Good Santa Hunting

You want face time with the Big Guy? Hand over some plastic, Mom.

Regardless of the damage done by David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries and Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa, the wide-eyed hope inspired by Santa lives on. Tots dressed in their holiday best still ritually queue up with their haggard parents to create the kind of endearing memories that will later fuel pre-rehab interventions. As long as malls exist, it seems, so will mall Santas — along with their pimps ready to turn Christmas lists into profit.

When it comes to mall Santas, the rule of thumb is that there are no free lap dances. If you want to get with the Man in Red, you're going to first hand over some plastic to Mrs. Claus or some other sentry.

But how do local Santas rate? To find out, I put into play a covert operation at five malls in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties, along with my trusty research assistant — we'll call her Subject J. — a newly minted second-grade teacher whose well-considered response to the mission was, "Yay! Santa!"

In our highly scientific rating system, each Santa received from 1 (low) to 5 (high candy canes in five categories — North Pole "set," Santa's appearance, Santa's presentation, supporting characters, and, finally, relative cost for a simple 5x7 photo op. Then we added up the candy canes to get an overall rating. Here are the somewhat unexpected findings.

Boca Raton Town Center, 6000 W. Glades Rd., Boca Raton:

Santa's "Enchanted Forest" turns out to be an unobtrusive stealth camp perfectly suiting Boca, a gated community forest of trees and critters — rabid-looking squirrels and rabbits — guarded by Santa's handlers. And he has lots of handlers, none of them in cheery costume. It turns out that Santa's previous job was as an Indiana state motorcycle cop. His worn, black, leather Santa shoes were once his cop boots. (Whatever you do, don't ask him to slip a new bong into your stocking.) Since he retired from the force, Santa told Subject J., he just loves keeping the spirit of Santa alive. Aww. He also tickled her.

Price? A painful $19.99. Scores: Set (4), Appearance (5), Presentation (5), Characters (2), Cost (1).

Coral Ridge, 3200 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale:

While Boca's Town Center has Neiman Marcus, Coral Ridge has Marshall's, and its North Pole is also low rent. It's like Candyland come to life, with creepy mechanical elves repeatedly bowing. Santa didn't jiggle so much, although Subject J. reported, "He had a good laugh." Moreover, he turned out to be the "People's Santa," and kids walked up to mingle without fear of charge. "Everyone can talk to Santa," smiled Mrs. Claus, who said she's been manning her station for 14 years. In true nurturing fashion, even though Santas may come and go, Mrs. Claus is still here sculpting balloon art for every passing mall rat.

Price? Seven bucks, and Santa takes cash only. Scores: Set (2), Appearance (4), Presentation (4), Characters (5), Cost (5).

Galleria Mall, 2414 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale:

The Galleria's North Pole is red, red, red, like a Santeria bloodletting in Hialeah or an Amsterdam bordello. Yikes. It's also an afterthought, pushed far to the mall's eastern no-man's land of empty storefronts, directly facing Victoria's Secret. It's gated, just like Boca's, and also guarded by nasty-looking red reindeer sculpted out of wire. They may as well hang up a neighborhood watch sign. S.C. didn't smile too much. He also got flustered by Subject J.'s wish for an iPod. You'd think Santa would know about pod-casting. And the supporting characters seemed more like shoe salesmen than elves as they handed out price lists to the folks in line.

Price? $10.99. Scores: Set (3), Appearance (3), Presentation (3), Characters (1), Cost (4).

Dadeland Mall, 7535 N. Kendall Dr., Kendall:

For our experiment's Dade County component, unfortunately, Subject J. was not available, as she had already headed home to the Lone Star state for her graduation into teacherhood. So I queued solo to take one for the team, in more ways than one. Not only did I have to sit my fat ass on Dadeland's tiny Santa but I had to drive to Kendall to do it. "It's for my grandma," I told him. "She's in prison."

Santa's world, with its pine-wreath-entwined canopy, is like an outdoor Victorian boudoir, and huge Christmas tree ornaments dangle from the dome above like a cool Yuletide Foucault's Pendulum display that Alexander Calder might have created on some speed-induced lost weekend. Santa didn't have much to say as I crushed him and brushed up against his fake beard, faker than Pamela Anderson's breasts. And his handlers, wearing garish, ornament-ridden neckties, were more South Beach than North Pole. "You look like a little Ricky Martin!" one shrieked at the kid in front of me.

Price? $13.99. Scores: Set (5), Appearance (1), Presentation (2), Characters (3), Cost (2).

Aventura Mall, 19501 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami Beach:

Santa rests at the wide base of a huge Christmas tree Tower of Babel, maybe 50 feet high, with layers of snowmen, stuffed bears, and ballerinas rising menacingly toward heaven. The set doesn't quite work, though. In Santaland, size doesn't really matter. Kudos to the elves, though, who wore snazzy, red-velvet vests that, get this, matched Santa's snazzy vest. Although I arrived just as Santa was closing for the night and was shrugged away from the line, I did observe his performance, which he nailed, especially the way he gracefully cradled a sleeping baby no more than two months old. Unfortunately, I also witnessed a near brawl as a distraught mom fought with the elves barring her from taking her own photos in addition to the pics she bought. Bad, bad North Pole karma.

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