Every holiday season, thousands of them descend upon strip malls, dressed in red velvet suits and black boots. They set up camp at the base of 30-feet-tall Christmas trees and refresh their knowledge of the names of all the reindeer. They probably even practice a few Ho ho hos in their dressing rooms.
That's right, it's mall Santa month, when brave parents dress their kids in matching sweater sets and drive them to the nearest shopping center for the coveted annual picture with Santa. But before you plop your kid on a stranger's lap and pray that he or she doesn't burst into tears (immediately, at least), here's a very scientific ranking of (almost) all the mall Santas in the Philadelphia area.
I started my quest to find the best mall Santa at the Macy's in Center City. After cluelessly wandering around the first floor for a few minutes, I mustered up enough courage to ask an employee where Santa was located, earning a quizzical look. This Santa, tucked away on the third floor, was easily the most difficult to find.
Things didn't really get better. Once I arrived on the Santa floor, I was herded into Dickens Village, a creepy walk-through puppet reenactment. As someone who used to have a phobia of mannequins and wax figures, I couldn't help but wonder if making families with small children walk by automated puppets was really the best idea.
Finally, at the end of all this, there was Santa! I was immediately impressed by his boots, which had sleigh bells on them. He also used a very soothing baby voice with the youngest visitors, which calmed frazzled parents, and brought out the "Ho ho ho!" The best part was that Macy's allows you to take pictures on your own phones and cameras instead of forcing you to buy their professionally produced packages.
Unfortunately, Santa's cabin was very poorly lit and cramped. The set also lacked decorations, which meant that parents had to make do with a painted tree behind Santa's bench. Macy's Santa was also the only Santa I saw with a fake beard, which was somewhat disappointing.
2 out of 4 chimneys. Macy's, 1300 Market St.
King of Prussia Mall
I expected King of Prussia to have the best Santas, being the biggest mall in the area. I was not disappointed — at first. The Santa in the Bloomingdale's Court was perched on a sleigh filled to the brim with glittery present boxes under a huge tree. There were even gaming consoles placed in the waiting area for the fidgeters. Santa also wore his red coat unbuttoned, which I thought was a more relaxed (and probably cooler) look.
However, I found King of Prussia's Santa to be less interactive and energetic than the other mall Santas I visited. That made sense, considering how many kids get ushered through for photos every day. In fact, King of Prussia actually has another Santa in the Nordstrom Court, with an even more elaborate setup of a carousel of reindeer.
King of Prussia might be a good pick if you're just looking for good photos, but look elsewhere if your kid is really excited about meeting Santa.
2.5 out of 4 chimneys. King of Prussia Mall, 160 N Gulph Rd., King of Prussia
If you're looking for a more intimate, rustic feel to your Santa photos, consider checking out Christmas Village's Santa. He's got a shack! He allows kids to pull on his beard for a "beard check!" This Santa was also easily the most adult-friendly Santa I encountered. While I was there, a group of adults came in and had their photos taken with him. The photographer encouraged the group to do silly poses, like pretending to kiss Santa, and patiently worked with them to select the best ones of the bunch.
This Santa said he saw a pretty even mix of adults and kids, which allows him to make the experience more customizable. But when asked if he could name all the reindeer, he admitted that he was a little rusty on his Santa knowledge and probably needed to brush up a bit.
3 out of 4 chimneys. Christmas Village, 1501 John F Kennedy Blvd.
Springfield Mall had the most traditional mall Santa, with multiple trees decked out with sparkling ornaments and a life-size Nutcracker. He was also stationed right under glass windows, making for great natural lighting. The photographers used squeaky toys to calm babies, and the line wasn't unbearably long.
Springfield Mall's Santa also made the time to listen to wish-list requests and passed out goodies after pictures. He had a good Santa voice, despite not having as convincing of a Santa belly. If you're looking for the most basic mall Santa with no frills, this one's probably your best bet.
3 out of 4 chimneys. Springfield Mall, 1250 Baltimore Pike, Springfield
Willow Grove Park Mall
After visiting a handful of malls, I finally found the best mall Santa in the Philadelphia area at Willow Grove Park Mall. Willow Grove's Santa radiated jolliness and holiday cheer with his red cheeks. He was also the most interactive, teaching kids secret handshakes and handing out candy canes. Not only that, he was the only Santa who acknowledged my presence — and the only one with a Mrs. Claus. (They are married in real life, according to employees.)
There was a long line when I stopped by, but it moved quickly because the photographers helped you select the best package for your needs before you stepped into the photo area. As an added bonus, the mall also has a balloon artist on site to entertain kids after they had their photos taken.
4 out of 4 chimneys. Willow Grove Park Mall, 2500 W. Moreland Rd., Willow Grove
I also visited the Cherry Hill, Oxford Valley, and Neshaminy Malls, but each of their Santas was on cocoa breaks at the times I visited, so they cannot receive official chimney ratings.