All it took was an oversize peppermint cane.
A wave of nostalgia passed over Michelle Mainez as she stood in a parking lot off Highway 18, outside the entrance to Santa's Village, which reopened Friday after nearly 20 years.
"Just seeing the candy cane sparked all those memories," said Mainez, 41, who grew up in Highland and could recall sitting on Santa's lap and riding the Magic Train down Storybook Lane as a child.
Located in the small community of Skyforest, south of Lake Arrowhead, the storied, Christmas-themed park first opened in 1955, a few weeks before Disneyland's debut. Its quaint storybook scenery, rides and family-friendly activities were a Southern California favorite for decades before the business side began to falter and it closed in 1998.
Mainez and her 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, were among nearly 300 adults and children who braved wintry temperatures, with wind chill in the 20s, to attend the reopening of the park, now officially called SkyPark at Santa's Village. An estimated 2,000 more visitors were expected over the weekend.
Mainez and her daughter visited Santa's workshop, where Lauren made an elf hat out of construction paper and mailed a letter to Santa. They later visited Santa's house, complete with a wrought-iron chandelier, a Christmas tree decorated with teddy bears and a host, Mrs. Claus.
Lauren asked for a new keyboard, "shelter for everyone on Christmas" and a present for her Elf on the Shelf. Lauren also hoped to try her feet at ice skating at the Silver Bells Skating Rink, where the rubber flooring for skaters exiting the ice had just been laid that morning.
"We have had so much fun," Mainez, who also gave Santa a hug, said.
Park visitors weren't the only ones reminiscing. Employees were, too.
"I couldn't sleep last night — it was like Christmas," said Annie Mazakas, 42. The pastry chef from nearby Twin Peaks visited Santa's Village every Christmas Eve as a child and brought her own young children to the park before it shut down. She now runs the Gingerbread House bakery.
The current park features some of the structures and details of the original, including the giant candy cane at the front entrance, a mini-castle, Santa's house and a monorail with bumblebee cars, which is being remodeled into a ride where strapped-in riders will pedal through the air above the park.
The "polar express" train ride tours the park, outdoor and indoor climbing walls are stocked with holds for climbers of all ages, and a rock mine offers visitors a chance to pan for gems.
Joey Indigo, 32, visited Santa's Village in 1989. He watched a home video of that trip before returning. "It feels more real, more natural, more rustic," he said of the new park. "It still has all the charm but without all the kitsch."
Indigo missed the petting zoo and carousel of yore, but he said he looked forward to enjoying the natural environment of the park come springtime.
The park's owners plan to introduce a series of outdoor activities next spring, including mountain biking and hiking trails, a zip line, fly fishing and camping — activities they say will add to the value of the $59 admission ticket ($49 for kids).
"The idea was not to go carnival rides, but more to go outdoors," said Michelle Johnson, who bought the park with her husband in 2014. Both are mountain bikers and originally planned to build a bike park on the property, which spans 230 acres in total. They decided to resurrect Santa's Village on 15 acres when they realized how strongly local residents felt about it. Johnson's husband, Bill, got his first job at 13 as a ride operator at the park.
Many of the park's adventure activities are closed pending permits and an environmental impact review. But once everything is up and running, Johnson said, she hopes the park will be an economic boon to the area, as it was in the 1960s.
"We're hoping people will come and stay here and discover Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, go to the hotels and restaurants," she said.
Brooke Whitehead, 27, her fiance and her 3-year-old son did exactly that. Originally from Northern California, Whitehead had never heard of Santa's Village, but when she began looking for festive holiday activities with her family, they planned a three-day trip to Lake Arrowhead based on the attraction.
They stayed in the nearby Arrowhead Pine Rose Cabins, which they used as a home base for exploring the area. "There's a lot more here than I thought there would be," Whitehead said.
The park's opening wasn't completely glitch-free. The on-site pub, while fully stocked, remained closed due to delays in obtaining a liquor license. Santa and Mrs. Claus ran late to meet with eager children. And about 2:30 p.m., power throughout the village was lost, the result of nonstop gusty winds on the mountain. Park operators decided to close early, offering visitors souvenir ornaments and the chance to return for free another day.
Most park visitors didn't seem to mind the inconveniences.
Monica Di Giuro, 54, and Arlton Clifton, 50, of San Jacinto, both remembered coming as children.
"As kids, we thought this was a magical place," said Clifton.
The couple was celebrating Di Giuro's birthday and noted they were not the only adults in the park.
"I think we're all in the same boat," Di Giuro said, "of wanting to see what we saw as kids."
Di Giuro and Clifton also said they look forward to the more adult activities opening next year. "We'll definitely be back for the zip line," Clifton said.
For the time being, they were content with a visit to Santa.
Skypark at Santa's Village is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day until January 8, and then on weekends after that. Tickets are only available online this season, and the park will be closed on Christmas Day.
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the park opening and quotes from park visitors.