beans? In addition to plenty of butter, seasoned salt and garlic herb seasoning, it's all in the cooking time. Sauté those beans until heated, but still crisp.

"You want them to wiggle just a little when you take them out," the blog post reads, explaining that heated beans will continue to cook through once removed from a pan. "If they are floppy, they will be very soggy when you are ready to eat."

There may be nowhere else but Holiday World where you can eat a full Thanksgiving meal every day — even in the summertime — then hop on a ride called the Mayflower, but Koch says for her family, it's about more than the novelty of it all.

"It's not just quirky and fun," she says. "It's a delicious meal and this has become a tradition for many of the families who visit regularly."

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