Local Santa traditions reimagined amid pandemic

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERCapital Photo owner Jim Valentino stands in front of the chair where Santa Claus will sit behind a piece of plexiglass in Crossgates mall on Friday.


Capital Photo owner Jim Valentino stands in front of the chair where Santa Claus will sit behind a piece of plexiglass in Crossgates mall on Friday.

GUILDERLAND — Whether naughty or nice, kids will have to tell Santa Claus through a pane of plexiglass using a two-way touchless intercom system.

And lap visits are out.

The roly-poly figure will touch down at Crossgates mall from the North Pole to find a dramatically altered landscape.

No longer will Father Christmas hold court from his perch in the center of the mall, but rather in a converted storefront designed to resemble his personal office, replete with throne and festive decor.

“Crossgates Santa Experience” launches Saturday.

Capital Photo owner Jim Valentino has been working on the concept since spring, when coronavirus prompted him to zap his Easter program before the state-mandated shutdown orders.

“Really we began preparing for Christmas then,” Valentino said.

In an era when virtually every aspect of life has been disrupted, Valentino took stringent measures to ensure a safe environment, including four separate waiting areas, plexiglass dividers at several checkpoints and installation of a MERV-11 air circulation system.

Visits are available by appointment only and groups are capped at six. Everyone must be buzzed into the storefront located across from Dave & Busters on the mall’s first floor and receive a health screening.

Valentino’s been running the experience since 1987. It wasn’t a question of if he’d soldier on, but how.

“It’s been a labor of love for me,” he said. “What we’re really selling is an experience — not a photo.”

Valentino acknowledged the old incarnation would have to be scrapped. Typical years saw lines swell to as many as 400 people, a measure that would be impossible in the current climate when caseloads are surging.

Albany County reported 140 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, the second highest one-day total since the beginning of the pandemic.

And the state reported 219,442 test results were reported back on Friday — a record high.

But with 8,176 positives, it’s also the biggest single-day number since April 24, when 10,553 tested positive, according to the state’s online COVID tracker.

Numbers have regularly hovered above 5,000 since Nov. 16.

To ensure the most wonderful time of the year stays that way, Valentino is trying to wrap pandemic-induced restrictions into the experience.

From the outside, the storefront will include an aura of mystique. And inside, the experience will be branded to present an image of the heavyweight toymaker studiously overseeing his operation, replete with video monitors of conveyor belts whizzing past.

Families can also meet with Santa in a 10-minute Zoom call.

The revamped experience isn’t the only local long-running Christmas tradition modified as a result of the pandemic:

Ending a long-running tradition, Macy’s has spiked in-person Santa experiences and pivoted to an online model.

And while Saratoga Springs’ annual holiday event, Victorian Streetwalk, is still on, it’s been rebranded as a month-long event dubbed “Victorian Streetscapes.”

Much of the interactive element has been stripped out, including a firsthand encounter with Santa in his cottage next to the tree.

The official kickoff to the season will be a virtual event Thursday, Dec. 3 on Facebook Live at 6 p.m., when Mayor Meg Kelly “lights up the tree.”

Christmas-themed structures and decorations will remain, but Santa will instead be zipping around town on a ladder fire truck on six different dates.

Dates, as well as neighborhoods that Santa will visit, will be available on saratogaspringsdowntown.com.

Kids are invited to deposit their letters in Santa’s mailbox on the front of the cottage, organizers said.

Saratoga’s Star Radio will also resume its “The Talk Live with Santa Show!”

Parents can register their children to talk to Santa for five evenings in December.

The program will air Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dec. 8, 10, 15, 17 and 22 from 6 to 8 p.m.

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