Does your child need a pony? How NJ malls are handling Santa visits during COVID

David P. Willis Alex Biese
Asbury Park Press

Santa Claus is taking reservations.

With New Jersey and the nation still in the tight grip of the coronavirus pandemic, malls at the Jersey Shore are preparing for a different Santa experience.

Over the summer, malls boosted their cleaning procedures, encouraged social distancing and made hand sanitizers available so they could reopen after a statewide shutdown. And now changes are coming to Santa's visit, too.

You won't be able to sit on Kris Kringle's knee to give him your Christmas list or pose for photos. Instead, it'll be a contactless experience. 

Santa will wear a mask and be socially distant from his small fans. You'll need to make an appointment through the malls' websites and schedule a time to see Old St. Nick.

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Santa Claus is wearing a face mask and is positioned behind a plexiglass shield as precautions against the spread of COVID-19 at Cherry Hill Mall.

It's all in an effort to keep children and facilities safe, not to mention Santa.

“The mantra this year is: ‘I love giving you presents, but I refuse to give you the virus,’” said Lance Skapura, a board member and communications and marketing officer with the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

How are things different this year? Santa may be sitting in his chair or sleigh at a distance from visitors.  See the video at the top of this story to see Santa's arrival at Cherry Hill Mall. At this mall, Santa is behind a plastic shield. 

Skapura, a Santa at The Waterfront mall in Homestead, Pennsylvania, said he'll be stationed in a workshop setting, sitting behind a desk. "Basic photographic trickery" will allow for photos that will seem as if kids and Santa are closer together, Skapura said.

Previously, he'd sit on a throne like chair and kids would sit on his knee to talk with him, he said.

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Lance Skapura works as Santa Claus at The Waterfront mall in Homestead, Pennsylvania and is a board member for the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

Santa is one of a variety of ways that mall operators try to increase foot traffic during the holiday shopping season. But with COVID-19, it could be a tough year.

With an earlier start this year, shoppers are expected to spend 1.9% more this holiday season, states a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers. But while 81% of shoppers expect to visit a store, only 45% expect to visit a shopping center or mall, according to a report on the survey by

But the coronavirus can't stop a holiday figure that chortles ho-ho-ho.

Santa arrives at Freehold Raceway Mall on Nov. 20. "Careful consideration has been given to our sets to ensure that they are both healthy and magical to meet the moment," said Debra Panzarella, the mall's senior manager for marketing.

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Santa will be seated in his sleigh among decorated trees. "A festive decor divider will help maintain social distancing guidelines between families and Santa," she said.

At Monmouth Mall in Eatontown, Santa will arrive on Nov. 27.

He'll be seated in his chair on an elevated platform. His visitors will sit on a white bench 6 feet from him.

"He will have that appropriate amount of distance between him and her guest," said Rachel Wille, a spokeswoman for Brookfield Properties, which owns Monmouth Mall.

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This year, the mall is also partnering with to offer a virtual experience where kids can talk to Santa over the internet.

"It is something we are trying, to enhance the Santa experience for those folks who wish to stay home and still have a visit with Santa," said Jim Staveley, senior general manager at Monmouth Mall.

Families can arrange for a Santa that speaks a different language, share information about the kids ahead of time for a personalized experience and watch on up to four devices, Wille said. "It's a way to get everyone together."

Ocean County Mall in Toms River will host Santa starting Nov. 20 through Christmas Eve. Simon Property Group promises a "safe and socially distanced Santa visit for families as part of the Simon Santa Photo Experience."

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Cherry Hill Programs, which runs Santa's visits, said guests should try to schedule their visit in advance.

"The intent here is to reduce wait times, encourage social distance and promote contactless payments,"  the company said. "Walk-up visits will be available as space allows throughout the day, but reservations are strongly encouraged."

David P. Willis, an award-winning business writer, has covered business and consumer news at the Asbury Park Press for more than 20 years. He writes's What's Going There column and can be reached at