Last year I waited three hours for a visit with Santa at a mall in LA.  After about two minutes with Santa, my son was rushed out the door, and I was presented with options of print packages that were somewhere between $45 and a million bucks for an 8×10 and a sheet of wallet-sized photos.  Five years I had gone to that Santa, because I thought his decorations were most beautiful, the atmosphere was the most charming, yadda yadda ho ho ho, until I strolled into Santa Monica Place last week.

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In the middle of the mall was an adorable life-size gingerbread Santa’s house.  Instead of a long line of fussy kids and aggravated parents, there was a play area with giant coloring books and a field of Christmas trees made of colored lights.

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Two cheerful Santa’s helpers invited us in for photos.  Santa was jovial and took his time to hear my suddenly shy son mumble his wish list. We were given a proof of the photo on the spot and the option to buy a digital file for $9.99 so that I could make as many copies as I wanted.  As we exited, a light show – repeated hourly from 6-9pm – choreographed to holiday music flooded the plaza.

You would have thought it was Christmas!

As we wandered the mall, which is undoubtedly one of the loveliest around, the crowd was scant, which was great for us since there was no waiting anywhere for anything.  Hot cocoa at Chocolate Opulence, some sundry gifts at Bloomingdale’s, browsing at Tiffany & Co. and Swarovski – we practically had the place to ourselves.

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Upstairs HGTV—the architects of the Holiday House for Santa, had taken over one of the store fronts to create a pop-up showroom, full of HGTV HOME decorating items featured on the channel.

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Some of the HGTV talent were hanging out at the showroom offering decorating tips, free demonstrations and complimentary consultations by walk-in or appointment.  HGTV also created backdrops of the Santa Monica Pier and a wintery sledding scene where the kids could pose for fun pictures.

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I almost forgot about the parking, which was remarkably easy in the structure adjacent to the mall.  Granted, it was a week night, but with green- and red-light system that identifies vacant spots, we found parking within minutes.

Certainly crowds will pick up at Christmas draws closer, but the layout of the mall and the outdoor open space makes the shopping experience pleasant, sans fighting the hordes of people at some of LA’s other popular malls.  But hurry, because Santa departs Christmas Eve, though the HGTV activities will operate through January 1.

Santa Monica Place is located at 395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica, CA 90401.  For more information go to santamonicaplace.com.

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