As the last cars slide to a stop at ”The Voyage” and weary sun-kissed visitors head for the amusement park’s exit, exhausted children rest their heads, with blue ice cream smears across their sleepy faces, on their parents’ shoulders.
It’s one of Matt Eckert’s favorite scenes at work.
“It’s neat that they spent the entire day,” said Eckert, ’96, president and CEO of Holiday World. “It’s important to say thank you. They could have spent their day any other way and they chose to come spend the day with us.”
Five Indiana State University alumni work year round at the amusement park to create fun summer days for the more than one million people that visit the 67-year-old Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., each year.
On an overcast early spring day, construction workers busily pieced together the newest attraction of summer fun, Hyena Falls. The blue, yellow and green tubes promise water sliding shrieks of approval from happy youngsters. Elsewhere construction crews finish the expansion at the dive show and the new first aid center. Power washers throb as crew members wash winter’s grime off of walk ways, seats and buildings.
Water has begun flowing into Splashin’ Safari’s pools, which will take a month to fill. Jennifer Rich, ’05, oversees that as water park attractions manager. She coordinates with the city of Santa Claus to fill the pools with the necessary hundreds of thousands gallons of water slowly so not to run the town dry.
In a staff office, high school students line up after a morning of training to receive their uniforms for summer work. Brandon Berg, ’95, human resources development director, stands behind the counter handing out the brightly colored polo shirts to a few of the 2,000 seasonal workers.
Ashley Satterfield, ’06, is at home on family leave with her newborn second child. As special events manager, she will oversee the Rock the World Christian Music Fest, Happy Halloween Weekends and other events.
Each of the alumni took a different road to a place where it makes them happy to work as members of the 80 full-time staff.
Lori Koch, ’84, drove south with friends from Indiana State to try out at what was known as Santa Claus Land in 1983. She was the only one hired that summer as a singer and dancer. “I was just excited to be on the stage,” said the now executive vice president with a smile remembering when 250,000 people visited the park annually. “I thought I’d hit the big time.”
She did find her life changed that summer. She met and fell in love with Will Koch, grandson of the park’s founder, Louis Koch.
Lori Koch, who grew up in Walton, Ind., planned to attend a small private college until her financial aid fell through. Her voice teacher suggested Indiana State because she would be more than a face in a crowd. She applied and visited the campus where she found warm people and an academic scholarship as well as community in the Sycamore Singers while studying music education.
She also found professors who didn’t treat her as a number, such as her voice teacher Raymond Mech. “He invited me to church,” she said. “His wife made dinner for us.”
She also walked through a door into an unexpected future at an amusement park in southern Indiana.
“It was a fluke, but it was a blessing. If I hadn’t ended up there, I wouldn’t have auditioned here and I wouldn’t have met Will,” she said. Will Koch, who became president of Holiday World, died unexpectedly in 2010.
Eckert, who took over as president of Holiday World in early 2013, planned to attend another university but on a visit to that campus he didn’t feel as if he belonged.
“When I went to ISU, I was there 10 minutes and I said, ‘This is it,’” he recalled.
As an accounting and insurance major, Eckert participated in Sycamore Ambassadors, working to welcome future Sycamores to campus.
“I really feel like ISU goes out of its way to embrace incoming students, to show them what it’s going to be like. Professors take time out of their busy day to meet students,” he said.
He also remembers the friendships he made along the way, calling that his number one memory.
After working for accounting firm giant Arthur Andersen, he and his family decided to return closer to his family in the Patoka Lake area. He found a position as controller at the place where he and his family spent summer days. “I have great memories from those days,” Eckert said of visiting Holiday World as a youngster. “It excites me that families coming now have the same memories.” It also happened to be the place where one of his best friends and godfather to one of his children, whom he met at Indiana State, also worked.
Eckert and Berg lived two rooms apart from each other on the second floor of Burford Hall. Thus began a life-long friendship for the two who would become coworkers at Holiday World.
When Berg graduated from Forest Park High School in Dubois County in 1991, he knew many other Dubois County residents also chose to study at Indiana State.
“It felt like home away from home,” he said. “It was very comforting.”
While he started out studying business, his love of working at Holiday World, where he started working at age 16, soon had him switching his major to recreation management. For two summers, he earned college credit while working at the park for his field experiences. The first summer he spent at Splashin’ Safari. The second summer he rotated through every department, learning about each one.
He’s never really considered working at any other park, even when offered an opportunity to intern at King’s Island.
“It’s just family,” he said of working at Holiday World. “I think it was the right decision to make.”
When Berg graduated from Indiana State in 1995, he went to work full-time for Holiday World.
“I’ve been here so long that people coming who saw me as a ride operator now are bringing their grandkids,” he said, adding his favorite part of working at the park is all of the visitors’ smiles and enjoyment of the rides and attractions. “You know someone may be ill, it’s their last summer, and you’re making it a happy one.”
Rich chose to attend Indiana State because of its education program, despite being the only one from her class at South Spencer High School to head to Terre Haute.
“You’re not just a number,” she said of Indiana State. “The professors got to know you by name.”
Rich began working at Holiday World as a sophomore in high school and continued working at the park through college. When she offered a position after graduating from Indiana State in 2005, she accepted. “When I started full-time, I never looked back on teaching,” she said.
Now overseeing the water park, Rich said she enjoys seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces and the joy that Splashin’ Safari brings to visitors. “I’m not a big fan of other water parks after having the best here,” she said.
Santa Claus-native Satterfield began working at Holiday World when she turned 14. She found herself arranging her class schedule at Indiana State so she could continue working at the park through college. As an interior design major, Satterfield chose ISU because the program was nearing completion of the accreditation process.
“That was the deciding factor,” she said about the program accreditation. “And I didn’t want to be too far from home. I wanted to keep working for Holiday World.”
Satterfield said she loved the people she met at Indiana State, which she found to be an accepting place of all people. “You could feel that vibe all through campus,” she said. “I think I really gained a lot of self-esteem and left a better person. I don’t think I’d be where I am without it.”
After graduating in 2006, she went to work for an interior design firm in Indianapolis. After four years there, she and her husband returned to Santa Claus with the hope that she’d find a job once more at the park, where she says, “Most people think it would be a really neat place to work.” She finds that it is. “Everyone is really passionate about what they do.”
Jennifer Sicking, GR ’11, is the editor of Indiana State University magazine. Traveling and spending time with family and friends makes Jennifer happy.