Santa gets a sprucing up

Mall unwraps a Christmas experience

November 16, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN REPORTER

On her way to meet with Santa Claus about her Christmas wish list, 8-year-old Ashley Hof of Columbia stopped to find out her status on the big guy's list of who's been bad and who has been good.

She pushed a glowing button on the "naughty or nice meter" and watched the giant arrow swing back and forth a few times before settling on a positive judgment.

Ashley smiled big and acknowledged, "I was a little worried."

The meter - which tends to land on nice for all children - is one element of the new interactive holiday experience that opens today at The Mall in Columbia.

The traditional wait to see Santa has been stepped up this year with new music and decorations and hands-on activities, such as a mailbox where children can send letters to the North Pole amid bursts of snow. Cameras placed throughout the area capture candid photos in addition to those taken with Santa, and all the shots are available for purchase.

Even Santa Claus looked particularly spiffy at a preview event this week, dressed in a gold-embroidered vest and sporting bells on the ends of his curled mustache. With help from the cheerful workers who guided families through the exhibit, he greeted the children by name as they arrived to sit on his lap.

General Growth Properties Inc. is rolling out the exhibit, called Santastic, at its shopping centers in Columbia, Baton Rouge, La., and Tucson, Ariz. The company, like others, is seeking to raise the bar on the Santa experience.

Having Santa at shopping centers "has always been a tradition," said Erin Hershkowitz, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, "but it seems every year malls are coming up with more exciting things, new ways to bring Santa in and make it exciting for the kids."

A survey of U.S. shopping centers by the council found that Santas across the country see an average of 80 children a day during the holiday season, Hershkowitz said. Some malls reported sprucing up their events by having Santa arrive by helicopter, on a firetruck or in an ice skating show, while others have added amenities such as pagers that reduce the waiting in line and opportunities for pets to be photographed with Santa.

All locations are eager to bring in the holiday shoppers. "The holiday season is extremely important to retailers and shopping centers," Hershkowitz said. "It is the time when the greatest percentage of retail sales are received, up to 40 percent."

At Columbia's Santastic, "there are different things to experience, different things to do for parents and kids to make sure they have a great time," said Doug Johnson, director of strategic partnerships for General Growth, who led the efforts to re-imagine the Santa sets. Each installation took 70 workers more than 2,300 hours to complete using 8,500 square feet of wood and 104 gallons of paint.

"It is not just children who wait all year to see Santa," Johnson said. "It's Santa who has waited all year to see you. He's magical, and we're going to share that magic with you."

Amanda Hof, a special events and project manager for Howard County Tourism, was impressed.

"What a great idea to do a whole fresh take on the experience," said Hof, who attended the Sunday preview with her daughter, Ashley, her 11-month-old son, Jason, and their father, Dean Hof.

Ashley said her Christmas wish is a secret but reported that Santa told her, "We'll see what we can do."

Avery Yelton, 4, of Elkridge declared the event "very nice" and "pretty."

"I put my Christmas list in the mailbox and then the snow came down," she said. She also asked Santa for a ballerina doll and a tea set.

Her brother, Brice, 8, said, "It's definitely better than last year. ... It's got much more fun things you can do."

That is the kind of review Johnson is hoping for.

"It is one of those magic moments that kids believe in that we can capture," he said.

Santastic is open daily through Dec. 24 with the exception of Thanksgiving Day. Hours and information are online at www.santabelievesinme.com.

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