For many adults who grew up in Surrey, the magic of Christmas is fondly recalled in a castle once located at Guildford Town Centre, where legendary Santa “Percy” could be found visiting wide-eyed children in a towering, “snow”-capped structure.
Sadly, the shopping mall’s original castle burned to the ground on Boxing Day 1993, but a replacement was built, and that castle can now be found on Cindy Brice-Miller’s property, known as The Land of Christmas, on 32 Avenue in Langley.
“It’s been here since 2009, and Guildford Town Centre had it for around 14 years, since the year after the fire there,” Brice-Miller said.
The weathered ol’ castle has seen better days, of course, and its current caretaker spins an interesting story about how the structure ended up in Langley, just east of 200 Street, near the Surrey border.
“I’m all about Christmas — I love it,” explained Brice-Miller, who typically lights up her property for visitors to enjoy, but not during the pandemic.
“Back when we lived near Stokes Pit, at Latimer Park (in Surrey), my husband built me a flat-wall castle. The big joke in our marriage over the last 35 years has been, he’s gonna buy me a castle one day. So I was going to be his queen in the castle. And when we moved here (to Langley), this big castle came to us.”
Vancouver-based Mansueto Productions owned the castle set up in the Guildford mall every Christmas, and the structure was used in the filming of 2006’s “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,” third in a series of holiday comedies starring Tim Allen (this one with Martin Short as Jack Frost).
“That first ‘Santa Clause’ movie (in 1994) was originally going to be called ‘The Land of Christmas,’ but the title wasn’t suitable,” Brice-Miller insisted, “so we became The Land of Christmas here.
“We were given the props from the first ‘Santa Clause,’ but we didn’t have the castle yet, because Guildford Town Centre was still using it at the time, every Christmas. But when it was retired from use at the mall, it went back to Mansueto Productions.
“Frank (Mansueto) contacted us saying the castle is in our possession, and that the only appropriate place it belongs is our place. We weren’t sure we wanted to have it, but my husband said, ‘Well, I promised you a castle, here it is.’ That’s how I got it. We purchased it, but we won’t say how much because it broke the bank.”
One day, trucks loaded with castle parts arrived on the property.
“I can show you pictures,” Brice-Miller recalled. “We had castle pieces laid out from the front of our house to the roadside, and nobody knew how to re-assemble it. We figured it out, but it was a challenge – it was five months of total chaos in our front yard.”
The landmark castle, built with a sturdy metal skeleton, has been lonely over the past couple of years, due to the pandemic.
“It is a landmark,” Brice-Miller agreed, “and last year we didn’t do any upgrades to it because we didn’t open. We’ll get it up and running again one day, and I know that when I go, my family will open it up the way it was, as a memorial. I have Stage 4 cancer, right, and that’s what we all agreed upon. We always did the hot chocolate and popcorn, mini doughnuts, a live band, Santa in the castle and mascots walking around the property. But we can’t do that right now, the municipality won’t allow us to. But the castle is still here and it’ll be operational again one day.”
Earlier this week, Brice-Miller hosted photo shoots for pets with Santa, in another lit area of her property, not at the castle, in a fundraiser for animals displaced by summer fires and fall flooding in parts of B.C.
Over at Guildford Town Centre, there is no Santa at the mall this year – just a virtual one, as part of a train-themed North Star Experience, until Dec. 23. The 10-minute adventure, billed as “a magical 3D projection experience through light and sound,” is located on the mall’s lower level, near Centre Court.
Back when the castle was still in the mall for the holidays, Percy Hayes was well known for playing Santa, for 12 years. Co-host of a cable-TV program called “The Psychics” from the 1990s to early 2000s, Hayes died in 2017. “He loved the spirit of Christmas and was very happy to bring this joy to many children and their families,” says an obituary posted to legacy.com.
As for the original Santa castle in Guildford, an early-morning fire destroyed it on Dec. 26, 1993, resulting in fire and water damage to 60 of the stores and a long legal battle involving mall owners and the company that operated the castle structure at the time.
“No one was hurt in the blaze,” reported Marisa Babic in a Leader news story. “Only days earlier, Santa’s house was filled with young visitors and their Christmas dreams.”