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Virtual visits with Santa? Just another offbeat thing about 2020

One of Tampa Bay’s newest Santas is finding ways to bring joy this season while being careful during the pandemic.
Published Nov. 30, 2020
Updated Nov. 30, 2020

If there were any year without a Santa Claus, it would be 2020.

Randy Maxey, of Clearwater, decided 2020 would be the year he’d don the red suit and show off his natural white beard as Santa, but then the pandemic hit. Like most men who embody the jolly old man from the North Pole, Maxey, 60, is at an age that makes him vulnerable to COVID-19.

He would have to put a pause on his Santa plans, he thought. Until he saw a Facebook ad for a site called JingleRing, which was looking for Santas with personalities big enough they’d carry over on video calls. Maxey snagged the job after a series of auditions, helping fill the new demand for Zoom Santa Clauses at a time health officials have warned about close contact and crowds.

“I am ... giving the kids the ability to visit with Santa without risking their health or the welfare of their families,” Maxey said during a video call with a reporter.

He sat in front of a green screen in full Santa garb with an idyllic Christmas tree and fireplace scene imposed behind him. Maxey’s Clearwater home is now his own little Santa studio. Come a JingleRing call, his background shows a flurry of animated elves working away in his workshop.

In his first year auditioning as Santa, Randy Maxey, 60, of Clearwater, made the cut for a new app offering virtual visits with the Jolly Old Elf.
In his first year auditioning as Santa, Randy Maxey, 60, of Clearwater, made the cut for a new app offering virtual visits with the Jolly Old Elf. [ JingleRing ]

“This provides the family and the children with a way to visit Santa in the North Pole, which is something nobody ever gets to do,” Maxey said.

Unlike quick photo visits, JingleRing calls are longer, personalized and often cheaper than some of the mall’s hefty photo packages. The calls are recorded so families can re-watch them, and JingleRing’s interface allows grandma, grandpa and even Mrs. Claus to join in.

The JingleRing idea was spurred by the pandemic, said the Atlanta-based company’s CEO, Walt Geer, who has been in the in-person Santa business for the last decade. One of his latest ventures was creating an immersive Santa experience inside a former Babies “R” Us.

But in March Geer and his wife realized Santa visits weren’t going to be the same this year, and there would be a major demand for virtual Santa visits.

Other companies have already tapped into the online Santa market. Talk to Santa, a similar concept, is going into its seventh holiday season. Chief executive John LoPorto says his company was the first to offer such service. But 2020 is proving to be their busiest year ever.

“We have gone from delivering thousands of virtual chats to hundreds of thousands of chats this season,” LoPorto said.

Geer says the virtual Santa market will differentiate itself enough that even post-pandemic, the video calls will still be in demand. The calls allow for personalized touches that in-store visits do not. Santas are given a live feed of reminders so they know each child’s name and age. Parents can add in requests to talk about good grades or helping more with the dishes. The info shows up on something Geer’s team named “the Dasher Board.” JingleRing created its own video platform so the calls could run smoothly and not require families to download any new apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

“You can’t get a return on investment in just one season,” Geer said, “This is a long vision.”

The traditional retail-centered Santa visits are still happening this season. All of Tampa Bay’s malls work with the same Santa experience provider, which has been pushing appointment-only visits and 6-foot distance requirements.

A motorist waves back at Randy Maxey, who dressed as Santa and delivered season's greetings Saturday from atop the McMullen Booth Road bridge along the Ream Wilson Trail.
A motorist waves back at Randy Maxey, who dressed as Santa and delivered season's greetings Saturday from atop the McMullen Booth Road bridge along the Ream Wilson Trail. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Maxey, a writer and editor for a woodworking magazine, didn’t feel comfortable doing that. But since he’s a first-year Santa, he said the video calls give him a chance to ease into the role. Geer said he’s a natural and he has that “special twinkle in his eye.”

“It’s more than just putting on a red suit and saying, ‘ho, ho, ho’” Geer said.

Maxey’s “ho, ho, ho” comes deep from his belly and his cheeks are naturally a bit red. In the lead up to the video calls, Maxey has started spending afternoons under the trail bridge near McMullen Booth Road and Drew Street waving at cars. He knows at least one 4-year-old in his neighborhood thinks he’s the real Santa.

Once he’s in Santa mode, it can be hard to turn it off.

“I’ve been doing this for about 1,500 years,” Maxey said, “and it doesn’t get any easier.”