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Retailers give the Santa experience a makeover

Getting your kids' picture taken with Santa used to mean miles-long lines, whining children and a check of your watch every few interminable minutes.

While that may still be the case at some shopping centers across the U.S., several big-name property owners are giving the traditional visit with Santa Claus a total makeover.

After last year's hit partnership with Disney's "Frozen," Taubman Centers this season is teaming up with the cast of "Peanuts" for a new edition of its interactive ice palaces, at 10 of its properties.

General Growth Properties is banking on a collaboration with DreamWorks on Adventure to Santa, a tour of a 2,000-square-foot interactive cottage that concludes with a private visit to the big guy's workshop.

The Christkindlmarket at General Growth Properties’ Oakbrook Center, in Oak Brook, Ill.
Source: General Growth Properties
The Christkindlmarket at General Growth Properties’ Oakbrook Center, in Oak Brook, Ill.

Even Wal-Mart, a store that isn't typically associated with visits from Santa, is getting in on the action. The discounter this year is placing Santas at an additional 400 of its locations, as it aims to bring shoppers into its stores.

It's a tactic that should resonate with shoppers. As more purchases shift to the Web — Adobe predicts online sales will increase 11 percent this season — shoppers list a visit with Kriss Kringle as a big reason they will visit bricks-and-mortar locations over the holidays. A recent study by the International Council of Shopping Centers found that half of all adults with children under the age of 13 plan to visit Santa at a shopping center this season.

But they need to be careful, as steering too far from tradition can result in unintentional backlash. Just ask Simon Property Group, which was recently criticized for being too politically correct when it unveiled new glacier displays at six of its 200 malls, which didn't include Christmas trees.

"It was our intention to experiment with delivering a modern interactive experience for the family," David Contis, president of Simon Malls, said in a statement. "After listening to customer feedback, we immediately decided to reinstall our existing Christmas decor and hope our customers will join us in celebrating the Christmas season."

Waiting is half the fun

In a bid to make the fun start before you even see St. Nick, Taubman created its spin on Santa 2.0. Visitors are met with different interactive elements as they make their way through the ice palace, including scenes from the new "Peanuts" movie, the chance to compare their handprint to Snoopy's paw print and an additional photo opportunity with a life-size 3-D sculpted version of his doghouse.

And, like the "Frozen" version last year, snow will fall from the ceiling of the palace's 30-foot dome.

"We've changed it from being this onerous wait to see Santa to, 'Oh, I can't wait to get to the next thing,'" said Glenda Cole, head of marketing at Taubman Properties.

Visitors will even be entertained before they enter the ice palace, where depending on the day and location, the properties will hire strolling characters, balloon makers, jugglers and face painters.

And on certain days, pet owners can bring their furry friends along to visit with Santa, or pose outside of Snoopy's doghouse.

Taubman Properties’ Twelve Oaks Mall, in Novi, Mich., lets shoppers to bring their pets to take photos with Santa.
Source: Taubman Properties
Taubman Properties’ Twelve Oaks Mall, in Novi, Mich., lets shoppers to bring their pets to take photos with Santa.

Taubman doesn't share traffic or sales figures for its ice palaces, though Cole said that due to the multigenerational appeal of Snoopy, the company is looking to have another "fabulous" year. Despite the popularity of its ice palace, the company is looking for a fresh concept for 2016, which it may take to more malls, she said.

All of Taubman's malls, with the exception of its open-air outlet center near St. Louis, feature a Santa Claus, each with its own regional flair.

At the Dolphin Mall in Miami, where it can be 90 degrees in the winter, Taubman each year makes it snow outdoors.

And at three centers in cities with a large deaf population — Cherry Creek in Denver; Dolphin Mall and International Plaza in Tampa, Florida — it brings in Santas who know sign language.

"It's the time of year you love to be in this business," Cole said.

A more personal experience

If you don't have time to wait in line, General Growth Properties' Adventure to Santa offers a major perk to shoppers: You can reserve a time slot to meet with Santa. At five of its malls, GGP has once again partnered with DreamWorks on a five-room interactive cottage.

There, kids can talk with Shrek and Donkey (via a screen), play app-based games, go on a four-dimensional sleigh ride and have a one-on-one visit with Santa in his office. That room is decorated with various of Santa's knickknacks, including cookies from President Barack Obama and Post-it notes detailing which route he wants to take while delivering presents.

"The detail is astonishing," said Melinda Holland, senior vice president of business development at GGP.

When shoppers are finished with their visit, they enter into a retail area where they can purchase their pictures or other DreamWorks merchandise. And at its Oakbrook Center property, outside of Chicago, guests can visit the shops at Christkindlmarket, an offshoot of the city's well-known seasonal marketplace.

Holland said GGP would love to take the experience to additional markets, though they're limited by the cottage's size. Depending on the location, she said roughly 10,000 families visit the experience — which takes two weeks to assemble — at each center. Last year, reservations for the last two weeks of the event sold out.

Holland added that nearly all of GGP's centers that don't offer the full Santa experience still have "pretty elaborate" sets, including a log cabin at its Denver property that's become a fan favorite.

Through partnerships with a handful of other property owners, Adventure to Santa will be at a total 14 locations.

Not your typical visit with Santa

It isn't just malls ramping up their Santa experience. Big-box discounter Wal-Mart this year is bringing Kriss Kringle to 3,600 stores — up from 3,200 last year — and is giving shoppers a free 5-by-7 photo from their visit.

It's just one piece of the retailer's revamped efforts to get shoppers into its stores this season, where it will also play Christmas carols, decorate the stores with more trees and lights, and hold food tastings.

"We really want to create that interactive environment," said Wal-Mart spokesman John Forrest Ales. "Holiday shopping should be easy and fun, and it should feel like the holidays."

Santa will be at select Walmart stores on Dec. 5, 6, 12 and 13.