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Creating Memorable Moments with a Traditional Character
By Scott Swenson
Yes, you read the title of this article correctly. I’m not writing about monsters or demons or anything else haunt-related. In this article, I’ll be shining a light on one of the ultimate holiday icons, Santa Claus. Many people know me as “The Halloween Guy” (especially readers of The Haunt Journal and those who listen to my podcast, “A Scott in the Dark”), but now I’d like to say, publicly, that I’m a Christmasaholic. Ah, it feels so much better to get that off of my chest. I’ve been lucky to have been part of two successful Christmas events, and I want to share some ideas and best practices so that everyone can create elevated moments for Santa-seeking youngsters.
Let’s start with some of the basics. Kids are on edge throughout the entire holiday season. “Santa is watching…” and, if they don’t behave, they’ll wake up to an empty stocking on Christmas morning. They’re begrudgingly toted around from Black Friday sales to Aunt Marjorie’s traditional Christmas tea. PLUS, they’re eating far more sugar than at any other time of the year. For all of these reasons, meeting Santa Claus should be comfortable, easy, and fun.
The sooner you can get the kids involved, the better. No one wants to stand and wait in the queue, so make sure that doesn’t happen. There are several options—from timed ticketing to pager systems to interactively themed waiting areas. Your budget and the space available for your experience will help you determine what’s best for you. Since first impressions are so important, don’t lose this opportunity to make a great one. Avoid making the most memorable thing about seeing Santa Claus the long, boring, wait in line.
Now, let’s talk about Santa himself. First and foremost, he should be gentle and kind. If an oversized man dressed in red comes barging into the room ringing bells and forcing fake laughter, the little ones will burst into tears and bury their faces in Mom’s lap. This grandiose, over-the-top Kris Kringle may work in large parades, but, up close, it’s terrifying. In other words, “say No No No to Ho Ho Ho.” Train and encourage your Santa to engage with the children politely and quietly. If he wins them over in the first few seconds, the memories of this special day will be far more pleasant.
Thanks to early exposure to technology and the Internet, most kids already know that Santa has a beautiful white beard, not a piece of fake fur hooked over his ears. Real-beard Santas have a much better rapport with children than those who appear to have a white toilet-seat cover hanging from their face (real-beard Santa performers are more expensive, so budget accordingly). You’ll need to book real-beard Santa performers early. By taking this extra effort, you’ll have fewer tears, more return visits, and better word-of-mouth. You’ll also sell more photographs.
The next basic for successful Santa encounters: Don’t let operational ease or perceived financial efficiency undermine the power of a “Santa moment.” People aren’t just coming to your event to get a photo with Santa. They’re coming to capture a remarkable memory. These are two very different things. If the photo itself were the only desired result, there’s an app for that. Find some stock image of Santa and use your favorite photo editing software and…voila, a photo.
To capture a remarkable memory, you need to create that memory first. Positive interactions lead to more transactions. Some will argue that you can’t afford to take the time with every child. The truth is, you can’t afford NOT to. In this case, quality leads to quantity—the better the experience, the more conversions to actual sales. Families will return year after year for their traditional family photo with YOUR Santa.
Photographers also play an important part in creating and capturing memorable moments. A good photographer will be ready to snap a candid of little Jake and Rebecca the moment they see Santa for the first time. Other important moments are hugging Santa, sharing lists, and even saying goodbye. These will rarely replace the posed family shot where everyone is sporting their best “say cheese” smile, but more and more parents are adding these once-in-a-lifetime photos to their shopping carts.
Don’t miss out on the must-have up-sell.
What about guests taking photos on their phones or cameras? DO NOT DISCOURAGE THIS! In this world of social media, these pictures serve as free advertising for your event. If you don’t allow outside photos, you’re breaking the moment and undermining the “Santa brand.” Contrary to popular belief, allowing guests to take photos doesn’t reduce sales. The professional photographer’s photos will always be better than those taken by guests, and if they aren’t, you need a better photographer.
So, to recap the basics:
- Get everyone involved as soon as possible.
- Say No No No to Ho Ho Ho.
- The real Santa has a real beard.
- Interactions lead to transactions.
- Capture the candid moments.
- Be true to the Santa brand.
Applying the Basics
Now that we have a basic understanding of the theory behind creating an elevated Santa moment, I’d like to share some practical applications that have worked in the past. These may be concepts you can use directly, or they may inspire new ideas that are right for your situation. Either way, they reinforce the basics listed above.
When creating “Welcome to Santa’s House” for Busch Gardens Tampa, we wanted the whole experience to be unique. We realized there were many opportunities out there for guests to get pictures with St. Nick, so we wanted ours to be special and fully immersive.
We kicked things off at the front door. As guests arrived at the facade of Santa’s charming home-away-from-home, they noticed there were two different doorbells. One mounted at the standard height, and one mounted at elf height (which, as luck would have it, is also kid height). Pushing either doorbell produces one of several traditional Christmas sounds. The rotating sound-triggers played everything from an angelic choir to “Jingle Bells,” and the sound changed randomly so that each guest appeared to have a different way of requesting entry. Guests knew right away they were in for something different.
Santa’s elves open the door and greet the family (“you’re just in time to help decorate the tree,”) as soon as the doorbell rang. Passing through the entryway, guests find themselves in the front hall of the Claus residence. To their right is a twelve-foot-tall Christmas Tree. In small baskets around the tree are a selection of ornaments. Guests are invited to choose their favorite and hang it on the tree.
Everyone became involved immediately. Who wouldn’t want to help the elves decorate for Christmas?
Passing through a large red curtain, guests find themselves in Mrs. Claus’ kitchen. The aroma of vanilla and cinnamon make it obvious that Mrs. C is busy baking. Guests eat offered cookies while waiting for an elf escort to Santa’s study.
Many guests took photos of their children with Mrs. Claus as they waited.
When Santa is ready, another elf escorts the family down the hall to a small room filled with framed mirrors. The mirrors allow everyone to look their best before seeing the man of the house. Once everyone was in place, the elf asked the youngest member of the family to knock three times on the full-length mirror mounted on the wall. After the third knock, the mirror opened, as if by magic, to reveal Santa Claus seated at his desk. This simple mirror door is so effective that one parent came back and shared with us that her five-year-old daughter spent the rest of the holiday season knocking on every large mirror she could find, just to see if Santa was hiding behind it.
After a genial discussion interspersed photographs, Santa said goodbye to each family as they walked down a hallway decorated with the elves’ Christmas stockings. At the end of the hallway was a series of monitors where guests could review and purchase their photos. Also in this room were a couple of small tables and chairs with paper and crayons so the little ones would have something to do while the grown-ups decided which photos they wanted.
This elaborate set-up is probably more than most organizations want or perhaps even need, but it was so popular at Busch Gardens that we expanded from two “Santa Studies” to three after the first weekend of the event and from three to six the following year. “Welcome to Santa’s House” is still one of the most popular elements at the Christmas Town event. It’s so in demand that they’ve added a pager system to avoid extended queues and even open the doors before the start of the event on high-attendance nights.
Several years later, I was part of the team that created and installed “Santa’s Village” at ZooTampa’s Christmas in the Wild event. This experience was significantly smaller, with only two Santa rooms and a connecting hallway. The queue wound through a lovely little garden with Christmas lights and poinsettias. Despite the smaller scale, we still wanted to “flip the script” by providing guests with unexpected elements that elevated the experience.
To amplify the first impression, we started with the queue. We added freshly ground pine mulch to the ground on either side of the queue; the air teemed with the scent of Christmas. Many guests complimented us on how real the pine scent was- they were right! We also hired dancers as elves, and they’d perform choreographed dance numbers within the queue area at random times throughout the night. We were all surprised by how much this impacted the guests. Not only were they entertained while waiting in the queue, but they also felt as though they were meeting celebrities when they got to the door to Santa’s house and were greeted by the same elves they’d just seen dancing.
Before entering Santa’s cottage, each family got to spend a little time with their new “celebrity” elf friend. During that time, the elf performers prepped the younger children for their Santa encounter. The most important thing the elves did during this transitional meet-and-greet was to find out the children’s names. This way, when the kids got to Santa’s room, the elf could introduce them by name. Santa would then respond with something like, “Oh, Connor, I’m so glad you made it. I was wondering if you would come and see me tonight,” or, “Goodness me, Stephanie, I hardly recognized you. You’ve grown so much since last year.” By using the child’s name, Santa was able to enter into a gentle and comfortable conversation seamlessly.
We even found a way to include the elves the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Since Santa was resting after his world journey, he was no longer part of the event, but we did offer something special. We mounted a large roll of paper on the wall and asked children to write a quick “thank you” note to Santa Claus in crayon. When that section of paper got filled up, one of the elves tore it off and tied it with a red ribbon to take to the North Pole. A new section of the paper was pulled into place, and the next round of happy children shared their kind words. We were all surprised by how many children participated. Some of the younger children just drew Santa a picture, but some of the older kids wrote short letters thanking Santa for everything from toys and clothes to the improved health of their families. It was often remarkably heart-warming to read the messages.
None of these ideas was high-budget, but all of them elevated the Santa Experience. Children took great pride in knowing that Santa remembered them from the previous year. The elves made real connections with the guests throughout the night by dancing for them or just talking with them. We did everything we could to keep the guests interactively involved in simple but unexpected activities.
The material covered thus far is a foundation to springboard your team’s ‘Santa Moment’ brainstorming.
Since Christmas is the time for giving, is there anyway Santa can reward your loyal pass-holders or even randomly selected guests with a unique gift or opportunity? The perceived value of a behind-the-scenes tour of a theme park or museum is high. Zoos can offer “artwork” created by an animal in their collection; this serves as enrichment for the animal and a sought-after present for the guest.
By offering these low-cost items or experiences, you’ll cultivate dedicated fans.
Are there ways to instill local pride by connecting Santa’s visit with local history or a popular charity? If your organization has a historical connection, could Santa appear as he did in the early 1900s? Could your organization give children the chance to be one of Santa’s elves by donating toys to the less fortunate?
Santa Claus has always represented the best in human beings. He’s kind and loving. He’s always willing to reward those who deserve it, with no strings attached. He has no hidden agenda or expectation of reciprocation. He’s always coming up with something wonderful and unexpected. By finding new ways to engage your guests in elevated experiences, you’re embodying everything Santa Claus stands for and infusing these values into your brand.