A MIRACLE IN MEDINA
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler
A magical Christmas kingdom lights up at Castle Noel in the heart of an enchanted Rockwellesque town that turns everyone into a kid again. Welcome to America’s largest indoor year-round Christmas entertainment attraction. Mark Klaus and Medina, Ohio have a wonderful life together bringing joy to the world.
This Christmas kingdom will take you on a journey of miracles’ past, present and future. Along the way, you’ll explore the historic sets, props, and costumes of classic Christmas movies, roam the illuminated streets of New York City to see animated Christmas window displays, gaze at the toys of Yesteryear, and enjoy other creative fun sprinkled all around. This place is like a private tour of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory mixed with Disney magic. And you hold the golden ticket to experience it all at Castle Noel.
But this story began long before Mark Klaus came to town, relocating Christmas from the North Pole to Northern Ohio. The spirit of Christmas has been a part of his life as long as he can remember.
“Every Christmas, my parents would have me go look out our back window and wait to see if I could hear Santa’s bells ring,” said Klaus of his youthful years. “When I heard them, I’d run back to the Christmas tree as fast as I could, but Santa had already been there.”
Klaus’ love for artwork blossomed early. When he saw the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory he was so overwhelmed by the chocolate room he had to create his own. His dad knew a guy with a cardboard factory, so his dad brought home giant sheets of 4’ x 8’ cardboard. Mark Klaus cleaned out the whole lower level of his basement and in six months turned it into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. He loved taking his friends on tours through it.
With the last name Klaus, Mark was always known as Santa at school during Christmastime. In early grade school on the final school day before Christmas break, Klaus dressed like Santa and gave little candy canes to all of his classmates. He carried this tradition into high school. Klaus used the money from his summer grass cutting jobs to buy plastic-wrapped strings of little candy canes. Then, he’d cut them apart, fill a pillow case and hand them out at school. One year, a reporter came to interview him for a story. Klaus was sick that day. His friend dressed the part instead and never told the reporter that he was an imposter.
On the eve of Mark Klaus’ 16th Christmas, the holiday’s meaning forever changed. That’s the tragic night his mom was in a fatal car accident. She was on her way to put a wreath on her mom’s grave.
“Christmas Eve is still difficult for me, but I love so much to watch people have a great time,” Klaus said. “My mom used to do so much to make our Christmases wonderful.”
Ever since that fateful night, Mark Klaus made Christmas a tribute to his mom and dad and all that they did for the kids – anything to recreate that magical fun. One of his merry creations was what he called Santa Claus Run Byes. Since Santa could never have time to chat with everyone on Christmas Eve, Klaus came up with a plan to let youngsters know that Santa was the real deal. After all, seeing is believing so people would give him their address and have their kids waiting by the window at a certain time. Then, Klaus would run through their yard dressed as Santa. He’d even pause so they could see him wave at them.
“The first year after my mom passed, a friend called late at night and said that her grandchild was with her and asked if I could do one more run-bye,” Klaus smiled. “So as I ran full speed through their backyard, I saw the youngster in the window and waved. The next thing I knew I was on my back. My beard, hair, and hat hung on the clothesline. I recovered, got up and continued running. The lady called later to see if I was okay because I guess it was a pretty bad wipeout. Fortunately, her grandchild missed the wipeout because after I waved, he turned to call out to his grandfather and missed Santa getting clotheslined.”
Mark Klaus was always innovative and industrious. He loved creating things that would bring smiles to people. He was a self-taught artist with a special talent for sculpting. His works sold for years on the Home Shopping Network and QVC among other outlets. Now he’s gained world-renown recognition. The Castle Noel gift shop carries much of his cold-cast porcelain figurines and other pieces.
“I’m a huge Disney fan,” Klaus said. “I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch party of the Disney Classics Collection. I became friends with some of the guys who were Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men.” They were the original group that started with Walt doing Disney’s animations. After Walt died, they became like Disney royalty. That was interesting and cool to become friends with some of the guys who were Walt Disney’s friends. I’ve been very blessed to have had lots of adventures and to have met lots of interesting people.”
Along the way, the connections Klaus made in his growing network of influential people would allow him access and insight to bring his dream of Castle Noel to reality.
“I am constantly researching, and there are only a few people who collect the really big stuff out there and we all kind of know each other,” Klaus said. “So we all tend to keep each other posted when something becomes available that we feel one of us may want.”
Klaus has also acquired much of the incredible pieces displayed at Castle Noel through his research and by being involved in a lot of Hollywood memorabilia auctions both in the United States and in London. Everything displayed from actors’ costumes to New York City animated storefronts comes with a certificate of authenticity.
The restoration room at Castle Noel is a place where visitors get to use their imagination. Often, pieces acquired need complex reassembly, have wear and tear or break during shipment. At any given time, there are about ten projects that Klaus and his team of elves will work on for months to restore these pieces to their original glory. This constant cycle puts new visuals and experiences into Castle Noel so that return visitors are met with fresh appeal.
A special acquisition for Klaus was a creation of his own that has been completely restored. Earlier in his career, he sculpted 16-foot pieces used for the Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker: Clara’s toy nutcracker and the mouse king.
His workshop is also a place where Klaus’s new dreams come to life. He tirelessly creates pieces from his imagination much like Geppetto in Disney’s classic, Pinocchio. Klaus works closely with his team of inventors to make his visions come to fruition as he dreamed them to be. So if something needs precise timing and movement, his team is tasked to figure out how to make it happen as Klaus describes how he sees it in his mind.
Unfortunately, there are components of the Christmas classics from the 1960s that nobody will get to see and touch anymore. When the miniature sets were made to film stop motion animation for movie classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, they were usually dismantled and thrown away after production. The stop motion technique is used to move an object in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when a series of frames is played in a sped up sequence. Nobody had the room to keep all of these marvelous stop motion sets around especially in Hollywood where they move onto the next production as soon as a director yells, “Cut—It’s a wrap.” But unlike those beautiful sets from the 1960s, starting now and fifty years from now, people will see history in physical form from a stop motion animated production – Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas.
“The magic of stop motion animation has come back to Christmas,” Klaus declared. “We acquired a whole truckload of sets and props from Buddy’s Musical Christmas. The production designer came out to spend a week to reassemble the sets with us. Now people will see what it’s like to make a stop motion animated movie.”
Mark Klaus’s passion and energy are only matched by his wife’s, Dana. She is as much a part of the scene at Castle Noel as her husband. They both grew up in Northeast Ohio and knew each other in high school. But they didn’t marry until years later.
“We’ve known each other forever, so we share a lot of the same history, which is fun, “Mrs. Klaus said. “It’s fun to have grown up knowing the same kids, going to the same places, and enjoying the same things.”
Castle Noel is a daily adventure that they enjoy together. It’s about the journey, not the destination. When pausing to think of everything that has gone into it, some may say it’s a Christmas miracle. And that goes with reason; it resides inside an old church and spans half of a city block. In just a few short months, the relic of a building was updated and transformed into a Christmas wonderland. In fact, working around the clock seven days per week, Mr. and Mrs. Klaus passed the final inspection by the building and fire department while hundreds of people were standing in the street waiting to feel the magic inside for the very first time. That was November 17, 2013. And to this day, it remains a constant work in progress with no shortage of further creations to come.
“We never truly realized how incredibly popular Castle Noel would be and so the first year our challenge was to make sure that everyone left happy,” Mrs. Klaus remembered. “Since the lines outside are long during the holiday season, it is important to remember that we take reservations.”
Whether by reservation or walk up, each visitor receives the same experience. Tours are limited to 20 people so everyone can hear the guide and stay comfortably together. Mark Klaus loosens up each tour group with some funny stories.
“We never explain just who Mark Klaus is, leaving it to everyone’s imagination,” Mrs. Klaus explained. “But they know he’s someone special because people of all ages take pictures with him all day long.”
No worries though, Castle Noel has a very real Santa Claus atop Santa Klaus Mountain for everyone to visit.
“Mark and I went to China once, and even in street clothes he drew a crowd,” Mrs. Klaus reminisced. “The problem is that in China you are not allowed to gather in large groups. So this crowd got to the point that we were told that we had to stop doing this. We said we’re not doing it. These people keep coming and coming and coming wanting to take pictures with us. Mark just exudes this personality much like Santa where people just love coming up to him and taking pictures with him.”
It was like something out of a movie.
If you are a fan of Christmas movies, Castle Noel will win your heart on that alone. Right from the start, you’ll find yourself in a courtyard staring at an RV that looks like something Cousin Eddie may drive up in.
“It’s our tribute to bad relatives,” Mark Klaus chuckled.
That surprising sight has been known to bring grown men to tears.
Inside are hundreds of photographs of movie star actors and actresses. Some photos include Mark Klaus with actors and actresses. In his lustrous career, he spent time decorating some stars’ homes for Christmas.
“I like all of the Christmas movies but for different reasons,” Klaus said. “White Christmas makes you feel great. Santa Claus the movie has the best looking Santa Claus ever used in a movie. I like How the Grinch Stole Christmas for all of the visually fun stuff. We have a lot of memorabilia from that movie at Castle Noel, including the 16-foot Grinch sleigh. And National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is funny every time you watch it even if you watched it a hundred times.”
Castle Noel exhibits the original, miniature sleigh and reindeer from Santa Claus: The Movie starring Dudley Moore. Today, it would likely be filmed with computer-generated imagery (CGI), so this is a cool part of history preserved. Then there’s the miniature house used in the Deck the Halls movie starring Danny DeVito. Original costumes from A Christmas Carol feature the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Christmas with the Kranks costumes are also displayed, but the crowd favorite is Will Ferrell’s life-size “Buddy the Elf” costume.
Visual delights are littered throughout the experience. At one stop, there’s a giant Cuckoo Clock overhead that came from the Lord & Taylor Department Store Company in New York City. Mr. Klaus sculpted the ceiling in old European style with wet plaster to make the scene more breathtaking. It took him four months to complete.
Other visual treats feature an animated “mailroom” window display from Macy’s Department Store and a room aglow with a Christmas village. But you haven’t seen anything until you gaze at The One Hundred Thousand Glass Ornament Ceiling with glitter and flashing lights all around. It’s quite a spectacle! While you look all-around at the dancing lights, try to make it through Santa’s Chimney Squeeze. This inflated obstacle will have you laughing all the way.
When you cross the bridge in the Blizzard Vortex Tunnel, you’re symbolically whisked back to childhood so that you may truly enjoy the Castle Noel adventure.
Afterward, you are delivered into I Had That Toyland Experience. Suddenly, you may feel your heart grow three sizes …and your camera finger grows anxious. Photos are allowed throughout Castle Noel. It is here that you’ll want to share nostalgic Christmas presents with your social media. This area displays enormous glass cases housing the toys of your childhood, no matter when you were a child.
“There are so many oohs and ahhs. Every time someone sees something awesome there’s something else right around the corner that becomes their new favorite thing – and then their new favorite thing – and then their new favorite thing turn after turn after turn,” laughed Mrs. Klaus.
The toys featured come from all over, but some are personal keepsakes from the Klaus family, including Mark and Dana’s six kids and grandchildren.
When someone asked if their older kids still believed in Santa, Mark Klaus let loose a belly laugh and replied, “Every time they need something, I’m Santa Claus!”
Mr. Klaus reminisced about how as a child he used to love to look through the toy catalog. He’d circle all of the stuff he wanted to add to his Christmas wish list.
“I’d look through that catalog about 50 times before Christmas and edit my list by adding and subtracting what was on it,” Klaus said. “I used to like the little plastic army guys. I had tons and tons of those. I enjoyed this toy red Corvette that was propelled by an air hose before remote-controlled cars were a thing. It’s in the toy display now.”
Another one of his old personal toys in the display is Larry the Lion. It was his favorite as a child.
“It talked and said all sorts of different stuff,” Klaus fondly recalled. “One day I went to bed with it and pulled the string, and the string came out from years of tugging on it. I ran into the living room and shouted to my parents that Larry the Lion died!”
Mrs. Klaus’s all-time favorite toy was Mrs. Beasely, a doll from the 1960’s Family Affair television show.
Much of the “I Had That Toyland Experience” collection came from purchases by the Klaus family over the years at flea markets and garage sales. Even before Castle Noel, Mark Klaus had this display in mind for his collection.
The magic of Castle Noel is that you never know what is going to pull those heartstrings and turn a visit into a lasting memory. Grandparents often come back without their grandkids to go through it again with their friends because it left such a special impression.
Two major attractions are still ahead!
If you ever dreamed of walking along the storied storefronts of New York City’s famous department stores to see the animated Christmas window displays but couldn’t, no worries. Recent creations have been preserved and restored to their original spellbinding charm at Castle Noel. The newest windows in this part of the journey are called “The Land of a Thousand Delights.”
The breathtaking Saks Fifth Avenue storefront windows showcase platinum award winners – those voted the best in NYC that year. The two streets of windows at Castle Noel span the mid-1990s to the recent 2000s.
“We are very thankful that we partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s to save these amazing visuals and allow people to see them who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity,” Mr. Klaus said. “These stores take their windows very seriously and do an incredible job turning them into a gift for New York City.”
Many people travel from all over the world to see the NYC storefront displays at Christmastime. But afterward, these window displays are typically destroyed because the retailers don’t want them to end up anywhere else beyond their control over how they are seen. Thankfully the folks at these iconic NYC retailers embrace the mission of Castle Noel and allow these phenomenal window displays to be shared.
The climax of the tour is a wondrous and cavernous room aptly named The Grand Hall of Castle Noel.
It features The Enchanted Forest complete with animated bears, raccoons, foxes, owls, mice, marching geese and more all over Santa Klaus Mountain, compliments of former stunning window displays by Lord & Taylor now being repurposed.
But there’s so much more to The Grand Hall.
The actual car that actor Jim Carey drove through the town of Whoville in the Grinch movie is here. So is the 16-foot Grinch sleigh. A wickedly exquisite life-sized Grinch costume is a favorite selfie-photo op.
Another imposing and authentic piece is the rotating 10-foot Naughty and Nice Globe made of steel. It is from the center of Santa’s North Pole Castle set filmed for the Santa Claus movies starring Tim Allen.
Once you wind through the delights that make up The Grand Hall and venture through the Enchanted Forest, you climb Santa Klaus Mountain and meet Santa Claus himself. Then like Ralphie in the movie, A Christmas Story, you slide down a tall, long, curved red slide. Along the way, you see more features of the Enchanted Forest like the fairy cave.
“Every time I watch people laugh, see that someone has been touched or help someone off of the giant slide wearing a big grin on their face, it feels like we’re doing God’s work here,” Mr. Klaus smiled.
Your Castle Noel adventure doesn’t stop there.
Mrs. Klaus is also an innovator. She created Elf Labs. This thoughtful hands-on experience is designed just for kids and features different stations that allow the little ones to roll up their sleeves and do hands on activities. You can imagine the delight shining on all of the kids’ faces when they create snow in “Elf Labs: Fun with Santa.” They even get to make Reindeer food with a secret animal-friendly recipe. At other stations, children get to make treats and personalized keepsakes to take home for themselves. Oh, and they also get to visit with Santa. In addition to these Elf Labs, there is “Elf Labs: Fun with Science”. This provides 16 hands-on experiments over the summer months for those age 5-12. Another called “Elf Labs: Krafts with Mrs. Klaus” is more intimate and designed for younger children or children with sensory issues. It’s a slower pace and a more quiet setting.
“We want to provide fun for everyone,” Mrs. Klaus said. “So we designed this one for children who may be autistic or disabled, and allows them to have an awesome journey, too.”
Party rooms at Castle Noel are especially popular and may be catered to any occasion. It is great for groups of all types, including birthday parties, showers, anniversaries and corporate events and team building fun. Party groups have the option of touring Castle Noel or playing Alien Vacation Mini Golf in Freaky 3-D!
Mark Klaus sculpted, painted and created the amazing, colorful, themed scenes that make every room come alive when you wear three-dimensional (3-D) glasses. Just try and hit that ball with the club when you have the 3-D glasses on. It takes some getting used to which is sure to cause an eruption of laughter.
The 18-hole course took one and a half years to complete. And that’s working on it all day every day. Teen glow parties are especially a hit here. This party comes with a glow in the dark materials to create t-shirts in the Mars Bar, plus a round of golf. The Mars Bar is halfway through the course. Adults may enjoy beer and wine. Everyone is welcome to have soft drinks, snacks, and other refreshments.
Other galas, contests, and special events fill the calendar all year long both inside Castle Noel and in the picturesque Medina town square just up the block. Annual favorites include an ice festival in February. It features ice sculptors, demonstrations and competitions. Ice art is everywhere along with lots of hot chocolate and special activities!
Mark Klaus searched many places across the country to build Castle Noel. He chose Medina, Ohio.
“The Medina Square reminds me of Main Street at Disney World,” Klaus said. “This place has character. I wanted the perfect destination for those traveling from out of town. If you come to the square in Medina on a snowy evening with lights on all of the old buildings, you’ve arrived in a winter wonderland.”
Castle Noel is intended to bring that Christmas spirit to whoever needs it whenever it’s needed. Folks of all ages come to unwrap Christmas any time of year.
“One night I came out of the gift shop to where people were starting a tour, and you could see through the stained glass windows into the former church next door, which is now the Grand Hall of Castle Noel. The lights were blinking on the tree and you could hear some of the music and laughter of people coming down the slide. Then this little kid looked at his mother. He had an ear-to-ear grin and delighted, ‘Mom I can hear the fun inside!’ And that’s why we do this. It’s why I’ve always done this,” beamed Mark Klaus.
To plan your memories at Castle Noel, visit CastleNoel.com. To plan your stay in Medina, visit VisitMedinaCounty.com.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide To Fun
MORE CASTLE NOEL PHOTOS & VIDEO CLIPS
Christmas with the Kranks starring Tim Allen
Mouse King from Cleveland Nutcracker
Alien Vacation Mini Golf in Freaky 3D
Alien Vacation Mini Golf in Freaky 3D
Mars Bar at Alien Vacation Mini Golf in Freaky 3D