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Parents pay to skip Santa line at malls

Chicago Tribune

He’s making a list.

He’s checking it twice.

He’s gonna find out who paid that $10 nonrefundable sitting fee and who didn’t.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

That’s right, boys and girls. Santa plays favorites, and it has nothing to do with whether you’ve been naughty or nice.

If your mom and dad are willing to shell out $10, you can skip that long line at the mall and head straight for Santa’s lap. It’s like the Flash Pass at Great America! Forget all that playground talk about waiting your turn for the swing.

Yes, it’s come to this.

Retailers who are desperate to get shoppers off the Internet and into the malls have turned the annual visit with Santa into an extravagant — and expensive — affair.

“They are full-scale Hollywood productions with very high-tech digital walls and cast members in elaborate costumes,” a spokeswoman for a firm that plans and staffs the events told a Tribune reporter.

Bricks-and-mortar stores have lost ground to e-tailers as consumers learned to love shopping in their pajamas at 3 a.m., perhaps with a spiked eggnog alongside the keyboard. But Skyping with Santa hasn’t caught on in the same way.

To compete for foot traffic, the malls have upped the ante in Santaland. They’re hoping the paid express lane will be a big draw, and why wouldn’t it? A portrait with Santa is a treasured token of wide-eyed childhood innocence (or occasionally, abject terror). But nothing tries the holiday spirit like standing in a long line of cranky toddlers. By the time your magical moment arrives, your moppet will likely be overdue for a nap or a diaper change or both. So yeah, who wouldn’t pay the 10 bucks?

The ones whose kids are more likely to get socks for Christmas than iPads. Their kids have to wait to whisper in Santa’s ear, while the kids with reservations — that is, the ones whose parents put down a deposit on a portrait package — step right up.

If you’re not buying a package, many malls won’t even let you snap a photo.

For some people, this is right up there with the sort of creeping commercialization that gave us Black Friday doorbusters on Thursday afternoon, before the Thanksgiving dinner table has been cleared. Our feeling about that has always been that if you don’t like that scene, don’t go.

But the mall encounters with Santa began the day after Halloween and will last right up until Christmas. If you want to avoid them, your best strategy is probably to, yes, shop online. Hmmm.

There’s something truly dispiriting about turning a visit with Santa into a ticketed affair. Santa Claus belongs to the kids, not to the malls and their event planners.

To believe in Santa is to believe in a benevolent elf who breaks into houses on Christmas Eve to bring joy — and presents — to girls and boys who have been good. What kind of Santa lets kids buy their way to the front of the line?

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