Indiana isn’t exactly famous for its amusement parks, but one low-profile operation draws international raves: Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari. Opened in 1946 as Santa Claus Land (it’s located near the bizarrely named southern Indiana town of Santa Claus), the family-owned operation features a world-class retinue of rollercoasters. So many, in fact, that thrill-ride buffs make pilgrimages from around the globe to experience them. Its adjoining waterpark, Splashin’ Safari, also offers its own claims to thrill-ride fame -- including the longest water coaster in the world. Below, we've picked out the must-hit rides among the many thrills that await you there, along with tips on how to get the most out of this hidden gem. We’ll start with the coasters.
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Holiday World is most famous for its wooden roller coasters. Unlike the ones made from tubular steel, “woodies” offer a rougher ride -- one that changes from day to day, because heat, cold, and humidity cause the ride’s wooden timbers to expand and contract. The Legend, the mildest of the park’s major coasters, offers 1,400 feet of track, including five tunnels, plus stomach-churning drops of 64, 77, and 113 feet.
It’s not the park’s biggest or tallest coaster, but The Raven is still a fan favorite for its 120-foot tunnel, drops of 61 and 85 feet, and a double-banked “s” curve. Add to this the fact that the entire route screams through thickly wooded hills (and over a lake), and you’ll understand why there’s pretty much always a long line. Sit in the front of the cars for the best view, and at the back for the most “air time” during drops. For an extra thrill, ride it after dark. But be warned: If you’re even a little bit afraid of coasters -- or of seeing large, dark, ill-defined shapes rushing at you at highway speed -- a night ride might be too much.
The Raven and The Legend have both won prestigious awards for their designs, but in 2013 The Voyage was named the top wooden coaster in the nation by Time magazine. One ride will show you why. Its 1.2 miles of track include one of the steepest drops of any rollercoaster in the world; a world-record five underground tunnels; and a world-record 24.3 seconds of near-total weightlessness during each run. There are also three sections with gut-wrenching, 90-degree banking, so you might want to hold off on eating that corn dog until after you try this one.
Just because this park is famous for wooden coasters doesn’t mean they have anything against steel models. One of the park’s newest additions, Thunderbird is the country’s only “launched wing coaster.” Riders, instead of sitting in carts, dangle in legs-free harnesses on either side of the rails. And instead of climbing a hill to gain momentum, a magnetic system launches them from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. The course includes a zero-g roll, barrel roll, a 14-story Immelmann loop, and the tallest vertical loop on any wing coaster. But perhaps most unnerving, Thunderbird (like many of this park’s thrill rides) travels through hilly, thickly wooded terrain, blasting past trees, the ground, other rides, and right through a barn. The park advises sitting in one of the outside seats if you love the thrill of a “near miss.”
Don’t forget the water park
Besides a retinue of surprisingly entertaining and enticing water slides, Splashin’ Safari also hosts the world’s two longest water coasters, Wildebeest and Mammoth. Wildebeest has been voted the No. 1 Water Park Ride on the Planet for nine years in a row by Amusement Today magazine. Covering more than two acres and including eight hills and a four-story drop, it was formerly the longest water coaster on the planet, until it lost that title to the nearby Mammoth. The Mammoth towers seven stories from its highest to lowest point and covers more than three acres. Riders travel in six-passenger boats, which tend to twist and spin. That means you may wind up going through backwards. There’s also lots of “air time,” which is a rarity in water coasters.
There's a bizarre amount of free stuff
It’s pretty much axiomatic that theme parks are just glorified, overpriced shopping malls where food and souvenir key rings are sold for triple the going rate. However lots of stuff at Holiday World -- stuff that could be sold for quite a lot -- is simply given away. For instance, free, unlimited soft drinks and water courtesy of the parks' various eateries and drink stations (it’s covered by your admission). Also free sunscreen kiosks dispensing Sea & Ski Sport Sunscreen SPF 50. Free Wi-Fi. Free parking. There’s even a free electric vehicle charging station. Do these folks even know the proper way to gouge theme park visitors?
And lots of food
While management gives away plenty of stuff, that doesn't include food. Expect to part with $10 to $15 for lunch -- a price that admittedly still beats places like Disneyworld. Enjoy a wide variety of state fair-quality items throughout the parks, offered in everything from kiosks to sit-down dining facilities. There’s also a surprisingly wide array of vegetarian and gluten-free options. We recommend the pulled pork sandwich at Sam’s Barbecue, located inside Splashin’ Safari. Or if you’d like something more substantial (and aren’t afraid of spewing all over one of the rollercoasters), there’s always Plymouth Rock Cafe, next to The Voyage. It’s basically Thanksgiving all the time here, with the menu including everything from roasted turkey to sweet potato casserole.
Overnight accommodations are acceptable but keep your expectations low
There’s a reason Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is considered a diamond in the rough. Its southern Indiana location isn’t quite the end of the earth, but you can certainly see it from there. Provided you don’t consider staying in a cabin or a mid-priced chain hotel to be “roughing it,” you should do fine. There are cottages and camping sites literally across the street from the park, along with various smallish hotels slightly farther afield.
Spare a few moments for Santa Claus (the town)
This tiny, Mayberry-esque burgh is just a dot on the map, but it’s got a certain down-home charm -- along with quite a few Christmas-themed attractions. If the holiday spirit moves you, sample the eggnog-flavored taffy at Santa’s Candy Castle; visit the Santa Claus Post Office and dash off a note to Saint Nick (for which you’ll get a reply come December); or get a personalized tree ornament at Evergreen Boutique & Christmas Shop. Or just walk around and look at all the Santa Claus statues, along with the town’s fanciful street names, which include Jolly Lane, Prancer Drive, and Sleigh Bell Drive. Yeah, it can be unsettling. Kind of like being dropped into the middle of a Jordan Peele movie.
Remember that timing is everything
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari runs on Central Time. That’s an hour behind most of the rest of Indiana, which uses Eastern Time. Fail to take this into account, and you could arrive at the park a full hour before it opens. Timing is also important if you want to avoid long ride lines. Indiana summers are scorchers, so as the temperature climbs into the 80s and 90s during the day, most guests decamp to the water park. This chops the rollercoaster waits nicely. And don’t worry, you’ll enjoy quite a breeze as they rocket you through their courses. But none of this applies in spring and fall, when the waterpark may be closed, and temperatures are more moderate.
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Sam Stall is a multimedia journalist based in Indianapolis. He’s written for numerous print and web publications, and also done quite a few fiction and nonfiction books.