Retail hasn’t canceled Santa. Kids get it that they need social distancing to see the magical bearded guy

Children can’t sit in Santa’s lap this year.

But they can still see him and talk to him and connect with him — seven feet away inside a new Santa’s experience at Nebraska Furniture Mart, from the end of his sleigh at Galleria Dallas, on the opposite side of a plexiglass three-sided box at Half Price Books and Rooster Hardware or in his study behind his desk and plexiglass at Watters Creek in Allen.

Parents worrying that they won’t get a Santa photo this year shouldn’t. The pandemic hasn’t stopped Santa. He’s even taking video conference calls.

While Santa had to pivot, his helpers who are masters at design created ways to reimagine his annual visit during a pandemic. To help with social distancing, most Santa visits these days require a reservation.

At Nebraska Furniture Mart, Dallas visual designer Ignaz Gorischek created a holiday experience that allows for some intimacy with Santa, 7 feet apart in a series of small rooms behind life-size framed openings.

“It’s a wall of paintings in ornate frames that would be in a museum or a palace, and you become the painting,” said Gorischek, the former longtime visual store design director at Neiman Marcus who is remembered for the popular interactive holiday windows at the downtown store a few years ago.

“It’s still important for children to get to see Santa,” Gorischek said. There’s a choice of four backgrounds for the family photo gallery with Santa in the middle frame. It’s a free photo that’s immediately emailed or texted to the family. The wall of frames is big enough that it doesn’t need plexiglass separations, he said.

Ignaz Gorischek poses for a portrait in the Santa seat, inside of Nebraska Furniture Mart's Santa photo experience at Nebraska Furniture Mart on Friday in The Colony. Santa can sit in the center booth and visit through glass with children in the side rooms next to him. Gorischek created the socially distanced exhibit.
Ignaz Gorischek poses for a portrait in the Santa seat, inside of Nebraska Furniture Mart’s Santa photo experience at Nebraska Furniture Mart on Friday in The Colony. Santa can sit in the center booth and visit through glass with children in the side rooms next to him. Gorischek created the socially distanced exhibit. (Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

Sharon Andersen, CEO of Half Price Books and owner of Rooster Hardware, says she got her inspiration for how to present Santa this year from a holiday decoration.

“We decided we had to make him a box, like a music box” she’s had for years. Half Price Books has had the same Santa for 27 years, and the store didn’t want to give up the tradition.

Surprisingly, parents say the plexiglass experience isn’t as terrifying as sitting on Santa’s lap for the younger children, and the older ones are fine talking to Santa virtually from home.

This Santa music box has been in Sharon Anderson's family for years and became the inspiration for how to set up Santa during the pandemic at both her Rooster Hardware store in Lake Highlands and at the Half Price Books flagship store on East Northwest Highway.
This Santa music box has been in Sharon Anderson’s family for years and became the inspiration for how to set up Santa during the pandemic at both her Rooster Hardware store in Lake Highlands and at the Half Price Books flagship store on East Northwest Highway.(Rooster Hardware)
Scott Ward, the longtime Santa at Half Price Books, connects with children who came to see Santa through a protective screen at the retailer's flagship store in Dallas.
Scott Ward, the longtime Santa at Half Price Books, connects with children who came to see Santa through a protective screen at the retailer’s flagship store in Dallas.(Half Price Books)

That’s how NorthPark Center’s Santa is communicating with children this year. On his Facebook page, one mother said her children are older now and that in some ways, they thought the virtual visit was better than an in person visit. “It felt very personalized and was so much more calm and special than at the mall,” she said.

Graham Rucker, 31, of Dallas took her 3-year-old, Caroline, to see the Santa at Rooster Hardware last Sunday.

“Last year, she was terrified of Santa,” Rucker said. “This year she felt safe because he was behind plexiglass. She’s been talking about him ever since.

“You expect to see kids bawling, but there was none of that,” Rucker said. At Rooster, parents take the photos with Santa with their own cameras. “I don’t know how [the store] can afford to have Santa. I always buy something when we go.”

Retailers and malls aren’t willing to give up on Santa this year. He’s good for business.

Large toy soldiers are among Christmas decorations in NorthPark Center in Dallas. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)

Planning for Santa in a normal year starts in February, said Stephany Ruiz, director of guest experiences at Trademark Property, which manages both Galleria Dallas and Watters Creek shopping center in Allen.

“This year, because of the coronavirus, we had to create two ideas, one for if it doesn’t end by the holidays and one if it does,” said Ruiz, who previously worked on Christmas experiences at The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles and for DreamWorks.

“We wanted to create a sense of normalcy for the little ones and not take all the magic out of Christmas,” she said.

Allie Turney and her daughter Nina Turney walk a reflective room lit with Christmas lights inside the interactive Snow Day experience at Galleria Dallas. The mall's North Pole Express includes Santa and the tallest indoor Christmas Tree in North Texas above the mall's ice skating rink.
Allie Turney and her daughter Nina Turney walk a reflective room lit with Christmas lights inside the interactive Snow Day experience at Galleria Dallas. The mall’s North Pole Express includes Santa and the tallest indoor Christmas Tree in North Texas above the mall’s ice skating rink.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

To promote social distancing, Galleria Dallas is taking reservations for visits with Santa. So far, it has booked 1,000 reservations with more than 2,200 people.

There are microphones on the children’s side of the sleigh and speakers on Santa’s side “so no one has to shout,” Ruiz said. There were plenty of details to work out as they went along. To prevent a glare in the photos, the plexiglass had to be tilted 15 degrees.

When it’s time to take the photo, children turn their back to Santa wearing Rudolph masks that they get as part of the reservation.

“Then in the picture, they look like they’re pulling the sleigh,” she said.

Some local visit with Santa info:

Nebraska Furniture Mart in The Colony has a new Santa Photo experience near the Subway at the east entrance. Santa is there on Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Photos are free and emailed or texted.

The North Pole Express experience at Galleria Dallas runs through Dec. 24 and costs $35. It’s on the lower level near Sephora. The mall is offering in-person and virtual visits with Santa. Reservations can be made for slots from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Watters Creek at Montgomery Farms in Allen has Santa available through Dec. 24. His Bavarian Village is next to Village Burger Bar. Book your reservation online. The cost is $20 and can be credited toward any photo purchases.

Stella Helt, 4, waves to Santa Claus, aka Mike Davis, as she and her sister, Evie, dad Bob and mom Gayle leave the Neiman Marcus store at NorthPark Center in Dallas. Santa was helping with curbside pickup at the store.
Stella Helt, 4, waves to Santa Claus, aka Mike Davis, as she and her sister, Evie, dad Bob and mom Gayle leave the Neiman Marcus store at NorthPark Center in Dallas. Santa was helping with curbside pickup at the store. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

NorthPark Center’s Santa reservations are made online. Virtual visits will take place live from Nov. 27 to Dec. 23 by advance registration only. The cost starts at $24.95 per family, and all the money raised goes to Children’s Health in Dallas.

Santa visits are Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Rooster Home & Hardware at 10233 E. Northwest Highway in Dallas. He will also be there at the same time on Christmas Eve. Bring your own cameras for these in-person visits.

The Santa at the Half Price Books flagship store on 5803 E. Northwest Highway in Dallas is there every Saturday through Dec. 19 from 1 p.m to 4 p.m. The in-person visit is free. Bring your own camera.

Stonebriar Centre in Frisco offers photos with Santa on the lower level near Macy’s through Dec. 24. Make reservations online. Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m., plus Dec. 24 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Town East Mall in Mesquite is hosting Santa on the lower level near Dillard’s. Reservations are required. Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Dec. 24 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Shops at Willow Bend in Plano is also taking reservations to see Santa, who will be located near Macy’s. Photo packages start at $39.99. Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., plus 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The contactless experience will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 7 and 8.

Twitter: @MariaHalkias

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