Dec 10, 2021 - News

The great Santa shortage in the Twin Cities and beyond

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Want to share your wish list with Santa? The outing that's long drawn families to local malls to meet Old St. Nick might soon be just a joy of Christmas past.

Driving the news: Many professional Santas are stepping back from in-person services this year due to continued COVID-19 concerns.

  • Shopping centers in the Twin Cities metro have begun pivoting away from the traditional meet-and-greets — opting for socially distant experiences instead.

Why it matters: Photos on Santa's lap are a Christmas card staple, but the role in the COVID era puts the men playing St. Nick at higher risk of contracting the virus.

What they're saying: IBRBS, an international membership organization of nearly 2,000 professional Santa and Mrs. Claus actors, said actors this winter are working 20% more than they did back in 2019.

  • That's because demand is up this year at the same time that fewer actors are willing to work in public, IBRBS president Stephen Arnold told Audrey.
  • "None of our Santas were comfortable going back to the way it used to be," said Lando Luther, owner of The Santa Experience, a longtime tenant in the Mall of America. "They don't mind getting spit up or peed on, COVID-19 is the concern."

State of play: The Mall of America has decided not to bring back its professional Santa this year. It's transitioning to hands-on holiday experiences, like its new venture The Candy Cane Institute, said spokesperson Dan Jasper.

  • The interactive tour invites visitors to taste candy, see if they're on the "nice list," meet Santa's elves and partake in other "merry mischief."

Meanwhile, some independent professional Santas in the metro are pivoting to short meet-and-greets over Zoom, while others stay behind glass or request kids stand in front of them.

  • The Santa Experience, which operates independently in the mall, built a log cabin with a glass window so Santas can stay inside while taking photos with kids.

The intrigue: Arnold, who also works as a professional Santa, said he charges between $25-$35 for a 5-minute virtual meet-and-greet, depending on the day.

Of note: Metro malls like Ridgedale Center and Burnsville Center are offering standard Santa services with safety protocols.

What's ahead: Independent Santas will likely continue to offer a variety of options for families, said longtime North Star Santas member Santa Tom, who declined to give his last name to "keep the magic alive."

  • "I'll do this as long as they can wheel me in. It all comes from the heart," he said.
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