Sarah Blackman distinctly remembers her favorite part about Christmas: Santa leaving the gifts unwrapped on her parents’ couch, anticipating that one gift everyone had to have be it a Barbie or toy truck.
“You wanted all the things,” she said. “My parents made holidays special.”
It’s the same ethereal experience Blackman, a former writer and dancer, and husband Walt Geer hope to create with their latest venture, Santa Fantastical, a holiday pop-up shop that combines nostalgic and contemporary holiday fun to create memorable experiences.
Housed in the former 39,000 square-foot Babies R Us on Mount Vernon Highway, Santa Fantastical hopes to fill the void left by defunct retailers. In late June, popular toy store Toys R Us shuttered the last of its U.S. stores, including 24 in Georgia. That also included Babies R Us locations.
“We wanted to reimagine the way families see Santa because retail spots are dying,” Geer said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But Santa Fantastical isn’t your garden variety holiday light show.
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The couple dreamed up the concept a few years ago as they were thinking about how people interact with technology and social media.
“We started thinking, how do we create something where our guests become the stars,” Geer said.
The idea was familiar territory for the Geer, who co-owns PictureU, an independent seasonal company that specializes in Santa and Easter-themed operations across America.
The couple combined their backgrounds to create the interactive holiday pop-up, which features performance and multimedia stations that cater to all ages.
Initial plans called for the project to open in 2019, but the duo fast-tracked the initiative after finding a venue. In July, the couple partnered with Disney Imagineer Len Simon to craft the designs for the interactive. Simon has headed animation for countless Disney projects, including animated classics “Anastasia” and “Thumbelina”. “You’re not just creating, but getting in the mindset of a child,” Simon, who has two daughters, ages 9 and 13, told The AJC. “...I get to re-experience Christmas through their eyes.”
Guests walk through polychromatic lights known as the Path to Winter Dreams and wander through two light exhibits, Laser Trees and Infinity Ornaments, as restructured holiday classics blare through the speakers.
The interactive experience also includes four selfie stations: experience an optical illusion at Peppermint Palace, straddle a mythical creature at Unicorn Dreams, and venture through time with Future Christmas and Retro Christmas, that latter of which was inspired by a recent holiday “Mad Men-” inspired family photo that Geer and Blackman took with their two daughters. The Retro Christmas selfie station also features two actors who don’t break character, no matter how hard a reporter implored them.
From there, patrons are treated to a two-minute dancing ornament show, which segues into a 15-minute performance featuring seven dancers interacting with audience members to contemporary holiday hits.
As the dancing ornaments end and the performance begins, Geer’s eyes light up.“What makes this a fantastical is that live performance,” he said, mesmerized by the bulbous glow he called “The Rockettes in light form.”
Geer and Blackman haven’t forgotten the little ones.
Children can watch their drawings come to life at Sketch-Tastick, a creation station that animates coloring book drawings.
And a few short steps away is Santa. Parents and their children can spend an intimate moment with the big fella at Santa’s Château, a private area to slip Santa your Christmas wish list and take professional photos.
The intimate experience also avoids long lines typically seen at malls. Parents can reserve a time online to meet Santa and will receive a text message alert when their time slot is ready.
Buzz generated from the interactive museum already has Geer and Blackman in talks to take the concept to other cities. They haven’t provided details, but they have thought about story lines and concepts for next year.
“When you’re in here, you don’t know what everyone does for a living,” Geer said. “You leave the labels at the door and make friends.”
SANTA FANTASTICAL: IMMERSIVE WORLDS
WHAT: Santa Fantastical, 1155 Mount Vernon Hwy. #300, at Perimeter Pointe
WHEN: Now through Dec. 24
$68, seasonal passes
$36, adult general admission
$26, ages 3 to 12
Free, ages 2 and under
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