Be prepared for awkward family photos with Santa this year.
While the pandemic won’t keep Santa Claus from making an appearance at the mall or at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, don’t count on touching Santa, hugging Santa, or having the kids sit on his lap this year. Some mall operators are even offering Zoom calls with Santa instead of in-person visits.
“Santa is an important holiday tradition for many families but we are looking to pivot the experience for safety,” said Rocell Viniard, director of portfolio marketing with Brookfield Properties. The idea, she said, is to enable a “touchless experience” with Santa.
That means no sitting on Santa’s lap, said Viniard.
Santa will also wear a mask in states with a mask mandate, and guests will be required to do the same. In states with no mask requirement, Santa can wear a mask if he wants to, she said.
Brookfield said it is not requiring Santa or mall visitors to sign waivers in locations where masks are not a local or state requirement. Social distancing stickers will show people where to stand, and many properties will have special decor that keeps people six feet away from Santa.
“Every [visit] will be contactless. So kids can sit on wrapped packages near Santa, or across the table from Santa and have a conversation. We can still capture the memory for family photos,” said Viniard.
In some of its malls where Santa will make an appearance beginning November 20, he’ll meet and greet with families while appearing to sit inside a giant snow globe. In other locations, Santa will be behind a giant picture frame.
“Think of this like a drive-up window type of scenario,” said Viniard. “Guests will be able to walk up and have their conversation with Santa and then turn for the framed photo.”
For anyone who wants to skip a trip to the mall, Viniard said Brookfield is also launching a virtual visit with Santa experience, which kicks off on Nov. 1. Reservations can be made through the website ExperienceJingleRing.com.
Simon Properties, the largest mall operator in the US, said Santa will also be coming to its malls this year but declined to offer any details.
Santa on Zoom and behind acrylic glass
Mall operator Preit, which owns 19 malls primarily on the East Coast, including the Cherry Hill mall in New Jersey and the Willow Grove mall in Pennsylvania, is placing Santa behind acrylic glass.
“It’s a Plexiglas barrier and Santa in each of our locations will sit behind it. It will have a bench in front of it so kids can sit down and take a photo with Santa,” said Heather Crowell, spokesperson for Preit.
Another option is a Zoom visit with Santa for families from their own homes, said Crowell. “In lieu of a photo with Santa, you can have a recording of your Zoom call,” she said, adding that both the in-person and virtual visit with Santa will require a reservation.
Crowell said visitors to Preit malls are required to wear masks but children can remove their mask for the photo with Santa and Santa can as well, “since he’s behind Plexiglas.”
At the 43 malls operated by Macerich, Santa will start his appearances in late November. Macerich said it will also implement safety protocols for Santa visits, including social distancing, wearing a mask (if the local municipality requires it) and making a reservation to avoid crowding, said Kurt Ivey, vice president of marketing with Macerich.
Safety is paramount for Santas working this holiday, according to the head of one Santa school.
Rick Rosenthal, or “Santa Rick” as he calls himself, has played Santa at malls and private events for 50 years. He is also dean and cofounder of the Northern Lights Santa Academy, a Santa school in Atlanta which holds training classes twice a year in the spring and fall.
Based on his conversations with graduates of the school and other Santas elsewhere, he expects more than 30% of Santas who worked last year won’t be working this holiday season because of the pandemic.
“Santas are typically in a minimum of two high-risk categories for the coronavirus. They are usually individuals over the age of 65 and they are overweight,” he said. “So even to do this job in a pandemic can be life-threatening.”