‘Santa’s Flight Academy’ has opened at Westfarms along with elves, snow, Santa, and a dozen interactive experiences.
By Ronni Newton
The days are getting shorter and the weather forecast for the next few weeks is looking downright chilly – perfectly coinciding with the arrival of Santa and the return of the Santa’s Flight Academy holiday experience at Westfarms.
Santa doesn’t really need the weather to be cold outside, because throughout the holiday season there will always be snow falling in West Hartford and Farmington – inside his 22-foot-tall enchanted sleigh that’s parked in Westfarms Center Court. The snow is just one part of the experience that will delight all of the young visitors as they they are guided by elves through the immersive state-of-the-art display before having a chance to chat with Santa.
This is the third year that the unique and interactive Santa’s Flight Academy has set the scene for the holidays at Westfarms as well as its other sister properties throughout the country. Nationwide, 250,000 children have enjoyed the experience over the past two years.
“All the buttons you’re not allowed to push at home, you can push here,” said Westfarms spokesperson Amanda Sirica.
The immersive experience gives children a chance to become part of Santa’s flight crew as the man in red prepares to leave the North Pole for his annual journey. The children are tasked with the important role of making sure that nothing interferes with his safe arrival and ability to deliver toys.
The state-of-the-art experience in a 3,000 square foot re-imagination of the North Pole begins at the kiosk where children get their flight crew badges and become “cadets.” Registration can be done in advance on Westfarms’ website or via the Westfarms app. Anyone who registered last year just needs to input their email address because the information has been saved in the system.
The badge – which each child gets to keep as a souvenir – includes his/her photo. The badge is coded so that each child receives a personalized experience, with his/her name appearing on screens at several locations.
Santa can get very busy this time of year, but there is a way for families to get a fast pass to visit the man in red. “This year people can take advantage of our ‘express lane,'” Sirica said. There are four slots available every hour, and they can be booked through the website or app. Fees apply, and vary based on the photo package selected.
Once a child has a badge, he or she is then “fitted” for a virtual flight suit based on height (measured by a candy cane ruler) and foot size (in comparison to an elf, reindeer, or Santa), and then gets to virtually try on the suit for size and do a bit of dancing as their image appears on the screen.
Other elements of the experience include a chance for all children to pull a lever that “loads” Santa’s sleigh, and then check to see his travel routes throughout the world light up on a map.
“Our goal is to make every child feel like a hero at the end of this action-packed journey, as Santa’s sleigh won’t make it around the world without their help,“ said Ray Lamoureux, the shopping center’s marketing and sponsorship director.
Sirica said that the technology that goes into creating the experience is truly amazing, and it takes about a month to build out – all behind a black curtain that hangs in Center Court.
“There are 40,000 twinkle lights, and 280 pieces of technology that go into the 12 interactive exhibits for kids to immerse themselves in,” Sirica said. The entire exhibit is 3,000 square feet, and Sirica said it’s hard to imagine how much wiring is hidden beneath the carpet.
While Santa is in residence, Westfarms goes through 500 pounds of faux snow, Sirica said. The snow, which falls gently inside the 22-foot enchanted sleigh, is made of muddled rice. “It’s totally safe,” she said, even if the kids eat it, which some are tempted to do.
All children have a chance to sit with Santa, and tell him what they would like for Christmas, but they also leave that day with a small gift. “Every child that comes through the experience gets a gift from Santa,” Sirica said. This year’s gift is a memory card game.
There are multiple photo package options available, which include a complimentary Lovepop card, but other than that, and the fee for the fast pass, the entire experience is free of charge. “We want everyone to enjoy it,” Sirica said.
Along with Santa’s Flight Academy, Westfarms is otherwise fully geared up for the holiday season. Decorations are up in the common areas as well as in most stores, and several seasonal retailers have already opened.
There’s a Christmas Treasures store on the lower level right across from Center Court, which sells ornaments and holiday decor, and Harry and David has opened a pop-up store on the second floor for the holidays.
“Black Friday is not too far off, and we are already hearing of some great deals,” Sirica said.
Santa will be at Center Court during the hours that Westfarms is open, from now through Dec. 24.
On Nov. 18, there will be a special “Santa Paws” event. Sirica said that any pet, either on a leash or in a small carrier, can visit with Santa that day between the hours of 7-9 a.m. “People really like it because they love to put their cats and dogs on their Christmas cars,” she said.
For more information about Santa’s Flight Academy, visit the Westfarms website.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!