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Sensory-friendly Santa is coming to town: How he’s different and where to find him in Palm Beach County

Palm Beach Post - 11/14/2019

Dim the lights, lower the music: Santa is coming to town, and he's bringing a quieter, calmer experience for children with autism and other sensory-processing disorders.

Sensory-friendly Santas -- often called "Soothing Santas", "Caring Santas" or "Sensitive Santas" -- are growing in popularity, with four shopping malls in Palm Beach County offering the interactions this holiday season.

Christmas is a time for flashing lights, bright colors and robust smells. It's a feast for the senses -- unless you have a sensory processing disorder.

Now retailers are taking steps to ensure holidays experiences are more inclusive for those who may be on the autism spectrum or have similar special needs.

At the Mall at Wellington Green, Santa speaks quietly and calmly to children. He has been known to sit on the floor and welcome children into his arms, or sit quietly by as they take in the space. At the Boynton Beach Mall, Santa takes his cue from parents, and will stay in his throne to greet children or get down on his knees to meet them in their wheelchairs.

Wellington Green partners with Mountaineer's School of Autism in West Palm Beach to ensure the experience is as welcoming as possible for all children, mall spokeswoman Rachelle Crain said.

Parents will be familiar with the long lines and hustle and bustle of typical mall Santa experiences.

But those long lines, bright lights and crowds can be hell for people with autism, said Mary Jo Walsh-Watson, founder and principal of Mountaineer's.

"They dim the lights, they bring the sound that is accompanying the experience down to a lower level, and it's a private event, so the long lines are not there," she said.

The entire event creates a magical experience for families, said Ed Boylan, general manager of the Boynton Beach Mall.

Boylan's is one of two malls in the area -- the other is Town Center at Boca Raton -- that partner with Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Productions for its sensory-friendly Santa experiences.

"The holiday season, with the additional lights and sounds, can be a difficult time for some children with autism," said Lindsay Naeder, senior director of mission delivery for Autism Speaks. "The holiday tradition of going into a busy mall and an unfamiliar space to meet Santa has become a bit easier for these children through the Caring Santa program."

Boynton Beach and Boca are two of 750 shopping centers in the U.S. and Canada that work with Autism Speaks to offer sensory-friendly Santa encounters, the organization said.

The Gardens Mall tucks its sensory-friendly Santa experience into Williams Sonoma, a quieter realm for the jolly old elf than the mall's center.

The Gardens Mall also "creates small scale, personal visits" for people with special needs to interact with Santa, a mall spokeswoman said.

The events can be emotional for families that may not have been able to get a photo with Santa in the past, Walsh-Watson said.

"You'll see parents and grandparents crying," she said. "They say, 'This is the first time I've gotten a picture with Santa and my child is smiling.'

"It's the sweetest thing ever," she said.


Mall at Wellington Green: 8:30 to 10 a.m.Nov. 16. Reservations required. RSVP at 561-932-3938. 10300 Forest Hill Blvd., Wellington.

Town Center at Boca Raton: 9 to 11 a.m.Dec. 1. To RSVP online, go to and click on Events. 6000 Glades Road, Boca Raton.

Gardens Mall: Dec. 1. For more information, call 561-775-7750. 3101 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens.

Boynton Beach Mall: 10 a.m. to noonDec. 8. RSVP link coming soon at 801 N. Congress Ave., Boynton Beach.


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