Where Can You Find Miami's Best Mall Santa?

Where Can You Find Miami's Best Mall Santa?
Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

With the exception of a Grateful Dead show, when was the last time you saw a portly, jolly, white-bearded, and ruddy-cheeked old gentleman in Miami? For 11 months of the year, they're an endangered species — and then they suddenly emerge each December, like cicadas, to headline at seemingly every mall in the county, from Kendall to Aventura.

As a 27-year-old woman with neither dog nor child, I'm not a mall Santa's target demographic. I stopped believing two decades ago. Snow is close to a meteorological impossibility in Miami. If crossing the Dolphin Expressway in less than two hours during rush hour is an exercise in futility, how can Santa circumnavigate the globe in a single night? More to the point, who are these mall Santas? Where did they come from? And where do they all go in January?

I resolved to investigate.

So I set out to visit ten malls and their Santas in 48 hours.

And what did I learn? Among other things, I ascertained that sitting in a chair for hours on end and interacting with hundreds of children a day for minutes at a time, all the while tempering their outbursts and remaining positive, requires a special sort of magic. Having embarked on this self-assignment expecting The Nightmare Before Christmas, I emerged with the reassuring knowledge that the holiday spirit is indeed infectious.

Spoiler alert: I sat on some laps.

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Dadeland Mall

7535 N. Kendall Dr., Miami
Santa's hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Christmas Eve; closed Christmas)
Price: $32.99 -$49.99

Saturday, noon: I must have taken a handful of Santa photos as a toddler in Kendall during the '90s, so navigating the traffic on U.S. 1 en route to my fairy-lit homeland makes me feel like a salmon instinctively migrating upstream. I know exactly where to find him: past the Cheesecake Factory, beneath the glass-domed atrium adjacent to Auntie Anne's pretzel kiosk. Sure enough, there's Santa, dressed in a sumptuous velvet robe with white fur trim, perched on a green couch overlooking a backdrop of snowy evergreens, and holding on his left knee a hysterical baby in a red bow tie. Knowing the life expectancy of overweight white-haired men, I calculate that unless Santa is actually real, this cannot possibly be the same one from 25 years ago. Fortunately, the dapper baby's howls drown out my morbid existential thought spiral as I watch Santa offer a plush Mickey Mouse toy as a peace offering. It's refused. Santa then arises, waddles a few steps, places his hands on his tummy, and belts out a "ho, ho, ho!" to no one in particular. A few seconds later, he turns to the photographer (whom he refers to as an elf) to announce in a disconcerting Southern twang that he's "fixin' to go to lunch." When my turn comes after a 15-minute wait, I can't help but think the green couch seems especially spacious as I sit beside Santa. For a moment, all is quiet. "What's your favorite part of the job?" I blurt before he can ask if I have been a good girl. "Oh, the babies!" Santa says with a big smile. "I held one that was 7 days old, and there's a photo of me feeding him the bottle." Before I know it, there's a flash. Apparently, I smiled, and Santa waddles off into the distance toward the food court. "He's from Georgia," the elf/photographer imparts. "But if you ask him, he'll tell you the North Pole."

Cheer: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Set: 3 | Efficiency: 5

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

The Falls

8888 SW 136th St., Miami
Santa's hours: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (8 a.m.-6 p.m. Christmas Eve; closed Christmas)
Price: $32.99-$49.99

Saturday, 1:45 p.m.: There isn't a cloud in the sky and the palms sway in the open-air courtyard outside "Santa's House," a quaint white-paneled cottage alongside a mango smoothie kiosk. A sign posted at the front door indicates Santa is "feeding the reindeer" until 2 p.m. By 2:03, the eight children in line are primed for mutiny: One 3-year-old stomps repeatedly on the wooden entrance ramp and declares himself a kangaroo; another repeatedly unclasps the black rope dividing guests with Santa Fast Passes — i.e., scheduled appointments (recommended) — from the walk-ins. "He's excellent! We come to him every year when we're in town," a family of strawberry blonds assure me. The mother of two extremely well-behaved small fries (one 5, the other 9) confides they now come exclusively to this Santa after making the mistake of visiting an underfed one at International Mall last year. "He was too skinny," she whispers while scrolling through her camera roll to display the evidence. "People made fun of us when we posted the photos online." At 2:06, Santa appears inside the cottage, and the families are whisked inside one by one for their shoots. When my turn comes almost 40 minutes later, Santa's photographer asks where my children are. "Oh, no, it's just me," I say sheepishly. I notice Santa quickly slipping a lozenge into his mouth — a trick of the trade to soothe the vocal cords. Spotting the black sunglasses perched on my head, he asks if I want "cool Santa." I do indeed, I realize, and it occurs to me that the two of us are telepathically connected. I hesitantly sit, unsure if Santa has adequately girded himself for the weight of an adult human on his left thigh. We both don our black-out shades. He throws the peace sign. I depart Santa's House a convert.

Cheer: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Set: 4 | Efficiency: 3

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Mall of the Americas

7795 W. Flagler St., Miami
Santa's hours: At the Mall of the Americas, there is no Santa Claus (you can have your picture taken on his throne 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-7 p.m. Sunday)
Price: free

Saturday, 5:30 p.m.: When you grow up in Miami's western suburbs, it's hard not to notice the neon "Mall of the Americas" sign glittering from the Palmetto Expressway. But when I arrive, the "of the" on the sign is burned out, along with the "c" in "America." As I plod past the food court, my determination to remain optimistic is rewarded with the sight of a giant fake evergreen fully loaded with ornaments, cotton snow haphazardly strewn about, and a red velvet throne propped front and center. It appears to be the ideal spot for a Santa — but the seat is vacant. Must be "feeding the reindeer," I say to myself. But after whiling away 30 minutes balefully browsing kiosks bedecked with iPhone cases and sunglasses and attempting to ignore the gutted store spaces and outlets advertising "Toddler shirts 1 Buck...Soooooo Funny!!" I think to ask the woman offering face-painting services whether Kris Kringle will make an appearance this night. "No," she replies. In fact, he stopped only once at the mall this year, for a milk-and-cookies event December 14. "But I can take your picture." She nods in the direction of the empty red throne. "For free," she adds, sensing my apprehension. I silently hand her my iPhone and she proceeds to reel off a dozen shots. It isn't until later that I realize where I went wrong: I had confused the website for Mall of the Americas with the one for Mall of America — the second-largest mall in the nation, located in Bloomington, Minnesota (and undoubtedly boasting a Santa).

Cheer: 0 | Aesthetic: 2 |Set: 3 | Efficiency: 5

Miami International Mall

1455 NW 107th Ave., Doral
Santa's hours: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (8 a.m.-6 p.m. Christmas Eve)
Price: $32.99-$49.99

Saturday, 6:15 p.m.: Santa and I share a quiet moment beside the stacked presents and Christmas trees propped up nearby. "My mustache is actually red," he confesses, pointing out the ginger strands beginning to grow in above his upper lip. "I bleached it before Santa season, but I have to do my roots!" He very much looks the part, I assure him, but he gazes down at his beltless red velvet coat doubtfully. "I think I prefer the outfit with the big black buckle," he says. Turns out this is Santa's first year working in a mall. Based in Cocoa Beach, he works as a trucker the other months of the year; his children (eight in all) persuaded him to try his hand at Santa. I can see why they thought he would make a good one: When a little girl runs up to him, he hesitates not a whit before turning to catch her embrace. "Are you ready for Christmas?" he asks her on the fly. But the girl looks at him as if he were speaking Martian. Santa sighs. "That's the only thing," he leans in to tell me. "I don't speak Spanish. And I wish I did so I could talk to the kids." When it's time for my photo after a five-minute wait, Santa suggests we pose back-to-back with our arms crossed. I'm wearing a paper reindeer crown, and try as I might, I can't resist laughing. Santa, on the other hand, succeeds, maintaining a cold-as-ice, steely gaze. As I leave, he flashes me a big, warm smile and wishes me a merry Christmas.

Cheer: 5 | Aesthetic: 4 | Set: 3 | Efficiency: 5

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Dolphin Mall

11401 NW 12th St., Sweetwater
Santa's hours: noon-10 p.m.
Price: $34.99-$49.99

Saturday, 7 p.m.: Outside, it's 75 degrees, but it's snowing in the Dolphin Mall courtyard — as it will continue to do until January 5 at 7 p.m. on the dot. It's fake snow, of course, yet the Miami children frolic in the warm white foam as though it were real. Located on the second floor of Ramblas Plaza inside the mall, "Santa's Flight Academy" is the ne plus ultra of Santa architecture and design. The snow is only the beginning: There are photo ID badges for children; a peek into Santa's navigation system that reveals jolly old Saint Nick's northern, central, and southern sleigh routes; a "cheer catcher" — a device that supposedly records the kids' singing holiday jingles — which purportedly "powers Santa's sleigh"; and a room filled with more of the unidentified white substance that Miami's children continue to believe is snow as they try in vain to make snowballs and snowmen (but excel at creating snow angels). Everything is free until we reach our photo op at the aft end of Santa's sleigh (license plate: SCLAUSE1). Upon getting a load of the price tag, some parents turn around, duck under the black rope, and vanish into the mall's hungry maw. Other parents furiously attempt to brush the white flakes off their offspring before their camera time. From the line, I watch one excited tad return twice to hug Santa before his parents drag him away. Other kids, sitting on Saint Nick's lap, giggle at his jokes. When my turn finally arrives after a 55-minute wait, I stare into Santa's chocolate-brown eyes and try to appreciate all of this effort and, for once, not pick apart the illusion — to be present. This is the Magic City, and for many of these kids, this moment marks not only their first meeting with Santa but also their first snow (myself included). I blow Santa a big kiss, and he catches it on cue.

Cheer: 4 | Aesthetic: 3 | Set: 5 | Efficiency: 3

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Santa's Enchanted Forest

Tropical Park, 7900 Bird Rd., Miami
Price: $20-$75 (plus $35.51 theme park admission)
Santa's hours: 5 p.m.-midnight

Saturday, 9 p.m.: I veer off the Palmetto to Tropical Park like a moth to the flame that is the multicolored light display that announces Santa's Enchanted Forest. Dubbed the world's largest holiday theme park (OK, it's not a mall), the twinkling forest boasts more than a hundred rides, games, and attractions, at least two Ferris wheels, and more nauseated youngsters than an elementary-school field trip to Islands of Adventure. Yet inconspicuously wedged between a polar-bear display and a booth exhibiting a vintage toy train sits the most woke Santa I have yet encountered. When I arrive, there's no line, and I saunter up to Father Christmas with no delay: "Should I sit on your lap?" I inquire awkwardly, eyeing the gilded arm of the chair and then Santa's midsection. He looks me square in the eye. "Whatever feels most comfortable to you." Structurally speaking, it's a no-brainer: Team Lap all the way. I scoot atop his right thigh. Between takes, he says it's at least his sixth year working at Santa's Enchanted Forest, maybe the seventh. I ask him what's the hardest part of his job. "Sometimes children ask me to bring back their grandfather," he sighs. "All I can do is tell them to just remember the time they had with him and that he'll always be with them." When I look at our photo keepsake afterward, I understand why he wasn't always smiling.

Cheer: 4 | Aesthetic: 4 | Set: 3 | Efficiency: 5

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Brickell City Centre

701 S. Miami Ave., Miami
Santa's hours: noon-4 p.m. December 21-24
Price: free

Sunday, 12:45 p.m.: You hear Santa before you see him. He approaches with jingle bells dangling from his black boots. In his red overalls and a colorful patterned shirt, he looks as though he has just waltzed out of his workshop for a photo op. "If any child has an allergy to dogs, we ask that you return next weekend," announces a sprightly man identified as "Santa's Helper." Evidently, today is pet day, which explains the yapping line of leashed terriers, Chihuahuas, and Pomeranians — but not the dozens of waist-high moppets dressed in their Sunday best in the shadow of the escalator below the Aesop skincare boutique. Mr. Sprightly runs down the rules: Each person gets one photo and one photo only — it is free, after all. This seems fair enough until parents have to choose between a shot of their just their child or a group shot with them and their child or their pet. "You can always get back in line," Santa's Helper points out to the queue of confused, immaculately dressed narcissists. Fortunately, the line moves quickly, and before I can ask Santa a question, the sprightly helper snaps the photo and ushers me on my way. I cringe when I see that two women photobombed my shot like spinach in my teeth. But that's not nearly sufficient incentive to wait in line a second time.

Cheer: 3 | Aesthetic: 3 | Set: 3 | Efficiency: 5

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Aventura Mall

19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura
Santa's hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (9 a.m.-6 p.m. Christmas Eve)
Price: $32.99-$49.99

Sunday, 2:30 p.m.: Terry, I learn, is something of a legend. He has worked at Aventura Mall every December for the past decade and has even taken photos with celebrities such as Tommy Hilfiger's children. "Europeans, Russians, people come from all over the world to see him," one of Santa's helpers assures me. "One time I asked this woman from Honduras: 'Why are you in town?' She said she came all the way to see him." The day before, I'm told, a young man recruited Santa to help with his marriage proposal: When he sat with his dearly beloved, Santa asked the man: "What would you like for Christmas this year?" Our Romeo went down on one knee with the ring. (She said yes.) The line to see Santa is long, and I accidentally wind up in the Fast Pass lane even though I'm a walk-in. No one notices my blunder until the last minute, when a mom with a toddler in a stroller behind me interjects, "I have a Santa Fast Pass, and she doesn't. I should go before her." It's truly fascinating how the Santa line causes grownups to regress developmentally. I too found myself seized by the urge to stick out my tongue and call her a tattletale, but I pushed it away by filling my mind with thoughts of what Christmas is really all about: waiting in half-hour lines to get an absurd number of photos taken with mall Santas. This one, by the way, looks like he was plucked from a storybook: immaculately groomed white beard, rotund physique straight out of Santa casting, and the ruddiest of ruddy cheeks. For a starstruck instant, I'm tempted to ask him to autograph my coffee cup. On my way out, he hands me his business card and flashes a megawatt smile.

Cheer: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Set: 4 | Efficiency: 4

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Bayfront Holiday Village

301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Price: $19-$89
Santa's hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 3-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Sunday, 5:15 p.m.: Santa Claus is hot. Perched on a wooden chair outside an open-air photo studio overlooking Biscayne Bay, he's wearing a thick velvet suit, white-fur-trimmed cap, and a big belt buckle. The jolly old man from West Palm Beach tells me that he has worked as a Santa in South Florida for nearly a decade and that making children laugh is his favorite part of the job. After further (ahem) grilling, I get him to tell me the hardest part: "Sitting in the hot heat with a suit on. I've done gigs on the beach, 96 degrees," he says. "I've lost ten pounds in an hour!" Three rotating Santas sit for photos with the kids in Bayfront Holiday Village. There isn't any snow, but there are Santa letter-writing stations, roasted almonds, and a roller rink around a towering, fully decked-out Christmas tree. I'm balancing on Santa's left knee when he boasts, "I've never had anyone too big to sit on my lap." Adds Claus: "Larger people are always surprised." When I tell Santa I want a creative pose, he springs into action, whisking my legs across his lap. Frisky, I think, and shriek playfully. Next year, he hopes to get an international gig, perhaps in the Caribbean, and take Mrs. Claus along. "She'll get a vacation, and I'll work like hell," he says. Then it dawns on me: Whom does Santa tell what he wants for Christmas?

Cheer: 4 | Aesthetic: 4 | Set: 5 | Efficiency: 5

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Lincoln Road Mall

Euclid Oval (Euclid Avenue and Lincoln Road), Miami Beach
Santa's hours: 7-10 p.m. (till December 22)
Price: free

Sunday, 7:30 p.m.: I've taken photos with eight Santas (nine if you count my solo snap at Mall of the Americas), and I'm pretty certain I've seen it all, from the tantrums and the tears to the advanced line-skipping tactics. But the shenanigans at Santa's Cabana cause even a seasoned photographic Santa subject such as moi to do a double-take. Fully expecting to pose with Saint Nick in front of yet another frosted backdrop, I seem to have fallen into another dimension. Dressed in a tropical shirt and flip-flops, Santa looks like he's chillin' after a long day catching waves. "I'm Tropical Santa," the bearded dude tells me, "or, in Spanish, Santa Tropical." Passersby who spot the free photo op quickly line up outside his greenery-festooned hut, located opposite the Forever 21 outpost on Lincoln Road. Some of them are child-free millennials like me. Some appear to have indulged in enough wine at dinner to find Tropical Santa even more amusing than I find him. A man in a blue polo shirt that reads, "Lincoln Road Ambassador," is tasked with taking photos on guests' phones, like a sentient selfie stick. "Oh, I'll be here all night," he says with a big smile as he snaps a few shots of an Argentine couple. I ask Santa if he'll take a hardstyle photo with me, and he agrees even though I can tell he doesn't know what that means. I go down on one knee, lock arms with Santa, and tell him not to laugh or smile. The command clearly makes him uncomfortable, and at the last instant, he flings a thumbsup.

Cheer: 3 | Aesthetic: 5 | Set: 3 | Efficiency: 5

Photo courtesy of Jess Swanson

Bass Pro Shops at Dolphin Mall

11551 NW 12th St., Sweetwater
Santa's hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday and Christmas Eve)
Price: free to $20

Monday, 10 a.m.: On my first attempt to meet Bass Pro Shops Santa the previous day at 11:30 a.m., I encountered a 90-minute wait. The line wound through the boat sales area and past the display of Christmas toys and games. You would think we were waiting for Michelin-starred cuisine and not complimentary photos with a bearded man in an outdoor-recreation store. Feeling defeated, I nonetheless vowed to return first thing Monday morning, when the bright-eyed children would be in school. Having scheduled my makeup visit on the in-house iPad, I am mollified when the confirmation text appears right away. Still, I make sure to arrive ten minutes early for my appointment just in case. I'm relieved to discover I'm the only one here to see Santa. I stare at the log cabin, the wooden chair, the stacked presents. When the Man in Red waltzes into my periphery, I can't resist running up to him. "I tried to visit every Santa in Miami," I cry, "and you were the last one on my list!" As if possessed, I go in for a spontaneous hug with this stranger and realize I'm grinning uncontrollably. As we unruffle our clothing to sit for our photo, I blurt an apology, but Santa appears unfazed. "That's my favorite part of the job," he says, nodding his head fondly, "letting kids just get to be kids and run up and hug you, all excited."

Cheer: 5 | Aesthetic: 4 | Set: 5 | Efficiency: 5

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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson