The Santa Experience of Southern Illinois brings Saint Nick to life for children


Sarah Girtman

Going to the mall to see Santa is a fond childhood memory for many. Who doesn’t remember waiting in that excruciatingly long line for 15 seconds in which to tell Santa a secret Christmas wish, snap a picture and go back to shopping.

But times have changed, and The Santa Experience of Southern Illinois offers children a chance to have some real time with the jolly old elf and his wife. 

“We wanted a little bit more of an experience,” photographer Stephanie Susie said, “which is why we named our event that…we wanted them to be able to experience Santa,

and everything else that goes on with this event.”

The Santa Experience has been going on

since 2018.

“Dave (Bartok), Trina (Bartok), and I, are kind of the ones that came up with the idea, and then we got Santa into the mix,” Susie said.

The event is incredibly popular.

“We sold out within two hours,” Gary Ellis, aka Santa, said.

Ellis, who can be found as the featured Santa at many other locations during the holiday season, agrees with Susie’s opinion that the Santa Experience is more than the average photo op with Santa.

“We wanted to bring something to this community that the moms and dads could experience with their kids, and bring that spirit of Christmas to a little bit more space.”

Everyone has an important role to play.

“It takes the whole team to make it work,” Susie said. “We would not be able to do it if one of these people were not here.”

The time children spend with Santa is definitely different from the experience children have at a shopping mall.

“When kids come to see me, they enjoy that part of the Santa visit,” Ellis said. “They really get some time with me. I get to spend time with the children, and we kind of get to know each other a little bit better.”

One child, Marie, who came in says her favorite part was getting her picture taken.

The staff enjoy it as much as the children do.

“It’s magical, even on our end. We’re the ones that put it on, and even to us, it’s magic

everyday,” Susie said. “It’s a labor of love for all of us.”