Tampa Bay is at the mall seeing Santa Claus up close and personal again

Visits with Santa were curtailed last year in the pandemic, but at some malls now, little ones are having old-fashioned encounters with the famously bearded one. It feels almost normal, a parent said - “whatever that is.”
Harper Austin, 3, of Land O’ Lakes, approaches Santa, also known as Bob Distelcamp, 68, at International Plaza. In-person visits with St. Nick are back.
Harper Austin, 3, of Land O’ Lakes, approaches Santa, also known as Bob Distelcamp, 68, at International Plaza. In-person visits with St. Nick are back. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 14, 2021

TAMPA — One of 2-year-old Olivia Lee’s first words was “mask.”

“She kind of grew up in the pandemic,” said her mom, Elisse Lee.

Like many last year, Olivia’s family skipped the traditional holiday trip to see Santa for obvious reasons. But this year — with her parents, a new baby brother and a red bow in her hair — Olivia had a recent visit with St. Nick in the snowy center of Tampa’s International Plaza mall. A photographer clicked off a family photo, and afterward, dad secured Olivia’s festive red mask and squirted her hands with mall-provided sanitizer.

“She’s really excited,” her mom, a pharmacist, said as Olivia romped post-visit through a nearby giant snow globe. Last year, “we kind of had to put a lot of these things on hold.”

In 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, some retailers decided to forgo Santa visits in the name of health and safety — including Macy’s flagship store in New York City, where Santa had been making an appearance for more than 150 years. Malls that did have St. Nick often kept him masked and socially distanced, using everything from portable igloos to plexiglass barriers to big-screen Zooms.

This year, Santa’s back, with some local malls offering up the choice of “Sit With Santa” or “Socially Distanced Santa.” On a recent visit, many opted for up close, particularly for picture-taking purposes.

At Santa’s sprawling wonderland at International Plaza between a gourmet chocolate store and shoppers peering down from the second level in line to get into Louis Vuitton, Scooby Olivier and Jenna Crabtree had their son, 14-month-old Gage, in for his first visit. Santa opined that Gage looked like he’d been a good boy.

“He did really well,” Olivier said as Gage toddled past, his hair dusted in fake snow. “I think he was kind of in wonder of everything.”

It felt “kind of like getting normal again,” said Olivier, a bartender. “Whatever that is.”

Cherry Hill Programs, a provider of real-beard Santas (and later Easter Bunnies) across the country, is currently staffing them at International Plaza, Westshore Plaza, Westfield Brandon, Shops at Wiregrass, Tyrone Square, Lakeland Square, Gulf View Square in Port Richey and University Town Center in Sarasota. The company uses vaccinated Santas, except for those with religious or medical exemptions, and wellness and temperature checks are administered at the start of each shift, according to the Cherry Hill website.

At International Plaza, University of Tampa students Victoria DeLaurentis, 19, and Laura Finneran, 20, were secret Santa shopping when they decided to stop for a photo — one standing with Santa, aka Bob Distelcamp, the other kissing his cheeks.

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The sentiment was the same: “It’s nice to be somewhat back to normal,” Finneran said.

Dorothy Hicks brought daughter Aria, 10, and sons Liam, 7, and Peter, 5. Of Santa, they requested (respectively) a Polaroid camera, a light saber and a robot dinosaur.

Last year the kids were a little disappointed, but she explained Santa had to take the year off.

“They understood,” she said. “Santa didn’t want to get COVID.”

This year, she said, “it’s nice to see all the decorations, and everybody out.”

And she echoed the others: “It feels like normal, a little bit.”