Sisters Vatalluney and Valerie Debra both walked up to Santa, wearing matching red sparkly dresses and wide smiles ready to have their picture taken.
But instead of sitting on Santa’s lap, the pair stood in front of a plexiglass divider.
The girls are just two of the many children who won’t be getting a typical experience with Santa Claus this year. With COVID-19 cases spiking as the holiday season approaches, stores and malls around Gainesville are reworking their annual Santa events to keep the Christmas spirit alive while following safety guidelines.
Bass Pro Shops at Celebration Pointe adapted its annual “Santa Wonderland” event by placing a large plexiglass divider between Santa and the children, according to General Manager Ronnie Cheeks. Santa wears a face shield in addition to sitting behind the barrier.
Temperature checks and masks are required for all children, family members, and staff before entering and all surfaces are cleaned and sanitized between each visit, Cheeks said. Families are required to make a free online reservation in advance with limited spots available to enforce social distancing.
“Santa’s Wonderland” opened Nov. 7 and will run until Dec. 24, Cheeks said. After meeting Santa, families receive one free 4×6 photo and have the opportunity to purchase additional photo packages in store.
Cheeks said he has heard nothing but good feedback from employees and customers about the event. The store has received multiple calls and emails thanking them for having Santa visit in a safe manner, but making the children happy is what matters more to him.
“When you sit down, you’re watching the smiles on the children’s faces when they’re with their families and get to see Santa,” Cheeks said. “That’s rewarding right there just to see those beautiful smiles.”
Santa arrived at the Oaks Mall on Black Friday and will be there until Christmas Eve, according to General Manager Angie McCann. Masks will be required by all guests and employees and the set will have more barriers to space out the line.
This year guests will not sit on Santa’s lap during their interaction but will still have the opportunity to have a conversation and get their picture taken while maintaining physical distance, McCann said. Photo packages start at $39.99.
Reservations to visit Santa are strongly encouraged, but not required, McCann said. Walk-up visits will be available on a first-come, first-served basis if there are openings.
“I hope that we’ll have the same kind of turnout, just maybe a little bit more spread out,” McCann said. “We want to keep it as fun and enjoyable for all the kids as it has been in the past.”
For those who are weary of in-person interactions, The Oaks Mall also launched a virtual Santa experience, which will run from Nov. 1 to Jan. 7. Reservations can be made through the website ExperienceJingleRing.com.
Families have the option to book two different virtual experiences: a personalized livestream with up to four people present starting at $24.99, or a personalized, prerecorded video that gets sent via email for $19.95.
“Although the way that we’re interacting with Santa this year is a little bit different,” McCann said. “The actual event and the actual opportunity to visit Santa is very important to still provide to the community, especially the kids of the community.”
Gainesville resident Samantha Wright took her 3-year-old daughter Amira to Bass Pro Shops to meet Santa Nov. 14, one week after “Santa’s Wonderland” opened.
The 40-year-old preschool teacher said the event was smaller than in years past with less decorations and no craft tables for the kids. However, she was impressed with Bass Pro Shops’ safety procedures and is planning on booking another appointment before Christmas.
“My daughter still talks about going to see Santa, and it’s been almost a week now,” Wright said. “So for her, the magic was all still there, which is kind of where it counts anyway, but I was still very pleased.”
Wright chose to take her daughter to Bass Pro Shops instead of the Oaks Mall for Santa pictures because she was unsure of how the mall would be keeping visitors safe.
“The mall is such a bigger area, I don’t know if they’d be able to take the same extra precautions that I felt that Bass Pro Shops did,” Wright said. “But who knows? I’d definitely be interested in taking a trip just to see.”
Melissa Oehl, 34, is planning on taking her 5-year-old daughter to see Santa at the Oaks Mall later this month. She said her family has been every year since her daughter was born and doesn’t want to break the tradition this year.
While she hasn’t made a reservation yet, Melissa said she feels confident that the Mall will provide a safe and fun experience for her family.
“I know that a lot of companies are making huge strides in trying to make everyone comfortable and safe and healthy,” Oehl said. “And I would imagine that the mall would be no different.”
Despite the efforts made by Bass Pro Shops and the Oaks Mall to host safe in-person Santa events, many families are deciding to skip the staple holiday activity altogether due to concerns about COVID-19.
Jennifer Dempsey, 49, of Gainesville said having to explain to her three children why they wouldn’t be going to see Santa this year was a heartbreaking experience.
Dempsey’s family usually goes to Bass Pro Shops for Santa pictures but decided to skip this year because one of her daughters has special needs and is at high risk for contracting COVID.
“We’re trying to just be cautious,” Dempsey said. “In our case, this was something that we could postpone until hopefully next year without a lot of personal disappointment.”
Dempsey said she had her kids write letters to Santa this year instead.
There was nothing these venues could have done to make Dempsey feel comfortable taking her kids to see Santa because it is hard to control large groups of children, she said. Still, she understands why other parents choose to go.
“I think that there is definitely that mental health consideration that comes into play if your kids are begging to see Santa and that’s something that’s really important to them,” Dempsey said. “We’re all just doing our best.”
With the pandemic raging, Dempsey also did not want a photo to remember this year’s abnormal holiday season.
“I don’t know that I want a picture of Santa behind Plexiglas,” Dempsey said. “It seems like it loses a little bit of the magic for me.”