NEW YORK – Hop on a virtual sleigh ride to the North Pole. Stand on the "Naughty or Nice O'Meter." Snap a selfie and see your face on a dancing elf. The Santa experience has gotten a makeover as many malls install shows and games they hope will lure shoppers who are buying more online.
About 40 malls in the U.S. and one in London have the high-tech Santa displays, most of them located near major cities that tend to house pricier stores. Taking photos on Santa's lap costs about $30 and up, around the same as at other malls, but most of the malls say people can walk through without purchasing anything.
"It was a half-hour of entertainment that was free," says Katie Mass, who took her twin daughters through Santa's Flight Academy, a 3,000-square-foot setup at The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey.
She had gone to the mall to return some dresses, but had to stop when her 2-year olds saw the spectacle. "They started running," says the stay-at-home mom from Westfield, New Jersey.
The girls tapped touch screens, pulled levers and watched as flight suits were virtually fit over their bodies on a screen. The final stop was a two-story tall enclosed sleigh that dropped fake snow upon them. One girl made snow angels on the floor while her sister danced under the colorful lasers. "It was extravagant and well done," says Mass.
Malls are hoping the over-the-top Santa visits remind people what brick-and-mortar stores can offer. They're increasingly trying to offer special experiences as they compete with online rivals, says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based retail consulting group Davidowitz & Associates.
"The parents love it, the kids love it and Amazon can't do it," says Davidowitz.
Santa's Flight Academy was developed by mall operator Taubman Centers Inc., which spent two years on the idea. After testing it last year at The Mall of San Juan in Puerto Rico, the company rolled it out to 11 other Taubman malls this year, replacing a low-tech ice palace that had housed Santa for years. Like other malls with elaborate Santa sets, Taubman declined to say how much it spent on Santa's Flight Academy.
Guy Perry, a manager of a Disney Store at Taubman's Westfarms mall in West Hartford, Connecticut, credited this year's "great" store traffic to Santa's Flight Academy. Kids come into the store and tell him how they helped Santa take flight.
"It is getting a lot of good reviews," says Perry.
An old-school Santa display got the boot at Queens Center in New York as the mall this year installed Santa HQ, a set sponsored by cable TV channel HGTV.
As kids stand on the "Naughty or Nice O'Meter," they can watch their names pop up on Santa's "Nice List" screen. In another room they can take a selfie and see themselves as dancing elves. In the last room, they're handed tablets that use augmented reality technology to make it appear as if cartoon elves are popping out of the walls and packing gifts. The entire set and trees put on a light show every 20 minutes that is synchronized with holiday music.
Quite a difference from last year's Santa setup: A couch and some Christmas trees.
"It's Santa-meets-21st-century-technology," says John Scaturro, a marketing manager for the mall.
Queens Center's owner, Macerich Co., first installed Santa HQ at some malls two years ago. This year, that expanded to 15 malls from 10. As of November, sales of photos with Santa at Queens Center nearly tripled from last year, says Scaturro.
In addition to bringing in shoppers, the set is an advertisement for HGTV. Screens air the network's home improvement and real estate programs. Stars of its shows were set to sign autographs and take photos at two Macerich malls.
It's cartoon characters that share the spotlight with Santa at another mall display, the DreamWorks DreamPlace. The set, created by DreamWorks Animation, stars characters from the movie studio's "Kung Fu Panda" films — replacing the green ogre from the "Shrek" movies that were last year's focus. Thirteen malls are using the set, which uses rumbling seats, wind and mist to create a virtual ride on Santa's sleigh.
Whatever malls are spending on the Santa spectacles is worth it, says Davidowitz. Santa has always attracted crowds, he says, but adding a high-tech twist is likely to bring in even more who may stop to shop.
"I don't see many things out there that equal Santa's power to draw crowds," he says.