TAMPA — You better watch out, 300 Santas are coming to town
Tampa hosts its fair share of trade shows but this week will bring hundreds of professional Santas and their helpers to the DoubleTree by Hilton for the area's first International Santa Celebration.
And they won't be hard to spot.
Tampa Santa Bob Elkin, president of the local chapter of the host International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, said in the offseason it's difficult to hide a long white beard, so most dress in red or green T-shirts year-round and wink when kids recognize them in grocery stores.
"We call it 'Santa casual,' " he said of the wardrobe.
You can expect to see herds of Santas as they head out for excursions on the golf course, see the mermaids of Weeki Wachee or ride the roller coasters of Busch Gardens while they are in town for a weekend of seminars, workshops and a trade show. The Columbia restaurant dining room will be thick with St. Nicks Thursday and Friday night during the convention with tables reserved for jolly old elves.
On Thursday, the public is invited to check out the Santa sleigh showcase from noon to 5 p.m. at the hotel, and the Santas want you to bring them a gift: Help them reach their goal of donating 100 pints of blood to the community blood bank.
There will be about 16 sleighs in front of the hotel, ranging from a vintage red Jaguar to an antique sleigh used for professional photographs. Kids can vote for their favorite sleigh, get free photos and autographs, and Elkin, who is the Santa at the Florida Aquarium every holiday season, will bring his cyber sleigh, an LED-decorated ride with hydraulics that simulates the reindeer-fueled trip.
WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley, who is building a second career in standup comedy, will also be there for photos and autographs from noon to 5 p.m. at the hotel, 4500 W Cypress St.
After the blood drive and sleigh showcase, the weekend gets down to the serious business of supporting Santas who are professionally trained, background-checked and insured. They work in malls and corporate parties, visit hospitals and anchor parades.
Elkin, 73, has been on the Santa circuit for 20 years in a hobby that doesn't make too much profit, but is all about "collecting smiles."
According to Payscale.com, a professional Santa can earn $100 to $200 an hour depending on the organization and the Santa's experience. But they only work about 40 days a year, and people paying the high end of the scale expect to see Santa in a quality fuzzy red suit that can cost $400 to $2,000 depending on just how flashy he wants it to be. And most have at least two suits, because with a line of sniffling, diapered tots, it can be a messy business.
There are Santa Claus schools and fraternal and professional organizations, such as the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas' local chapter, called the Palm Tree Santas. There are about 800 members of the national organization, Elkin said.
So how are kids supposed to react to a ballroom full of Santas when they've been told there's only one true Santa Claus flying around the world on Christmas Eve?
"Rumors persist the real Santa will make an appearance," the Palm Tree Santas say, so it will be up to the kids to figure out which one of the hundreds there is the one true St. Nick.