There will be no sitting on Santa’s lap this year or whispering into the jolly old elf’s ear. No pictures of Santa hugging a screaming toddler, or photos with St. Nick that look like any other Christmas.
Instead, in true 2020 fashion, many malls are offering “contactless” Santa visits, complete with a mask-wearing Santa seated six feet from any kid making a holiday request. And venues are also contracting with companies that offer virtual-only Santa visits, including the local entrepreneur behind Santa Calls.
Eli Miller never dreamed this would be the scenario when he envisioned his 2019 startup. He was frankly thinking more about the decline of the traditional mall setting than anything else for starting Santa Calls. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early this year, he fast-tracked his app, creating a safer, affordable alternative to the traditional in-person Santa visit.
“I started it under the notion that with the rise of e-commerce, malls would eventually lose their significance. What happens to Santa after that?” asks Miller, who calls himself Santa’s Helper and is a big believer that all kids deserve the wonder of St. Nick this time of year. The Phoenix native also thought there was value in offering a visit with Santa that, while virtual, is actually more personal for kids who get up to two whole minutes to video chat with Santa via FaceTime, Google Duo or Skype. Plus, in this pandemic, it keeps everyone safer — especially Santa, whose age and tummy put him in the higher-risk category for COVID-19.
The app (find it at experiencebelief.com) is national, and Miller, who is 22, was busy last month hiring professional Santas from across the country to address the demand for virtual visits. While right now his service doesn’t offer virtual photos with Santa, he’s rolling out a recorded keepsake of a child’s video session with Santa in 2021.
Miller has also worked with Westgate mall in Glendale and the Shops at Norterra in North Phoenix erecting kiosks with big-screen TVs to host Santa Calls, so kids can still have that feeling of getting dressed up to go “see” Santa.
It’s not just the magic of the holidays that motivated Miller, who graduated recently from Grand Canyon University with a degree in finance and economics and originally planned to go into stock trading and investing. He realized he wanted to do something more altruistic, and he points out, who is more of a philanthropist than Santa?
“It is getting pricey in the malls, and by going virtual, we are cutting back on costs a lot. We keep our prices very affordable,” Miller says of Santa Calls, adding he knows firsthand how families can struggle during the holidays just buying gifts for their kids — much less pricey photos with mall Santas.
Santa Call packages start at $6 for a personalized video message from Santa to a $20 Magic Bundle featuring a two-minute video chat with Santa and a personalized follow-up video message from Santa after Christmas. Other virtual Santa visits — such as santasclub.com — are more expensive, with prices ranging from $35-$65.
In the spirit of the season, Miller is donating 10 percent of all call proceeds to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, including free calls for kids who can’t afford the $15 video chat so that “every child has an opportunity to believe in and talk to Santa.”
“We keep our prices very affordable. I do want to support parents and their families,” says Miller, who says his family experienced homelessness for a time when he was in high school. “I’m in a position where I’m actually giving back and giving to children what I wished I’d had.”
More outdoor and virtual Santa visits
Biltmore Fashion Park, Kierland Commons and SanTan Village outdoor malls are offering contactless Santa visits and photos Dec. 4-24. Face coverings are required for ages 2 and up (including Santa!) and both queues and visits with the Jolly Old Elf will observe social distancing. Reserve a time online before you visit.
Scottsdale Quarter outdoor mall is offering a contactless Santa experience OR virtual Santa visits. Reservations are recommended for the in-person visits with Santa in his cabin on the Quad. Masks are required while taking photos with Santa. Or, choose a virtual Santa visit using a phone, computer or tablet. Upload a photo, and Santa will be added into the background as the perfect 2020 holiday memory.
No-contact indoor Santa visits
- Arizona Mills in Tempe, in Neighborhood 6 near the Food Court.
- Arrowhead Towne Center in Glendale, in the JC Penney Court.
- Chandler Fashion Center, at Center Court.
- Desert Sky Mall in west Phoenix, in Court B near Wetzels Pretzels.
- Paradise Valley mall in north Phoenix, in the Dillard’s Court.
- Scottsdale Fashion Center, in the Palm Court.
- Superstition Springs Center in Mesa, in the JC Penney Court, lower level.