[Note that this article was first published in 2003, when Mick Foley was still actively wrestling and his children were younger.]
As his alter egos Cactus Jack, Mankind, and Dude Love, Mick Foley is a pro wrestling legend. Wrestling's pageantry may be more pomp than circumstance, but his brutal style has resulted in death-defying acts of near-insanity, a barrage of broken bones, and some of sports entertainment's most ultra-violent matches.
A curious study in contrasts, the hardcore combatant has a soft spot for Christmas. Foley decorates his home for the holidays and listens to carols -- year-round. And he makes pilgrimages as often as possible to Santa's Village.
Like many baby boomers who have rediscovered the charming Christmas-themed park nestled in New Hampshire's majestic White Mountains, Foley first visited the attraction as a youngster. Now, his kids adore Santa's Village, while the park's rich patina of nostalgia sends him on a journey back to childhood innocence.
Foley remembers, with vivid detail, visiting the park in the early 1960s. He was five when his family last took him, but the memories, along with the photographs on his parents' walls, endured. After performing at a wrestling event in Maine, Foley returned to Santa's Village with his wife and two young children and was struck by how well preserved and captivating it was.
Geared to the pre-teen set, the park features themed attractions including monorail cars that look like flying sleighs and a carousel with reindeer instead of horses. Foley says his favorite is the Yule Log Flume ride. The grounds are spotless, the staff is personable, everything is reasonably priced, and its nostalgic aura is nearly palpable.
When Foley's wrestling schedule took him to New England a few months later, he decided to go back for a solo visit to Santa's Village. Since it was the middle of winter however, the park was closed for the season. On a whim, he wrote to second-generation owners, Elaine and Mike Gainer, and asked if they would allow him to walk around the shuttered park. "My wife thought I was nuts," Foley laughs, "but the Gainers were wonderful, and I've since developed a friendship with them."
He's naughty and nice
"We have many loyal fans," says Elaine Gainer, "but nobody besides Mick has ever come here to wander around in the off season." Declaring wrestling "a hoot," she says she does not follow the sport and had never heard of Foley before he made his unusual request. Her Smackdown-savvy son brought her up to speed. "Based on his wrestling characters, we didn't know who the man behind the mask would be," Gainer says. "But, it turns out he's a gentle, kind, down-to-earth family man."
Well, as down to earth as a guy who takes sickening chair shots to the head, backflips onto a mat filled with thumbtacks, and has his face bloodied beyond recognition can be.
So why would a man who idolized Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, aspired to incite the roar of the crowd, drove himself with incredible devotion, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in the camp, mayhem-filled wrestling world seek the quaint charms of Santa's Village? "I find that it grounds me. It's a chance to escape and become a kid again," Foley says, acknowledging the odd conflicting passions that drive him. "I don't want to live in the big, scary world of pro wrestling all the time."
Tidings of comfort
Sometimes, we travel to discover new places, people and experiences. Other times, we delight in returning to the familiar. It's the travel equivalent of comfort food. The circa-1953 Santa's Village offers Foley and his contemporaries a chance to revisit an idealized, Currier & Ives family vacation of yore.
"It is like coming home," Gainer says. While the park is always adding new attractions and keeping things fresh, she adds that it takes great care safeguarding its older pieces. "For people like Mick who romanticize about their childhood, it's important that we give them the opportunity to reminisce."
That's part of the yin-yang mystique of classic amusement parks. They celebrate the high-tech, brave new world with the latest, greatest thrill rides, but reassure with the high-touch comfort of carousels, wooden roller coasters, and other living pieces of history. Add in the warm glow of its holiday theme, and Santa's Village tugs at guests' heartstrings on two fronts. "There's a lot of emotion tied into theme parks and Christmas," Gainer says. "We offer a double whammy."
Christmas and wrestling myths
Despite their apparent differences, Foley sees parallels among Christmas, theme parks, and wrestling. "I think a lot of adults enjoy wrestling because they have fond memories of watching it as a kid. Like Santa's Village, it brings them back to a place of innocence."
Christmas myths and wrestling's passion plays both require a suspension of belief. Up until a few years ago, the wrestling industry carefully protected its pre-fab practices. Today, the audience is in on the sham -- it's like acknowledging there is no Santa Claus -- but the sport remains wildly popular. Foley bridged wrestling's old-school mentality and its new attitude. For the sake of the show, he sacrificed his body in incredible displays of athleticism and outrageousness. Foley even lost part of his ear in one infamous match.
A theme park freak, Foley says that he loves riding world-class coasters, but screaming fans get in his face and make it nearly impossible to move about the parks. The low-key Santa's Village, where guests generally grant him his privacy, is Foley's safe haven.
Foley plans to continue visiting Santa's Village often but worries that his children will outgrow the park. "It was a sad day when my kids told me that they liked Hersheypark better than Santa's Village," he says with a chuckle, but adds that the Christmas-themed park moved back into the number-one spot during a subsequent family trip. "I hope they're developing the same kind of love (for Santa's Village)," he says. "My wife and I are counting on going there as grandparents someday."