Weekend Wanderlust: Castle Noel, the only Christmas stop you’ll ever need
A monthly guide to day trips across Ohio and beyond. This month: Christmas craziness at Castle Noel in Medina.
I like to imagine that in fifth grade, when someone asked Mark Klaus what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, “Willy Wonka.”
While traveling through Ohio and the Midwest, the greatest gift is to find renaissance men and women with utopian dreams. These are visions so pure and out of bounds that they push roadside attractions into the realm of art — new age landmarks among the mundane landscapes of middle America.
A couple of dreamers come to mind: Jim Bowsher, who continues to build the never-finished Temple of Tolerance in Wapakoneta, and Sherry Groom, who has turned the Troll Hole in Alliance into a destination. But Mark Klaus’ Castle Noel, the most bonkers tribute to Christmas I’ve ever seen, takes obsession and homespun world-building to another level.
Castle Noel opened on a downtown Medina city block in late 2013, and it operates on several levels. It’s a massive museum of Christmas movie props and costumes. It contains millions of dollars' worth of New York City department store window displays. It’s an interactive theme park with a Blizzard Vortex, a Santa Squeeze and a slide down Santa Mountain. And it’s also some kind of 4-D experience in which your nostalgia buttons, no matter your tolerance for Christmas schmaltz, get pushed beyond a comfortable threshold. Klaus wants you to leave reality when you enter Castle Noel for his two-hour tour. It's a place where you can become a kid again and marvel at the wonder of Christmas.
“When I was a kid, my house was always this insane Christmas wonderland, and I’ve always wanted the same for my kids. My father always brought home a massive tree that was twice the size of the front door,” said Klaus, who grew up in the idyllic small town of Seven Hills, outside of Cleveland, a place where neighbors went to great lengths to outdo one another when it came to Christmas.
It was a childhood where over-the-top holiday celebrations in the late '50s and early '60s brought overwhelming joy and sparked Klaus’ magnanimous imagination. Picture Higbee’s, the Cleveland department store prominently featured in "A Christmas Story," should you need a fitting reference. That’s the Christmas that Klaus remembers.
But Castle Noel isn't just a nostalgia-drenched, multi-sensory trip. It's also a reclamation project. “It took quite a time to get retailers in New York to recognize what my goal was,” said Klaus of his tireless preservation of window displays. “Their intentions are to destroy these visuals so they never end up being displayed anywhere they aren’t supposed to be. They consider these things a gift to New York and a moment in time. Bloomingdale’s were the first to see the value of what we were doing. Now we have amazing cooperation from most of the stores. We’ve saved the last eight years of Lord & Taylor. To some degree this whole tradition is starting to go away.”
Klaus’ most stunning work arrives in the darkened maze that displays these rescued windows. He’s managed to salvage and restore endless rows of windows from New York department stores going back a decade. He even shows a video that details just exactly how they procure these expensive relics minutes after the stores close at the end of each year.
Contrary to the proverbial “War on Christmas,” Klaus is a bit miffed at a world that is too instant, too quick to take the magic out of the holiday. Though the Castle sits in a former school, storefront and, most notably, a church, Klaus doesn’t posit a “Jesus is the Reason” protest to that so-called war. Instead, he rallies against what he sees as a culture forgetting the American tradition of communally watching "Rudolph" one specific time a year, or seeing the seasonal whimsy I remember from Dayton’s Salem Mall. It’s a tribute to that secular fantasy land, with Santa and elves, strung lights on mammoth trees, bulbs, baubles, wreaths and fake snow. One room is packed to the brim with toys through the ages. Everything is bright and gaudy, yet spectacular.
“We kind of got started when I first bought a doughnut from 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas' movie,” said Klaus of his first plans for the Castle. “I set out on this crazy odyssey of amassing all these Christmas movie props from everywhere. We’ve driven everywhere. It’s an endless search for the coolest props.”
Klaus currently has the largest collection of Christmas movie props in the world, from the animatronic model of a reindeer sleigh used in "Santa Claus: The Movie" to a leather jacket Vince Vaughn wore in 2007 film "Fred Claus." There are entire rooms dedicated to Elf, a gas lamp-lit hallway meant to feel like you're on the set of the 2015 British version of "A Christmas Carol," Tim Allen’s fake head from "The Santa Clause" and more. The rooms go on and on.
“We looked at over 100 locations to put this in,” said Klaus of the labyrinthine sprawl the space provides. “I could have more easily just built this in an old Office Max. But I wanted people to come here from everywhere. If you got in your car and drove to Medina and saw how beautiful this town was, you’d know this is where Castle Noel was meant to be. It wouldn’t be the same if you just parked your car in a big strip mall parking lot.”
Indeed, Klaus' campus of wonders is an indelible circus, a beacon of escape in downtown Medina. It also includes glow-in-the-dark alien mini-golf, complete with sci-fi film memorabilia. You can also try to catch the intermittent hours of Klaus' Polar Bear Club, made to resemble a turn-of-the-century outpost somewhere in the Arctic. When Klaus described it, you couldn’t help but hear the wheels turning in his brain as he promised an “interactive, role-playing experience where you can also get a drink.” He opens and closes the club in different stages of completion.
There was also talk of the ultimate Tiki bar, where a heated patio holds Cousin Eddie’s 1973 Ford Condor II motorhome from "National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation," arguably Castle Noel's prized piece.
Klaus' enthusiasm to turn downtown Medina into a Disney-esque attraction is palpable and seems infinite. “Everything I make through tours at the Castle goes right back into making it bigger and better,” said Klaus, who claims to work on the Castle seven days a week, all year long. When I took the tour, he was busy building a new wing but stopped to say hello to the tourists who now regard the man as a celebrity of sorts.
There’s a little P.T. Barnum, a little over-ambition and an everlasting sincerity to Klaus’ pitch. He’s a big dreamer determined to leave the earth in better shape than when he entered it. In taking the dive at Castle Noel, you have to trust Klaus and his Christmas vision. Above all, you have to suspend disbelief. When you go, you have to believe.
This is the busy season for Castle Noel; be sure to reserve tickets in advance as tours sell out quickly around the holidays. Visit castlenoel.com for hours and additional information.