NEW YORK, United States — First, the residents of Sesame Street relocated to HBO Max ($180 a year). Then, the Disney princesses found an expensive new home on Disney Plus ($69.99 a year). And this holiday season, shoppers are finding that one of the more venerable fantastical characters for children — Santa Claus — is blocked by a paywall.
At Harrods in London, for example, access to the Christmas Grotto, an attraction sponsored by Swarovski, was initially only available to customers who had spent £2,000 or more at the famous department store. (The store did make an allowance for 160 families who had not spent that much money, The Guardian reported.)
Father Christmas has been visiting Harrods (which did not respond to multiple requests for comment) every year since 1955. Until recently, it cost nothing to visit him. But in 2019, he is not just pricey, he’s also overbooked. Tickets to see him are no longer available.
In the United States, a visit to Papa Noël is cheaper. But it often costs money, even at the nation’s most notable shopping centres. For example, a visit to Santa at the Mall of America starts at $18.95 and, what with the photo packages, can run as high as $130.95.
Fortunately for the overscheduled parent, there exists a service called Santa’s Fast Pass, a kind of T.S.A. PreCheck for visits with St. Nick at malls around the country. (In Australia, the same service is called Santa’s VIPs.)
Santa’s Fast Pass is operated by a company called Cherry Hill Programs, which is owned by Keystone Capital, a Chicago-based investment firm. Cherry Hill has contracted about 1,100 Santas this holiday season and will deploy them at close to 900 locations around the United States, the company said. None of its Santas are allowed on malls’ Christmas sets without a full background check.
“Our business is really unique because we’re hyper-seasonal,” said Matt Windt, Cherry Hill’s chief marketing officer. “We run Santa operations. We also do bunny operations. And besides that, we are literally always thinking about Santa Claus and the Easter bunny.”
Through the Santa’s Fast Pass website, which was introduced in 2008, Cherry Hill is able to charge money for a bevvy of photo packages. Booking a time to visit Santa on a Sunday afternoon at the Eastridge Mall in Casper, Wyo., for instance, can cost $41.69 including tax and a fee. A more deluxe package, complete with a “resin frame” and “lighted shadow box,” will cost $136.14.
Mr Windt said that people who book online tend to buy more expensive packages than those who buy in person.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that the parents of would-be lap-sitters accede to the law of supply and demand. At the bigger malls, some Santas are (already!) almost as busy as the guy at Harrods. There are four Santas on offer at the Mall of America in Minnesota: Santa Sid, Santa Jon, Santa Sam and Santa Larry. Bad news for anyone who wanted to book Santa Jon: As of this writing, there were only two times left with him, 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18 and 10:45 a.m. on Dec. 9. One has passed; the other is probably gone.
Macy’s, which offers visits to Santa gratis and lays claim to the “one real Santa Claus,” says on its Santaland website that children have been able to visit the man in the red suit at their stores since as early as 1862. The Macy’s Santa is available for between 11 and 14 hours per day at the store’s 13,000 square-foot Christmas village between Nov. 29 and Dec. 24. Photo packages start at $21.99.
Residents of Brockton, Mass., say that James Edgar, the founder of a local dry goods store, was the first department store Santa. He dressed as the character in 1890. Mr Edgar’s story is told annually at a Brockton tree lighting celebration each year, thanks to the efforts of a nonprofit organisation called USA Christmas Town. Participation is free; a Santa is present.
Lynn Smith, a volunteer with USA Christmas Town who has lived in Brockton since 1985, said that Santa’s exclusivity in other locales made her sad. “It’s like making magic inaccessible,” she said.
The message machine that picks up the line for Macy’s Santaland, opens with a polite tip: “Santa suggests you have a pencil and paper ready,” it says. “Remember, there is only one real Santa Claus and you will find him at Macy’s Santaland.”
Cherry Hill has a more standard answering machine. Callers are instructed to press three for customer service and five for payroll. However, if they stay on the line, they are treated to this unusual directive: “If you are a Santa, press nine.”
By Jonah Engel Bromwich
This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.