Holidays behind glass — Orange County shopping centers find creative ways for kids to visit with Santa

Santa Claus in a display window at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
Santa Claus at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa Saturday visits with children from inside a display case. The move is a creative way to keep a time-honored tradition going during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials say.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza opened at 11 a.m. Saturday, the start of the last weekend before Christmas, but by then a long line of distanced visitors had already queued up outside the Crate & Barrel store.

They weren’t there for Tiffany & Co. or for Louis Vuitton but for a sweet, nostalgic taste of Christmas that almost seemed impossible given this year’s pandemic — a visit with Santa Claus.

Hundreds of strangers standing elbow to elbow for a chance to share the same lap just doesn’t pass muster with state and county coronavirus guidelines. So, to appease children looking for a little Ho, Ho, Ho when restrictions are screaming No, No, No, shopping centers are getting creative this year.

South Coast Plaza officials have installed two Santa sets custom made for holiday portraits. One is “Santa’s Outdoor Wonderland,” a large tent decorated in a woodland theme, where families enter one at a time for a reserved time slot, unmask and have a professional photo taken with live Santa positioned behind a clear plexiglass panel.

A second Kris Kringle is stationed inside an enormous window display fronting the center’s Carousel Plaza, where he can take toy requests and pose for photos with kids from behind the glass, while moms and dads take free cellphone snaps out front.

Family members pose with Santa Claus, seated behind plexiglass, at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
Family members, from leftt, Renee Stroffe, Sheri Wheeler, Tabitha Wheeler, Gayle Stroffe, Jennifer Stroffe and Scarlette Stroffe, 3, pose with Santa Claus, seated behind plexiglass, at South Coast Plaza on Saturday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Spokeswoman Debra Gunn Downing said Santa visits at South Coast Plaza have become a time-honored tradition for area families for more than 50 years. So, organizers wanted to find a way to keep the holiday cheer alive.

“We wanted to offer a measure of reassurance and hope that some favorite traditions remain constant despite the profound changes all of us have experienced this year,” she said in an email interview. “We know we did the right thing, because the response from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Lake Elsinore resident Sheri Wheeler, who grew up in the area, came with 11-year-old daughter Tabitha to continue a family tradition that spans three generations. Each year, women in the family meet for a group photo with the South Coast Plaza Santa and then grab lunch nearby.

But with COVID-19 front and center, Wheeler wasn’t sure they’d be able to pull it off

“Before we heard about this, we were wondering if we could go see Santa,” Wheeler explained. “We didn’t want a Santa with a mask, and we didn’t want to wear masks for the photo — the kids want to be able to talk with him.”

Santa Claus at South Coast Plaza on Saturday in Costa Mesa.
Santa Claus waves as workers arrange and sanitize seating in front of plexiglass for visitors to have their picture taken at South Coast Plaza on Saturday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The plexiglass Santa proved to be the perfect option. The cluster of women and girls perched atop tree trunks and logs as a masked photographer led them through a series of fun and serious poses.

As they left, Wheeler’s 3-year-old niece, Scarlette, pointed at the Santa behind the glass.

“He’s stuck in there,” she said. “We gotta get him out.”

“I know, poor Santa,” said mom Jennifer Stroffe, guiding the tot from the tent. “Maybe after he’s done seeing the other people.”

Safely outside, Tabitha described her sincere desire to communicate with Santa her wish for a Barbie Princess Adventure Ken doll (the one with the crown) despite her natural shyness.

“For some reason, I’m always shy with Santa,” Tabitha said from under a flannel unicorn mask she made herself. “But I think I’m getting my confidence up now, because I know Santa’s Santa — he’s the person who makes Christmas and holidays come to life.”

Some shopping meccas in Orange County have decided to forego visits with St. Nick this year, while others are taking a virtual turn, offering visitors the chance to play with augmented reality versions of Santa, reindeer, elves and penguins that can be accessed by scanning a QR code on a cellphone and superimposed onto real scenes and people.

Visitors scan a QR code at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
A new feature at Fashion Island in Newport Beach lets visitors scan a QR code to access augmented reality holiday figures on their phones they can use in photos.
(Courtesy of Fashion Island)

Newport Beach’s Fashion Island has arranged a series of photo opportunity booths and kiosks that instruct guests how to pull up reindeers and other holiday-themed special effects from their phones as they shop. And, from Dec. 21 through 24 only, families can go online and sign up for a virtual Santa visit held over a video conferencing platform.

Representatives from the Irvine Company, which operates Fashion Island, confirmed the center has partnered with Evara Virtual Reality to create new experiences for shoppers. But aside from seeking out traditional mall Santas, some Orange County residents are going online to communicate kids’ wishes.

One area mom went on Facebook to share her experience with, a site that lets families can provide basic details and a photo and sends out a Santa video personalized to each child.

A sign at Newport Beach's Fashion Island.
A sign at Newport Beach’s Fashion Island advertises virtual visits with Santa through Dec. 24.
(Courtesy of Fashion Island)

“I’m so grateful to have this technology,” she wrote. “Check it out if you’re feeling bad about making the decision to not see the big guy this year like me. This might be helpful for your family too.”

Virtual Santas may be good alternatives to potentially braving crowds, but for those at South Coast Plaza, like Irvine resident Cherrie Bravo, the safely distanced, in-person visit was the best of both worlds.

Bravo’s family dressed in matching Mickey Mouse pajamas for the annual family holiday photo, a custom that began when her 15-year-old son was just 1 but was looking like it might be canceled this year.

“I almost gave up,” Bravo said. “We usually go to Newport Beach, but they were doing virtual visits, so I thought this year we’d be missing it. Then I found out about this.”

Gunn Downing said the center has made a great effort to give visitors the feel of the holidays without compromising their health and safety.

“We hope to lift them up and give them a momentary respite from reality through happy music and beautiful holiday décor,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

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