As a kid, visiting Santa at the mall seemed so simple. Tell him what you want for Christmas, hope he doesn’t remember that fight with your sister and smile for the camera.
But things have changed. Shopping centers across the country are finding ways to create an entire Santa experience, equipped with selfies, smartphone apps and augmented reality--think Pokemon Go, but with a holiday spin.
Annette Norwood, senior marketing manager at Lakewood Center mall took me through its HGTV sponsored Santa Headquarters. The attraction is also popping up at malls in Cerritos and Thousand Oaks.
Surrounded by fake snow, Christmas Trees, colorful lights and holiday music, seeing Santa HQ is like stepping into Santa’s workshop-- on steroids.
We stop at a station to take an “elfie selfie.” That’s a program that takes a snapshot of your face and puts it on an animated elf who’s taking a dance break with some colleagues after assembling toys.
NORWOOD: And you’re also able to download the app as well so you could do it at home.
In the next room, Jakob Hatch, who works at the attraction, is holding a tablet to demonstrate “Elf-Ray Vision,” an augmented reality game.
HATCH: Point the tablet on any of the placards here and see the different toys that Santa’s making.
Throughout the workshop are triggers for the game. On a table next to Santa’s cookies, I spot a blueprint of a toy. We look through the tablet to reveal an AR image of the finished product--a wooden elf doll dressed in blue.
But AR and selfies aren’t the only extras being offered at Santa’s workshop these days. Over the past five years, shopping centers throughout Southern California have offered pet adoption events with St. Nick. Yes, you can bring your cat or dog to take a picture with the big guy, and even take home another furry friend. Other malls like the Long Beach Towne Center offer food, crafts and musical performances along with Santa photos.
But what really keeps kids coming back year after year? Shawnie Taylor, who brought her 3-year-old daughter to the Lakewood Center, says that watching her daughter with Santa is still her favorite part.
TAYLOR: My favorite part was seeing Santa Claus. To see the excitement on her face and the happiness and the joy.
So what’s the point of bringing in all this technology, pet selfies and entertainment when kids are still most excited about one-on-one time with Santa Claus?
Marshal Cohen is the chief industry analyst for the financial research firm, NPD Group.
He says seeing Santa isn’t just about bringing more traffic into the mall anymore, it’s about making the process more efficient and easy to promote.
COHEN: By bringing technology into the equation, what it does is it allows more and more people to share the experience, to plan the experience and to participate in the experience.
And creating that experience also means thinking outside the box for families with different needs.
The Santa Cares events began in local shopping centers about five years ago. It gives special needs kids a chance to see Santa without the wait or all the stimulation like lights and noise. Chelsea Hartnett is the PR director for Citadel Outlets in Commerce which hosted a recent event.
HARTNETT: Families don’t always have the chance to meet with Santa. So it’s really really amazing to see them come in and have their first, sometimes first Santa experience here with us.
Dayana Garcia’s 7-year-old son, Joseph, has autism. She’s taking him to visit Santa for the first time. Dayana says she’s seen an increase in programs like Santa Cares, but events like this are still few and far between.
GARCIA: This is the last event of the season that they’ll have for kids with autism or any special needs, so I made sure that I would come.
Due to the demand, the Citadel is thinking about adding another Santa Cares event this year, and plans to bring the program back next year.
Dayana walks up to “Santa’s House” with Joseph. It doesn’t have screens or lights, but there’s the same magical feeling. Santa sits in his chair, and lets Joseph take the lead. Whether they get a good picture isn’t the point. It’s about being a kid and believing in something that can’t be explained.
And having someone larger than life tell you that you’re good, even if you mess up once in awhile.