Back in the day, starry-eyed kids would stand in a long, annoying line just to climb into the lap of a strange man dressed as Santa and innocently tick off a wish list as parents snapped sure-to-be awkward, if not horribly teary, photos. It was an often obligatory rite of passage for many American families — but at least it was free.
Not anymore — at least at the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey, as well as at an ever-increasing number of malls across the country, where entry fees, typically in the form of mandatory photo-package costs, are excluding a growing contingent of little ones, naughty or nice.
“Your decision to make Santa photos mandatory is a disgrace for families that can’t afford this,” wrote just one of many outraged parents on the Cherry Hill Mall Facebook page this week. “The green you’re trying to collect is the same color as the Grinch. That can’t be a coincidence. I won’t be shopping there this year.”
At the mall’s Adventure to Santa holiday display in Cherry Hill, the only way children can sit on Santa’s lap — or even get a glimpse of the jolly fellow through the windowless castle installation, which features DreamWorks’s Shrek characters and simulated sleigh rides to the North Pole — is to choose from one of the mandatory photo packages, which range in price from $35 to $50.
The elusive, windowless Santa castle at the Cherry Hill Mall. (Photo: Facebook)
Although mall parent company Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) did not return a call seeking comment from Yahoo Parenting, a statement provided to Philly.com said, “Families who experienced this exciting amenity last year commented that it was nothing like any Santa visit they had ever had before, and parents were thrilled with not just the adventure but the quality of the photos as well.” It further noted, “We were mindful of all our customers’ wishes and therefore host the more traditional Santa visits at our six other PREIT malls in the Philadelphia area.”
But the whole situation has left parents pelting the mall’s Facebook page with angry comments since the weekend.
“How ashamed you should be. I hope your revenues this Christmas plummet,” wrote one fed-up commenter. Noted another, “The fact that they have Santa locked up and completely out of view from shoppers is even more Scrooge-like. One of the perks of Christmas shopping in a mall is catching a glimpse of Santa on his throne, holding a kid or two in his lap and trying to stay jolly no matter what time of day or how loud or wet the kiddies. The only thing Cherry Hill Mall shoppers can gaze at it is the flat exteriors of this charmless pre-fab commercialized Shrek castle (what the heck does Shrek have to do with Christmas, anyway?) Bah, Cherry Hill Mall!”
And then there was this simple question: “How does it feel to be the most hated retail mall in America?”
It would seem, though, that the Cherry Hill Mall is not alone. According to a recent story in the Chicago Tribune, charging fees for Santa visits is becoming somewhat of a trend at retail centers around the nation. Malls in the Chicago area, the story notes, typically allow free visits with Santa but charge fees for photos and ban parents from taking their own snaps — a policy similar to that of some malls and stores in New York City, including the Atlantic Terminal mall in Brooklyn. And at the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., the only way that kids can get lap time with Santa is for mom or dad to purchase one of the photo packages ranging from $14 to $49.
Holiday displays are “on the scale of what we are calling an attraction now,” Ruth Rosenquist, a spokeswoman for Noerr Programs, which trains and disperses Santas and photographers to 278 malls across the U.S., told the Chicago Tribune. “They are full-scale Hollywood productions with very high-tech digital walls and cast members in elaborate costumes.”
This turn of events, says Steven Wilkens, a professor of philosophy at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian university near Los Angeles, is disappointing and ironic. “I find it really a ‘beautiful’ irony that somebody who became a saint because of his charitable impulses has now become a commodity,” Wilkens tells Yahoo Parenting in reference to the origin of Santa — Saint Nicholas, a generous layperson who lived in what is now Turkey in 4 B.C. and eventually became a bishop because of his highly generous ways. “It’s a weird evolution,” Wilkens says.
While he’s not exactly feeling up in arms about malls charging for Santa photos, he notes that “part of every family’s portfolio is to have a photo of their kid on Santa’s lap. We all want those pictures, and to make it mandatory to have to buy the pictures seems like it’s in poor taste.”
Still, says Wilkens — whose book, The Original Dr. Steve’s Almanac of Christian Trivia, traces Santa’s evolution from Turkey to the present day — the current entry fee trend is saddening but not all that surprising, as people are paying. “Someone once said, ‘Every generation gets the world it deserves,’ and we allowed this to happen,” he says. “We put [the malls] in a position where they can monetize a saint and one of the holiest days of the year.”
(Top photo: Getty Images)