NEW PORT RICHEY
Parked outside Santa's Florida Vacation Home is a white Cadillac. The license plate holder reads, "My other car is a sleigh." This car is called the Polar Express, or "POLAR EX" as the license plate reads, and just a few feet beyond is Santa's Place, a room filled with snow, Christmas decorations, the pleasant aroma of peppermint, and of course, Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves. Santa dresses as one might expect, in a red and white suit made by Mrs. Claus, festooned with a large "Santa" golden belt buckle. The illusion created by Charles Ray and his wife, Carole, leads children, and even adults to think that just maybe he might really be Santa Claus.
"I'm Santa every day," said Charles Ray, 73. "Sometimes (Carole) gets a little aggravated with me because I wear red all the time. I have a closet full of red shirts and she says 'Wear something else!' "
One of his year-round clothing staples is his red suspenders. Being a celebrity like Santa means that Charles rarely goes out in public without getting spotted. When children see him outside holiday season, Santa says he's on vacation and gives them one of the bells and business cards that he always keeps in his pocket.
The Rays didn't originally spend their time donning suits and indulging in Santa's favorite cookies (chocolate chip), even though Charles claims with twinkling eyes, "I am Santa. I always have been."
In fact, as a child, Charles said he was a little afraid of any figure who knew when children had been naughty. He spent most of his career in retail management, then worked for the federal Census Bureau before concluding his career in the state of Florida's employment office. Carole, 72, was a leasing consultant for Carlton Arms of Magnolia Valley Apartments.
Their transition into Santa and Mrs. Claus began 13 years ago when they were approached by a therapy group attended by their grandson Nicholas, who has achondroplasia, commonly known as dwarfism. They asked the Rays to play Santa and Mrs. Claus for his group. Charles, who had a short white beard, was a natural for the part. It wasn't long before they were hooked. After bringing the jolly couple to life at several churches and schools in Florida, they eventually called a company that employs and places mall Santas.
Charles and Carole were offered jobs at a mall in Asheville, N.C., and having already lived in nearby Tennessee, the Rays eagerly accepted. The couple made the trip from their home in Florida to North Carolina for two months every year, enjoying the white Christmases, and working in the mall for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
After a decade of that, though, Santa and Mrs. Claus grew tired of the commercialization of their roles in the mall. Charles said the mall charged exorbitant fees for photo packages, making it impossible for many parents to afford to have their children's pictures taken with Santa. Additionally, the mall didn't allow Charles to interact with the children as much as he thought they deserved.
"It got to the point where they were rushing me and telling me, 'You gotta hurry up! Talk to the child, find out what they want, and move on to the next one,' " Charles said. "I don't like to cut the children short. I need to hear what they have to say."
So this year the Rays stayed in town and opened up their own winter wonderland in downtown New Port Richey. They began preparing in July, and along with their five elves, family, and friends worked for three weeks decorating Santa's Place on Main Street. They wanted to make sure it would be a "kid magnet."
Santa's Place is open daily until Christmas, and kids can visit with Santa for free as long as they like. They can also take pictures, if they want, with prints starting at $12.
During a typical season, Santa takes photographs with 12,000 to 20,000 people, about 1,000 of whom are adults. One of the regulars in North Carolina was a 45-year-old Budweiser truck driver who sent pictures of himself with Santa to his mother every year. The youngest child to ever sit in Santa's lap was 3 days old. The oldest was 96.
Most children of course ask for toys, which keeps Santa busy researching during the year so he will know what his elves will be responsible for making. There have been some strange requests, like those of a live cow and pig, while other wishes are more heartbreaking. Ten years ago, the Rays met a 4-year-old girl named Savannah who asked for a liver transplant. Miraculously, Savannah got her wish, and was given the transplant on Christmas day.
"I think that Santa represents, more than anything else, the gift of giving," Carole said. "People very often forget the reason that we have Christmas."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6235.