Santa now free at Cherry Hill Mall

Santa now free at Cherry Hill Mall

David O'Reilly and Jason Laughlin, Inquirer Staff WritersLast updated:Tuesday, November 17, 2015, 1:07 AM

Posted:Monday, November 16, 2015, 4:45 PM



Santa no longer needs payment up front to hear children's Christmas wishes at Cherry Hill Mall.

The mall announced Monday that it would allow free access to its Adventure to Santa attraction, which garnered harsh criticism from parents who learned they had to pay at least $35 to see Santa Claus.

"In the spirit of the holiday season, we want to keep things festive and bright," a statement Monday by mall management said. "We have heard and value our loyal customers' feedback and as a result, have decided to remove the photo package purchase requirements."

Adventure to Santa features not just a jolly old elf, but a simulated sleigh ride to the North Pole, digital games for kids, and regular concerts from "holiday elves." The attraction was available only to people who paid for one of the photo packages, which ranged in price from $35 to $50.

Parents complained that while charging for photo packages was the norm for mall Santas, in most malls every kid could visit Santa free. Parents also noted that the Adventure to Santa attraction was free last year. Families were charged for photo packages, but all children could get in without paying.

"I'm glad to hear it. It's the right thing to do," Shannon Vasile of Collingswood said about the mall's decision. Her indignant Facebook response over the weekend to the mandatory fee was one of many on social media that compelled the mall's owner, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, to back down. Local TV stations descended on the mall Monday after The Inquirer reported on the consumer backlash.

"I thought it really wasn't inclusive," Vasile, 38, said Monday. "I thought of all the people walking by that big, attractive installation and couldn't afford to access it."

Vasile said she does not have children but has fond memories of visiting Santa as a child. "Of course, it was a lot simpler then," she said. "No digital igloos and all of that."

Cherry Hill Mall's Facebook page was laced with vituperation Monday.

"You are horrible! Who charges a family to see Santa? I will never shop at your mall again. So sad because I grew up going there. I even worked there. You're disgusting," wrote one.

"Well, we got feedback from our shoppers," Ashlyn Delson, a representative for PREIT, said Monday. "Some were not pleased with our decision" to charge a fee. "They said, this is not what the holiday's about. So we listened."

Under the new policy, anyone can pass through the exhibit and meet Santa, but must pay for photos if they choose to have them.

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Despite the outrage on social media, parents taking their children through the elaborate display Monday evening said they had no problem paying to see Santa.



"It was neat," said Trish Strehle, 32, of Cherry Hill, as her husband, Justin, holding 4-week-old Hudson in his arms, extended his credit card to a woman behind a cash register.

"We paid $35," she said. "I think it was worth it. For that, we get two 5-by-7 [photos], two 4-by-6, and four wallet photos and an online image" of Santa holding Hudson - who slept through the photo shoot.

"They told us it would be better not to wake him," she said.

Asked if she thought it was acceptable for a mall to charge to see Santa, she looked surprised.

"I can't imagine not charging to see Santa," she said. "Are there malls that don't? I'm new at this."

Rob and Katie Ferroni of Delran, who took their 3-year-old daughter, Allison, and 6-month-old son, Daniel, to see Santa, paid for the $50 photo package, which included prints, a jump drive of the images, and video of the encounter with Santa.

'What was your favorite part?" Rob Ferroni asked Allison. "The sleigh ride? Or seeing Santa?"

She hesitated.

"Santa?" her father asked.

"Yah!" she said.

The adventure cost the Ferronis more than just the photo fees, however. When Allison spotted a $20 stuffed green Shrek doll on sale at the exit, she had to have it.

"She loves Shrek," her mother explained.

The culmination of the approximately 15-minute tour through Santa's timbered, tile-roofed chalet ends in Santa's book-lined study, where he waits on a velvet sofa for families to enter.

Asked his name, the authentic-looking Santa on duty Monday evening smiled and replied with a Southern drawl "Santa Claus. St. Nicholas. Kriss Kringle."

When the drawl was noted, he replied, "Well, I've spent a lot of time at the South Pole."

Moments later, a door opened and 4-year-old Serenity Thompson of Houston entered, accompanied by her grandparents and several great-aunts. She was here visiting relatives in Pennsauken.

"Welcome to the North Pole," Santa called out, and Serenity made a beeline for him. "I've been looking for you all day," he told her, and took her in his arms.

They chatted briefly. "My dog feels better," she told him.

"I'm glad to see that," Santa replied omnisciently.

She posed for photos, saying "Cheese" and "Merry Christmas" at her grandmother's urging. When Santa asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she shrugged.

When they were done, Santa had her count to three and blew some "magic dust" on her, which would transport her, he explained, from the North Pole to Cherry Hill Mall, which sat outside his door, along with the cash register.

Serenity's grandmother Fay Thompson spent about five minutes with a sales clerk discussing how the photos could be turned into Christmas cards. She chose Santa and Serenity in a snow globe, surrounded by the words "From Serenity With Love 2015."

"I paid $50," Thompson said as the family headed for the Lego store. "I thought it was great."

doreilly@phillynews.com

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