We tried a virtual Santa visit—here's what it was like
A Zoom visit with St. Nick was better than we expected.
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The yearly tradition of visiting Santa at the mall kicks off the holiday season in our household. We go every year, making sure to book a time slot at Glendale’s Americana, home to the most authentic, jovial Santas. Once I have my photo of the kids with Santa, I frame it and display it with all the other photos, and I hand it out to all the grandparents. I have a photo from every year since my oldest was a baby and I’m all about continuity. But this year? The mall Santa visit is just one more COVID-related cancellation.
While some malls are placing Santa behind plexiglass or simply adding a mask, we’re in Los Angeles under stay-at-home orders. I plan on giving Santa Claus cookies and milk this year, not the coronavirus.
But as with many pandemic problems, there is a virtual substitute. I know that a Zoom visit is not the real deal, but desperate times call for desperate measures. There are a number of companies jumping in to provide virtual Santa visits. I went with Cherry Hill Program’s Create Holiday Magic, because I am invested in the Santa magic, and I wanted my kids to have a more believable experience.
My kids already know that malls are not an option right now, so it wasn't a surprise that our usual Santa excursion was canceled. But I was glad to buffer the bad news with some good: They’d still get to chat with the big guy, just over Zoom. They sounded interested, if a bit dubious.
How much does a virtual Santa visit cost?
Cherry Hill Programs safer-at-home Santa campaign includes multiple options, from a digital photo interface ($29.99), to pre-recorded Santa story time (starting at $9.99) to a live Zoom call and Holiday Traditions gift box sent by Mrs. Claus. This is the Create Holiday Magic option, and it starts at $99. Friday through Sunday time slots will run you $25 more, and add $50 for the week before Christmas.
How does a virtual Santa visit work?
When you book your Santa call on the website, you choose the date and time for the live video visit. Then the site takes you to a form requesting information for your call, so Santa can personalize his chat. The Family Profile section includes questions about your kids and their hobbies, and even pets. The Holiday Traditions gift box includes free FedEx Ground shipping to the U.S. and Canada, and it takes approximately two to three days to arrive. There’s also the option to pay extra for FedEx Next Day shipping.
What's included in the Holiday Traditions Box
“Santa must have known I was sad today!” exclaimed my 7-year-old when the Holiday Traditions package arrived. Like a lot of kids in 2020, she is bummed to be on lockdown, and the box did cheer her up. Inside we found cookie mix, festive accessories, a felt Christmas tree, a ceramic Santa ornament, reindeer food, and one ill-conceived addition, the book The Berenstain Bears’ Old-Fashioned Christmas, which is all about visiting your grandparents. (What is this, 2019?)
She put on the Santa hat and colorful light bulb necklace right away as we planned to make the cookies once our new wall oven arrives. (Because it’s 2020 and everything in our house is breaking and apparently even ovens are on backorder.)
We read the Berenstain Bears book and I had to explain again that we aren’t actually visiting grandparents this year, and that everyone should just stay home for the holidays so as not to spread COVID-19. I changed the subject to the reindeer food—basically a bag of oats—and we planned to leave it out on Christmas Eve for Rudolph and company.
What is a virtual Santa visit like in real life?
Two days later, the kids gleefully got ready for our 30-minute Zoom appointment slot with Santa, and he delivered. Saint Nick appeared jolly and kind, and he discussed favorite hobbies with my children as well as details about their lives. He expertly threw in references to the Holiday Traditions box and reminded the kids to put out the reindeer food. He even knew that our rabbit’s name is Fred, much to the kids’ delight.
“I’m starting to think that’s the real Santa,” mused my skeptical 5-year-old after chatting away via laptop. He was a little suspicious and theorized that maybe we had filmed his dad dressed up as Santa and somehow made the video virtually interact, live… as his dad was standing behind him. But eventually this authentic-looking Santa’s prowess came through and the Zoom call was deemed legit.
Should you sign up to visit Santa virtually?
A virtual Santa visit was a much-needed boost for my kids after a Thanksgiving with just the four of us. It’s a nice way to recognize the holiday season during this bizarre year and an opportunity to put something they can look forward to on the calendar. At $99, it’s pricey, but not much more than the cost of our usual mall photo, and once you factor in a mall lunch or shopping, it’s probably about even.
I’ll be printing out our My Photo with Santa and displaying it with our pre-pandemic Americana shots. Because it’s 2020 and this is the best we have.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.