The experience of Santa Claus this year is a mixture of tricks, distancing

November 23, 2021 2:44 P.M.

By LEANNE ITALIE AP Entertainment Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – Santa Claus is back this year, but he calls for caution as he continues to tiptoe through the pandemic.
“Be smart. Be considerate. If you have the slightest tickle in your throat, the slightest feeling, worry about yourself and others, and know that Santa Claus will still be there next year, ”said Kevin Chesney, 57, who donned the big red costume. since he was a kid.
Amid a Jolly Old Elves downturn – about 15% less in a large database – Chesney is busier than ever from her North Pole in Moorestown, New Jersey. The photo studio where he works quickly sold his 4,500 dates to sit with him and the other seven Santas in the studio stable.
They are among the brave in Santa’s ranks with full contact tours, sitting on knees included, though Chesney wears a mask until just before photos are taken.
Other Santa Claus may not be wearing plastic masks or face shields, or hanging out in protective snow globes like many did last year, but it seems 50-50 this season that they’re not quite ready for hugs, whispering in their ears for secret wishes, and smiling or sobbing children on their knees.
Some Santas will remain behind barriers that appeared last year for security reasons. At Minnesota’s Mall of America, the big man will be staying in a log cabin behind a window with guests sitting on benches in front of him. At 169 locations for outdoor retailers Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, benches will also be used, with plastic partitions deployed in some stores for Santa’s photo ops.
Other retailers and Santa Hosts offer the option of no contact or full contact, even when distance warrants are not in place. And many require or encourage online reservations to reduce the number of people waiting.
More than 10 million U.S. households visited Santa Claus in a mall or store in 2019, according to GlobalData Retail chief executive Neil Saunders. Almost 73% of them also spent money at nearby restaurants or stores, he said. Last year, the company’s research found 6.1 million homes visited Santa, with fewer retailers and malls offering the holiday star in person. Of these visitors, 62% ate or shop nearby.
Saunders said projections this year predict that around 8.9 million households are expected to visit Santa in person, with virtual tours remaining a big option.
“Persistent concerns about the virus and ongoing restrictions in some states and localities continue to hamper Santa’s in-person visit,” he said.
Chris Landtroop, spokesperson for the provider of Santa Cherry Hill Programs, is optimistic. The new rollout of vaccinations for children aged 5 to 11 will certainly help.
“Santa is back and we’re very excited about it. Last year has been incredibly difficult, ”said Landtroop.
The company has searched year-round Santas for the 800 malls, big box stores and other locations it serves, with options for contactless tours as well. Cherry Hill is demanding that its Santa Claus and other employees be vaccinated and that those with exemptions be tested regularly.
“At the end of the day, we want customers to feel comfortable,” Landtroop said.
Luther Landon has been providing the Santa Claus Experience at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, for nearly two decades. Last year he came up with the idea for a log cabin but was closed after a day due to the pandemic. He has pivoted to virtual Santa Claus and will be offering both this year.
“We think it would be very irresponsible of us to just ignore it and pretend everything is back to normal,” he said of the pandemic. “We hid a few microphones so that Santa Claus could hear well. I know from our community of Santa Claus and knowing so many other Santa Claus that the majority of them are reluctant, very reluctant, to go back to what they were before the pandemic. But we also have some that are like, you know what, I don’t care. Having these two groups is also what is happening in the country.
Russell Hurd in Royse City, Texas, has been playing Santa since 2017, after retiring from the military. He will be wearing his red suit with his long, very real white beard at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center near Dallas. His visits to the crowd are distanced and masks are mandatory. He longs for this to end.
“The way it was before is also meaningful to us Santa Claus. I mean, we are human beings. We yearn for that interaction, but for now we’re doing what we can, ”said Hurd.
Hurd is not vaccinated and tests for COVID regularly.
“I know a lot of unvaxxed Santa Claus across the country. I mean, it’s not just Texas. he said.
Count American Dream, a 3 million square foot mega mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey, among retailers offering Santa Claus remotely. He will be on the ice, skating on the indoor rink with the visitors, and also having fun with the guests in hot pink golf carts.
In Macy’s stores, Santa will make his list and double check it behind a desk, with guests sitting on the other side.
“We encourage everyone to remain masked throughout their visits,” said Kathleen Wright, senior manager at Macy’s Branded Entertainment. “Santa has been part of the Macy’s tradition since 1862, so we are delighted to be able to continue the tradition safely this year.”
At Oakbrook Center, a suburban Chicago mall owned by Brookfield Properties, Santa’s Place is a rigged RV with its fans allowed inside. Santa Claus will take place in 117 of the 132 malls Brookfield owns in 43 states. The company follows local mandates on security protocols, but will keep anyone who requests it away. The same goes for CBL Properties, which owns 63 malls in 24 states and last year offered tours to Santa from a safe distance.
“We’re bringing back a more traditional Santa experience this year,” said CBL spokesperson Stacey Keating. “Visitors who wish can sit on Santa’s lap or on Santa’s bench. Masks will not be required on set or during photos unless there is a local warrant in place. “
And, bonus: “We’re also bringing back animal photo nights with Santa Claus,” she said, “as well as Santa Cares, a reservation-only event that caters to people with sensitivities and for whom. the traditional experience can be too overwhelming. “
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on Santa in other ways.
Stephen Arnold, the 71-year-old head of IBRBS (formerly the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santa Claus) said his organization of around 2,000 Santa Clauses and Ms. Clauses lost 57 Santa Clauses to COVID.
“Most of us are overweight, diabetic, with heart problems,” said Arnold, a longtime Santa Claus working both virtually and in person this year in Memphis, Tennessee. “I mean, we are prime targets for a disease like COVID. “
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