Taking a picture with Santa this year? Here are 11 tips to make it magical

pictures with santa secret tips
Photo credit: inhauscreative/Getty Images

Every year, more than 200,000 people from around the world visit Macy’s Santaland where they spend time with Santa and his elves, snap a picture, and hopefully leave with a special little feeling of magic. But speaking from experience — I am a five-year professional Santaland Head Elf, after all — more often than not, families leave with crying children, feelings of frustration and a hole in their pocket from the amount of money they just spent on a photo package.

Not all Santa experiences are created equal, and there are a few secret tips, tricks and hacks that can help make your picture with Santa more enjoyable and memorable.

Before we get to those, there are a couple things you need to know first:

Santaland elves are most likely improv or musical theater actors, not professional photographers or babysitters. So go ahead and lower your expectations about how good that Santa photo is going to turn out.

If your child is between 18–24 months, they will cry. They just will. Might as well embrace it! It doesn’t matter if your little ones are smiling and clapping and saying “Santa!” when they are 3 feet away from him while waiting in line. As soon as you sit them on his lap or next to him, they will cry.

Now, here are some ways you can make your visit to Santaland more magical.

1. Make a reservation

This started a few years ago as a solution to the never-ending line at Santaland. Not all Santalands participate in an online reservation system, but if you find one that does, it could save you some precious time. If your reservation time is a window (like 1 pm to 2 pm), make sure to arrive before 1 pm to guarantee your place. Even with a reservation, you’ll likely still have to wait, but it won’t be nearly as long.

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2. Take your own picture

Yes, there will be an “official photo” taken, but you don’t have any obligation to buy the overpriced average photo that was snapped on outdated equipment. You are much more likely to get an authentic picture (and some candids) on your phone or with your own camera.

3. Visit Santa, no matter your age

We love having visitors of all ages — especially because usually the adults don’t cry in the photos! Couples celebrating their first holiday together, moms and daughters on their annual shopping trip, co-workers taking a picture for their boss with Santa holding a sign saying “They’ve been good!”, millennials taking Santa selfies — truly, we love all visitors. If you have your phone on you, we’ll even take it for you. I can’t stress enough: You do not have to buy a photo or pay for anything to visit Santa.

4. Call ahead of time

For a super-smooth experience, call (or drop by during the week) before your visit and ask any burning questions you have. What color is the backdrop so that your kids can dress accordingly? Are there certain days where there is a Santa with a real beard versus a Santa with a fake beard? (Answer: Yes. If this matters to you, find out which day real-bearded Santa works.) When do Santa and the elves go on lunch break (so you can avoid the heartbreak of having just missed them)? Does Santa take pictures with dogs? Do you allow strollers in line? Does Santaland close at 8 pm or do they cut off the line at 8 pm? (Answer: Santaland closes at 8 pm — get there much earlier if you want to see Santa that day.)

If this picture is important to you, don’t be embarrassed about asking anything and everything you want to know. We have heard it all, don’t worry.

5. Plan the day and time of your visit strategically

Most Santalands open the day after Thanksgiving. If you want to have a pleasant experience, go before December 18th.

If your schedule allows it, go to Santaland in the earlier part of the week and in the earlier part of the day. Monday through Wednesday is usually pretty slow (except for the week leading up to Christmas), and you’ll get to spend so much time with Santa without feeling rushed, and that’s when the magic really happens.

6. Go as many times as you like

We become a part of some babysitters’ morning routines, and we love it. Of course, you won’t want to come on a Saturday afternoon more than once. But if you have the luxury of time, there is no limit to how many times you can see Santa.

7. FaceTime a family member

Maybe you don’t care to have your picture taken with Santa, but you know your nephew would flip out. Call him up on FaceTime and show him that you’re visiting with Santa

8. Bring distractions, snacks, quiet toys, etc., for the line

You know your kids better than anyone — will an iPad keep them busy for the hour-long wait in line? Great. But will they scream when you take it away from them moments before they are supposed to have a sweet moment with Santa? OK, then maybe bring a different distraction or toy. Small coloring books or dolls are great. And don’t forget about the elves! They are walking, talking distractions. If your kids are extroverts, encourage them to ask the elves questions about the North Pole or where Santa keeps his sleigh.

9. Tell the elves your child’s name (and your Elf on the Shelf’s name) so Santa will know it

We always try to remember as much as we can about each kid so we can whisper it to Santa ahead of time. It’s so magical when a kid is running up, and Santa says, “Hi Ellie! Your Elf on the Shelf Ralphie told me you’re wanting an American Girl doll this year,” and then you see Ellie look at her parents with the biggest wonder as if to say, “How did he know?!”

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10. Know why you’re going to Santaland in the first place

Does your child want to hand deliver his list to Santa and that’s the biggest priority? Awesome. Then maybe hold off on the pictures for a few minutes while they talk through the list.

Do you want a perfect picture for a holiday card of your baby’s first Christmas? Consider keeping your babe in comfy clothes and then changing them into their holiday best a few minutes before it’s their turn so that they look fresh. And bring a favorite toy that sings a song or something that can get their attention over by the camera since babies obviously can’t follow instructions to look at the camera. You’d be surprised how many people forget that logical reasoning when the pressure is on to take the perfect picture.

11. Do you just want a Santa selfie for the ‘gram? Do your thing!

Remember, we’re here to help you have the best experience. Santa and the elves do this job because we love the holidays and kids are hilarious. But we’re also human. Does your child need to leave the line to go to the bathroom? We understand, you’re not going to lose your place.

So be prepared, don’t be afraid to ask questions ahead of time and, above all else, slow down and enjoy the moment.