Family carries on 'magical' tradition
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
RUSSELL -- Alison Moore has fond memories of a "magical" time around the Christmas holidays while growing up in Great Bend.
Each year, she visited a lighted park set up on the property of a country home a few miles southeast of her hometown.
The village closed several years ago, but Moore has found a place for her daughter to experience the same magic.
Moore's eyes gleamed Friday night as she held her 3-year-old daughter, Addy, and stood warming herself in front of an open fire pit along with her husband, Preston, and her mom, Karen Winkelman.
"I hear about it every year," Preston Wolf said of Christmas Fantasy Village.
"It was pretty magical," his wife said. "But this place is special, too."
"This place" to which Alison Moore was referring is Christmas Wonderland, built on a similar concept by Russell resident Lana Zorn and her family.
Zorn took her five children 40 miles down the road to Christmas Fantasy Village each and every year.
Those children, now grown with families of their own, all live in Russell, and three years ago at Christmastime, they were sitting around talking how much they missed those enchanting days of youth.
Mark Zorn, Lana's oldest son, offered to put up a 5,000 square-foot building on his mom's property at the RV park she has run for more than 30 years, to use for a Christmas shop. His sisters went to market.
And by the next year, Christmas Wonderland was open for visitors.
Now, it's a year-round project for the Zorn families, which includes spouses, significant others and 13 grandchildren, ages 6 months to 20 years.
Lana Zorn and her daughters head to market in Dallas in January and store the Christmas merchandise for several months.
They begin decorating outdoors in October.
Come Thanksgiving, a life-sized train -- with an engine, an open boxcar and a caboose -- comes out of storage. And the building that serves as an auto hobby shop for Mark Zorn during the year turns into a Christmas shopper's fantasy.
There are animated light displays and a playground for children, and the lights draw people from the main road.
"We weren't ready for this," Jennifer Ginther said as she moved closer to the fire with her sons, Jace Hilbrink, 4, and Ryler Ginther, 2, and the boys' dad, Josh Hilbrink. "We were just driving by and saw all the lights, and we had to stop."
The Zorns charge no admission to visit Christmas Wonderland, located one block north and one block west off Interstate 70's Exit 184.
The only cost is a minimal fee for reindeer food, or a package of ingredients to make s'mores over a fire, or the $3 train ride ticket -- and of course, if a visitor wants to buy something from the Christmas shop, which will feature a large sale Dec. 23.
There is every color of Christmas tree one can imagine and ornaments, furniture and novelty gifts, cand, hot chocolate and apple cider. And upstairs in a loft sits Santa Claus, where children can come have their picture taken with the big guy.
Outdoors, Christmas music plays as visitors make their way around the park, and one of the most popular stops is a pen of reindeer that were purchased from a farm in Wisconsin.
Hours for Christmas Wonderland are 6 to 10 p.m. every Friday and Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But Lana Zorn also opens the store most afternoons.
She said there is activity at the park daily.
"There are people who drive by to see the reindeer every day," said Lana Zorn, who said she is glad her grandchildren are able to experience the same Christmas traditions her own children did years ago.
"Sometimes they come (to the park), and sometimes we get a babysitter for them to stay at home," Lana Zorn said Friday as several of the cousins scurried from the RV park office toward the train, laughing all the way. "But I think it's best when they're here."
Mark Zorn smiled as his younger sister, Traci Wieger, walked up to her brother and adjusted his red elf hat as she helped the youngsters board the train.
"She takes care of me," said Mark Zorn, who agreed running Christmas Wonderland is a special time for him and his family.
"It's a lot of work," he said as he ran off to check on one of the open firepits before jumping in the train engine. "But it sure is a lot of fun."
For more information about the attraction, visit kansaschristmaswonderland.net.