Malls Opening Early To Accommodate Santa Time For Kids With Special Needs Is Magical Perfection


Malls can be chaotic to begin with, but when it comes to the holidays– they are total insanity. I try to steer as clear as possible from any mall in the few weeks prior to Christmas (thanks, Amazon!), because, well, PEOPLE.

There’s just so many of them out there….


Call me The Grinch, but I even used to be pretty “bah-humbug” even about the celebrated holiday mall tradition: photos with Santa. Wait on too long a line to spend too much precious cash on a pic of my kid looking terrified while perched on mall Santa’s lap?


But I’ve changed my crusty view: mall Santas have begun to make my tiny, icy, Grinchy heart swell with Christmas cheer, thanks to a recent shift in their Santa routine.

Some malls across the country are now holding special days where they will open earlier to allow special needs children to interact with Santa in a calmer, quieter atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Autism Speaks

The program is known as “Santa Cares”, and is specifically designed to make a visit to Santa as comfortable and inclusive as possible for anyone with special needs. 

Cherry Hill Programs, a company that creates seasonal events at venues across the country collaborated with Autism Speaks, a foundation dedicated to promote autism awareness and advocacy.

Together the two set out to create a Santa visit that would accommodate families with special needs, and invited malls across the country to participate.

According to Autism Speak’s website description, “Santa Cares” is a:

Sensory-friendly event for children and family members with all spectrums of special needs to enjoy the time-honored tradition of the Santa Photo Experience in a calming environment prior to public hours. 

Malls are typically crowded and over-stimulating to begin with, but these qualities tend to peak during the holiday season.

Think about how overwhelmed little ones can get by the chaos of the holidays. There are constant lights, sounds, commercials, crowds, shopping, etc. If it’s a lot for an adult to take in, how much more intense must it be for a child?

For some children on the spectrum, sensory overload can already be a challenge- but it certainly shouldn’t be a factor that limits them from enjoying a visit with Santa.

To that end, “Santa Cares” days begin early, before the mall opens to the general shopping public. 

The lights in the area are dimmed, and any music is lowered to a subdued volume. In order to reduce overcrowding, most malls issue numbered tickets to families so that each family can enjoy an individual visit with Santa.

To truly promote inclusivity, the individuals that are contracted to be Santa for “Santa Cares” days are specifically trained on how to best interact with their special needs visitors.

Photo Credit: Autism Speaks

So far this year, “Santa Cares” has debuted an impressive 747 times, at 582 shopping centers across the U.S. and Canada. 

The program truly embodies the Christmas spirit of love and compassion. ALL children should be able to enjoy the time-honored tradition of a visit with Santa.

All families deserve to create special holiday memories, & it’s admirable that Autism Speaks & Cherry Hill Programs created such a wonderful way to make that possible. Hopefully this is a trend that will carry on into other meaningful public events!

If you are interested in attending a “Santa Cares” event near you, check here for availability in your area. 


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