Even Santa Claus deals with traffic.
Rather than maneuver the congestion on the Black Horse Pike, Saint Nick takes the back roads up Ocean Heights and English Creek avenues to get to Storybook Land to turn on the lights by 5 p.m. every day.
"I try to stay off of (Route) 40," says the jolly old elf.
Santa Claus has been a fixture at Storybook Land's Fantasy of Lights feature for more than 25 years. The spectacle began as simple decorations and has expanded into an extravagant winter wonderland.
More than 1 million lights now adorn the amusement park in Egg Harbor Township, and at the center of it all tucked away in their quaint chalet are Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Every day at 5 p.m., Santa is lifted up through the chimney, greets the throng of children, and with his magic wand illuminates the grand display.
It takes a the effort of more than 100 employees to get the park ready for Santa.
Jessica Fricano, marketing director for Storybook Land, says they begin installing the holiday lights, which are mostly LED, in September. Then after Halloween they kick it into high gear, draping the entire park in coordinated lights, and decorating each ride and exhibit with holiday cheer.
"The first time you see them on, at the grand arrival, it is really a special moment," says Fricano. "We actually watch the lights go on every night. You never get tired of seeing it."
The grand arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Claus took place Saturday, Nov. 19. Employees start at 7 a.m. inspecting rides, cleaning up leaves and lining up floats for the parade.
Thousands of visitors came to the park to watch the Clauses ride in on their sleigh. Then a line of children wrapped around the park to get a chance to tell Santa their Christmas wishes.
"Saturday was as busy as I have seen it," Fricano says. "But no matter how long the line is, they still take time with each kid. It was 9:30 and we still had a line here. We stayed here until every kid had equal amounts of time with Santa Claus."
After Santa's one hour commute to Storybook Land, it takes another hour for him to prepare to greet the children.
It takes him 20 minutes to get dressed in his red suit, complete with black boots (not galoshes) and white gloves. Santa says he has 18 pairs of gloves. After a day of picking up children, the gloves get pretty gray, and he regularly bleaches them in Clorox.
He wears a bracelet of sleigh bells around his wrists. Santa says the jingle helps keep the little ones focused while sitting on his lap, especially if they are rambunctious or wiggling around.
"I will just hold them and they will play with the bells, or jingle the bells. It's something to get their mind off of where they really are," he says.
As part of the preparation, he applies wax to his mustache ("I do that so I can eat," he says) and turns off his cell phone (Santa's ring tone? Jingle Bells, of course).
But the special part of the outfit is Santa's authentic pearly white beard. He has it groomed regularly by his stylist, Amanda. He jokes that when toddlers pull on his whiskers those are tears in his eyes, not a twinkle.
"I had a kid tug on (my beard) the other day and his dad came right over to make sure it didn't come off. I said, ‘I'm not a mall Santa Claus. I am the real one.'"
On busy nights at Storybook Land, St. Nick deals with upwards of 400 children. He says he has to shift knees once in a while to keep from getting too sore. In addition, Santa has a torn rotator cuff from a skiing accident.
"All of the kids aren't little. I am thinking about getting a little stool so they just have to take one step up," he says. "Thank God for ibuprofen."
When dealing with that many children, Santa has learned a few tricks over the years.
He spends a lot of time watching public television to stay up to date on the latest adventures of Thomas the Train and other favorites.
When children are afraid to approach Santa's lap, he says the best thing is not to force them. If parents really want the picture taken with Santa, he says he will have the children back into him facing away so they don't see him.
"When the kids finally got in here, they had to stand in line for 45 minutes. They are tired and cold, and they come around the corner and freak out," he says. "I just tell them, there's always next year, or just come back later. We will still be here."
Even when the children are brave enough to climb on to Santa's lap, sometimes they forget what it is they want for Christmas. Santa has to play some games with them to jog their memory.
For a little girl suffering from amnesia, Santa will say, "I know what you want. You want a dump truck. She says, ‘I don't want a dump truck.' Well, what do you want? Then all of a sudden she comes up with her list."
An integral part of the operation, and just as much of an attraction as Santa himself, is kindly Mrs. Claus.
Mrs. Claus greets children at the door of the chalet and ushers them in to greet Santa. It is her duty to keep the kids entertained while they wait in line, as well as making sure all gum is thrown out and runny noses are wiped.
But not before Mrs. Claus gets a big hug from each child.
"You have to love children and you have a lot of fun with them," she says.
Over the years, Mrs. Claus says she has met thousands of children, and she remembers them all. One year, a little girl was biting her fingernails while in line. Mrs. Claus asked her to promise not to do it anymore. When the girl came back the next year, she made a point to show Mrs. Claus how beautiful her fingernails were.
"There are a lot of memories with the little ones. When they see you again every year, they say, do you remember me?" she says.
YEAR AFTER YEAR
Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will be at Storybook Land every night through Dec. 23. On Jan. 2, the crews will start the long process of breaking down the holiday spectacle.
Bill Melfi, operations and ride trainer, says all of the lights are completely planned out, and the coils must be organized and packed away neatly. In fact, each coil of light is documented as it is stashed away to ensure an easy set up for next year.
"None of the lights just get thrown in place. Everything is planned out," Melfi says. "They are put away specifically so we avoid tangles. We don't just coil them up in a ball and put them in a box. It is very precise."
In addition, the entire park is cleaned and all of the rides are taken apart and put back together in order to prepare for the next year.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Claus will await children in their cottage until Christmas Eve arrives and it is time to deliver toys to all of the good boys and girls around the world.
"I always ask the kid if they have been good. Of course, they always are," says Santa. "Then I say, all the time? Well, that is usually the time they make eye contact with their mother."
"Ho, ho, ho."