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Santa says, 'Buy my picture'

The days of free snapshots are waning. Some area malls insist parents buy professional picture packages of kids with the jolly old elf.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published December 21, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
Rob Smith photographs his children, Amanda, 23 months, Catherine, 8, and Bobby, 10, with Santa at Westfield Citrus Park on Tuesday afternoon. The Westfield mall is one of the few that still allows parents to snap their own photos with Santa without buying a photo package.

Some things about visiting Santa at the mall are timeless: dressing up in red and green, rehearsing a toy list (making sure Santa hears at least the top three items on it), tears of terror from baby siblings and the tummy butterflies when a gentle tug on Santa's beard proves he's the real deal.

But in recent years, camera-toting parents have faced a sign of the times. At WestShore Plaza in South Tampa, it says: "To our valued customers: We will always offer a FREE visit to Santa. If you prefer however, to photograph our set, cast or licensed characters, we have a minimum photo purchase policy. Please ask the set employees for details."

Five years ago, parents could click away for free while kids rattled off Christmas wishes on Santa's lap. But now, several Tampa Bay area malls require parents to pay professional picture prices if they want to capture the moments on their own cameras.

What sparked the change? The advent of the digital camera, said Tom Locke, the general manager of University Mall in Tampa, which changed its policy four years ago.

"We would allow people to take pictures before, but with digital photos, it's totally a different world. They can be sent anywhere in the world and can be reproduced," Locke said. "Every child can see Santa - they don't have to pay anything to see Santa. We only charge to take pictures with Santa."

Julie Cavoris from Largo learned the hard way about the policy change when she took her 3-year-old daughter to Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. She'd been taking her older kids there for 10 years, and this year, it was her youngest daughter's turn.

But when her husband tried to use his camera instead of purchasing a photo package, Cavoris said the photographer stopped him, telling him company policy required a minimum purchase. She felt it was a Grinchy thing to do.

"There are many parents stretched so financially tight this time of year. No parent should be robbed of the opportunity to capture such a fleeting moment in a child's life," Cavoris wrote the Times in a letter to the editor.

The Westfield malls in Citrus Park, Brandon and Countryside still allow parents to snap away for free, said marketing director Mary Ellen Norton. She said most shoppers still opt for the professional packages, but they appreciate being given the choice.

After tracking her 6-year-old daughter Kayce through the giant Narnia-themed snow globe in Tampa's International Plaza, one of the stops on the way to see Santa Claus, Sheila Rhoden said she didn't mind paying a little bit more for snapshots of her daughter sprinkled in synthetic snowflakes. The Oldsmar mom said she'd pay for the photo package on one condition: "as long as they let me take my own pictures too."

At WestShore Plaza, Debbie Hittner of Carrollwood stood in front of the sign, contemplating whether to spring for snapshots or to just let her 4-year-old granddaughter Neyda Gonzalez's first meeting with Santa go undocumented.

"If they're reasonable, I don't mind paying," she said. The $17.99 package - one 5-by-7 and two 31/2-by-5 photos seemed okay. She tried to pay with a check, but Santa's helper said only a credit card or cash would do. So after grandma hit the ATM that afternoon, Neyda would get to see Santa twice that day.

"This so-called "company policy' is completely devoid of Christmas spirit and reeks of the Christmas commercialism that everyone complains about," Cavoris said.

But Locke said the spirit of the Santa setup hasn't changed.

"It's always, in my mind, been about Santa and not about the picture," Locke said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or at azayas@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 21, 2005, 00:51:17]


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