Santa Claus is a familiar sight at Vancouver Mall during the holiday season, but this year he has a new Hollywood-inspired home base that dwarfs anything seen in prior years.
The new display is dubbed “The Polar Express” after the 2004 movie starring Tom Hanks, and was designed and built in collaboration with the movie’s distributor, Warner Bros.
The set is built around a 30-foot-tall Christmas tree in the mall’s H&M courtyard, with an accompanying clock tower and a large moon suspended from the ceiling to help re-create the ambiance of the North Pole as seen in the film.
Families lined up in the waiting area are greeted with views of the front end of a steam engine (numbered 1225, of course) emerging from a tunnel, complete with lighting, sound effects and regular bursts of “smoke” from its stack.
Visitors who reach the front of the line are greeted, not by elves, but by a team of train conductors who escort them around the circle to a green screen where they can take pictures with a choice of holiday backdrops, followed by a visit with Santa himself.
“It’s more than just taking pictures; it’s an experience now,” said Tracey Peters, general manager of the mall.
Peters said the set is designed for the selfie era, with plenty of opportunities both inside and outside for families to stop and take photos.
The whole set is designed to be more eye-catching and tactile, and it includes other high-tech components such as an augmented reality app that lets users insert themselves into screenshots from the movie.
“Typical Santa pictures have kind of fallen a bit,” Peters said. “People needed something a little bit more than just the typical Santa photos.”
Previous Santa sets have been in the Sears and J.C. Penney courtyards, but mall facility manager Pete Allen said the sheer size of the Polar Express set ruled out every location except the H&M courtyard, the mall’s largest.
“(The set) is probably twice to three times bigger,” he said.
Planning for the revamped Santa set began at the beginning of the year, Peters said, as soon as the previous holiday season was wrapped up.
Vancouver Mall’s parent company, Centennial, formed a partnership with Warner Bros. and another company to create four new custom-built Santa sets based on various movies or popular themes. Vancouver Mall is the highest-performing mall in the Centennial lineup when it comes to Santa visits, Peters said, so it was first in line to receive a new set.
The other displays are starting out in Centennial malls in Connecticut, California and Illinois, Peters said. The four sets will be rotated each year, so Vancouver Mall can expect to see another all-new display each year for the next several years.
The set made its debut Nov. 14, and Santa officially arrived during an event on Nov. 16 (if that seems a little early, Allen notes, it’s because Thanksgiving was later than usual this year).
Visits with Santa will be available daily through Dec. 24. More information about pricing and scheduling can be found at shopvancouvermall.com/events.
A series of specific events are also planned throughout the month, kicking off with a “Wake Up Santa” event that was scheduled for Saturday. Attendees were tasked with waking Santa up from his post-Thanksgiving nap by cheering loud enough to max out a “Believe-o-meter.”
Next up is today’s sensory-friendly “Santa Cares” event. The event is designed to provide an opportunity for children with special needs and their families to visit with Santa in a calming environment. This event requires advance registration at shopvancouvermall.com/events.
Then there’s the “Santa Paws” event every Wednesday from Dec. 4-18. From 6 to 9 p.m., well-behaved leashed or kenneled pets can accompany their owners to meet Santa and take photos. Pets must enter the mall through the main south-side entrance next to the Outback Steakhouse restaurant, and they must remain in the H&M court.
The final event is “Flick with St. Nick” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday. Families can enjoy a morning filled with games, cookie decorating, hot cocoa and a visit with Santa outside the AMC theater at the mall, followed by a holiday movie. Tickets cost $10 and will benefit Share, a local nonprofit that provides services to individuals facing hunger or homelessness.
The mall will also feature “Merry Makers” caroling events at locations throughout the mall from 1 to 5 p.m. Dec. 14, Dec. 15 and Dec. 20 through Dec. 23.
Some of the events are long-standing traditions, Peters said, but others are more recent. Santa Cares was added after Centennial purchased the mall at the end of 2015, and the Wake Up Santa event is new this year.