It’s the height of Santa Season! In the past we’ve sent out scouts for our annual Naughty Or Nice Santa Roundup, but this year we’ve decided to focus on the biggest big guy there is: Macy’s Herald Square’s Santaland. It’s a huge trip, but the payoff can also be huge (anyone else sick of that ugly green chair at the mall?). I just got back from Santaland and conferred with other mom elves about their experiences, and we’ve created a guide for anyone willing to dash through the city on a one seat open stroller.
In the past few years Macy’s has switched to a reservations-only system that lets you book up to 5 days in advance. This may seem annoying, but it’s actually very democratic. If all reservations opened at once it would turn into another Jack O’Lantern Blaze or Hamilton situation where tickets for the entire season are gone by noon on September 4. If you’re having a hard time getting a reservation, set your alarm for 11:59pm and have your choice of times for a reservation five days out. The first slot of the morning is 8am and the last slot of the evening is 8:30pm.
SANTA EXPRESS LANE PASS
If you visit on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, you can opt for a Santa Express Lane Pass. That allows you to wait in a separate line and go directly to Santa. If you do that you don’t get to see the little Santaland village setup. We’ve done both and our verdict is that It’s not worth the longer wait to walk by that extra village stuff. It’s cool and cute, but you go by it so quickly! For some reason at the very end of your wait they space out the line out so when you enter Santaland village you have a short walk alone with your party. Express Lane all the way!
WHEN TO GO
All the elves I spoke to said lines we really short around Thanksgiving. My time machine is broken, so if you also can’t go then, try to get the earliest time slot of the day. Seriously, book an 8am reservation. The rumor is they take 200 reservations per each half hour time slot, and each reservation can have up to 10 people. There seem to be about 8 Santa rooms, but you never know how many are active when you visit. Of those rooms, there is an African-American santa and a Spanish-speaking Santa available, so families have a lot more options than the typical white-bread santa at the mall.
So if 200 families are waiting for 5 minutes of time with one of 8 Santas, how long will the last family in line wait? Calculating…. The answer is 125 minutes. AHHHHHHHHH!
That being said, showing up early gives you the best chance of a short wait. If you can’t show up early in the day, at least show up early for your time slot. And remember, if you book a 10am time slot, that means you have between 10 and 10:30 to check in. Any later and they can forfeit your reservation.
If you’re one of the first to get in line at 10am, you’ll be able to skip ahead of the other 199 10am reservation holders. This trick is where the variety of wait times comes in. We had reservations for 5:30pm on a Wednesday but didn’t enter the line until 5:42. Our wait was 90 minutes. But we heard that other people were able to enter the line as early as 15 minutes before their reservation and had a shorter wait. The line fills faster than it empties, so it’s probably not a good idea to come at 10:29 for a 10am reservation thinking the line will be shorter because people have come and gone.
WHAT TO BRING
Bring a stroller! It’s a long line in both distance and time. Your kids are going to get tired, cranky, bored of standing, bored of sitting, bored of the decorations, bored of listening to you, and bored of the people around them. Bring a stroller that fits all your stuff (don’t go shopping before you get in line—you don’t want to keep moving 6 shopping bags down the line two feet at a time for an hour.)
Bring layers! Dress the kids in cute holiday stuff, but dress them in layers. It’s hot inside. So hot that they have fans blowing in the waiting area. We got our kids inside and hung all our coats on the stroller so we could be comfortable.
Bring entertainment! For us an iPhone and a brand-new McDonald’s Happy Meal toy kept our kids busy for the hour and a half wait. Being comfortably seated the whole time helped too because we didn’t constantly interrupt them to move up in the line. One even fell asleep for the last 30 minutes! Score! Macy’s has free Wi-Fi so consider yourself at a 90-minute Baby Shark concert.
Bring empty bladders! Santaland is on the 8th floor. In a crazy What-is-wrong-with-you, Macy’s oversight, there is no restroom on the 8th floor. So… getting out of line to hit the potty is a project I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Especially if you need to leave with your stroller. The closest bathrooms are on the 7th floor.
Bring full bellies! We entered Macy’s an hour before our reservation and went straight to the 7th floor to get ready. That floor has bathrooms, a McDonald’s, an Auntie Anne’s and a Pinkberry. We got provisions and changed diapers before going to Floor 8 and checking in. If you don’t like those food options, the Santaland line starts right across from an Au Bon Pain. There’s also a Juice Press on the 8th floor and a pizza restaurant on the 3rd floor. If you want a civilized sit-down meal, there are three other fancier restaurants in the store.
Bring enough time to get through the store! This isn’t White Plains. Getting to the 8th floor is no 2-second walk. If you are on foot, walk straight from the entrance to the main escalators and wind your way up 7 escalators to the 8th floor. If you have a stroller with you, you’ll have to ride an elevator. The problem is everyone else wants to ride the elevator too, even if they are able to take an escalator. There will be crowds, and they won’t care that you have wheels. Give yourself 15 minutes to get on an elevator empty enough to hold your party. There is one elevator bay located to the right of the main entrance, behind the wall down a short hallway, and another one toward the back of the store, across the middle behind the smaller sideways escalators.
Bring your elevator A Game! You’ll have to give people some serious side-eye with the hope of shaming them to let you on. I’d come prepared with an “I’m sorry but we can’t take the escalator that’s right behind us,” or something more extra. People are oblivious. Camp out in front of one elevator and hope for the best because there are about six fanned out in a long hallway, and if you keep running to the one that opens you might never be first in line to get in. You can do this, Mama Bear!
Bring water! And snacks! Because why pay city prices for that stuff?
We had two kids to seat comfortably, so we brought our side-by-side double jogger. NYC has some pretty old buildings, so we didn’t fit through several doorways on our way out from Westchester. In Grand Central, we had to find the one set of double doors at the Vanderbilt & 42nd Street entrance. We could walk in the Macy’s center main door, but the revolving doors were out. We tried to exit through a side door on 34th Street but couldn’t fit there either.
There are a few steps in the middle of the main floor of Macy’s. That’s because there is technically a 7th Avenue building and a 6th Avenue building that are joined together to make the store. You can avoid them by heading right towards the 35th Street side to the two ramps that bypass the steps. They are hard to spot but look along the wall for the Handicapped Access signs.
If you can use a smaller stroller, you’ll have an easier time getting around, but our kids were super comfy and happy in the double jogger and even though we had to strategize our route a bit, we’d choose it again in a heartbeat over just a single stroller.
Because we had heavy wheels, we walked from Grand Central Station to Herald Square. It was about a 15 minute walk, and very pleasant. We went by Bryant Park and the kids loved people watching. If you are on foot you can take the shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square and then the Subway down to Herald Square.
So you made it past the reservation system, into the store, up to the 8th floor, past check-in … now what? Well, unless it’s 8:02am, chances are the line has formed just outside the Santaland village. You’ll join it and wait there for about 5 minutes, thinking “This isn’t so bad!” Then you’ll turn the corner and realize you DON’T connect with the line of happy people about to enter the train car and see Santa. Your line goes down a long red hallway, peppered with large cling art of letters to Santa and handwritten signs (really, Macy’s?) that say DO NOT ENTER or DO NOT BLOCK DOOR WAY. The hallway is pretty long. Like half a city block.
Then you turn into another long red hallway, also half a city block. In this hallway you can see the exit to Santaland where the photos are sold. It’s so calm, empty, and mellow in there you may even if wonder anyone in your line can possibly survive to come out the other side. Well, get ready, because after that second long hallway, you turn left into…. another red hallway!
This one is short but because it’s so short you can see that you haven’t even reached the halfway point yet. There’s yet another hallway of unknown length sitting beyond it. For some reason this short hallway feels like it takes the longest to traverse, and you may start to question your commitment to the whole project. This is the only spot where we saw people bail.
Then you turn right into a fourth hallway and the turnaround spot for the line that is a repurposed employees-only elevator bay. There is also a Macy’s elf manning a door to the outside world (okay, just clothing racks), that is the potty break escape and bailout door. The elf makes sure no one messes with the elevators or goes wandering off down the hallway away from the line.
If you can make it to this point you are halfway there, geographically speaking. But we saw a lot of people cruise down the first two hallways to join the line about 30% of the way in, so your wait may not be halfway over yet.
Macy’s tries to entertain by putting up TVs on the wall with programming of D-List actors talking about roles in holidays movies you haven’t seen, but if you want to actually distract yourself, just bring screens or games for the whole family. The long red narrow hallways can feel closed-in after a while, and you may be wondering how good the air filtration system is (#measles2018?). Maybe try to casually find out if any of your line neighbors are from Rockland County…
Eventually you’ll trudge back past the elevator bays, down the small third hallway, down the long second and long first hallway, back outside to the main store. You’ll never be so happy to see too-bright lighting and an Au Bon Pain! You’ve made it to the approach to Santaland Village!
This part of the walk has actual interesting things to see. There are old-fashioned dioramas with scenes recreated from Miracle on 34th Street. Adults will like the vintage photos of Manhattan and other historical details. Once you pass that, you’ll go into a mock train car, then you turn into a hallway with some fun hologram holiday paintings.
There’s a spot for a posed photo from the Santaland staff. They will give you a card to view it later at the exit.
Your official welcome begins with the info board at North Pole station and a manned elf ticket booth called “customer service” (but at this point you’re so happy to be inside you wouldn’t think of complaining!) This is where you can ask to visit one of the African-American or Spanish-speaking Santas.
The line becomes spaced out here so you’ll feel like you’re walking through the next part alone. Which is nice, but also makes you want to rush through to get to Santa.
Next is a scene of Santa’s workshop with some unfinished toys, open paint cans and brushes, and drawings. Followed by Christmas trees and an animatronic polar bear family in scarves. Right before you get to Santa there are some ballerina Olivia pigs from the classic book, and then a walk through the evergreen forest to a waiting area right outside one of the Santa rooms.
An elf will lead you in to an adorable nook with a red-and-green carpet and a wide wooden reindeer-and-Christmas-tree bench with one of the most legit Santas you’ll ever see (we think it’s due to the eyebrow prostheses.) He will sit with your kids patiently and talk to them. He asks what they want for Christmas, but I don’t think he’s read the most recent Target ad because when my eager 4-year-old responded with “Vampirina!” he paused, confused, and said “That sounds nice.”
The photo staff will not rush you as you take your own photos, and when you’re done they will spend time to get the kids looking at them for their own photo. Take your time here, as you’ve waited long and hard for this moment. Make sure the kids have had their fill of Santa before they hop down from the bench.
After the visit they are ushered out by an elf who will make sure they had a great time. Everyone visiting (even parents!) gets a SANTALAND 2018 commemorative pin. Then it’s down the hallway to view your photos. There is no obligation to buy, but their photographers got better smiles from our little ones than we did, so we opted for the cheapest “Santa Print” for $20.99 plus tax. It comes in a cute cardboard frame (and they gave us an extra empty one when we asked!)
Then it’s back to the real world. Our little ones were great sports during the wait, and while the line kept moving so we weren’t too annoyed during the 90 minutes, when I go again I will definitely either do the Express Lane or go at 8am to avoid another long wait.
Macy’s Santaland is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, so if you haven’t gone, it would be fun to do at least once, but it’s not something you need to do every year. That being said, the magic of Santa is only around in children for a little while, so why not indulge them this time of year? It took me 90 minutes, but my elves have reported anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours. The average seemed to be one hour, but the Macy’s website warns that as it gets closer to Christmas Eve, wait times will go up.
With the new reservation system, we can only hope that gone are the days of the 5 hour wait. You could have watched Miracle on 34th Street two and a half times!
That's it for this week. Don’t forget to check out our exclusive list of every children's library program in Westchester. It's been updated for Fall 2018, so everything you need to know is in one easy list. And for more special events every day, follow us on Facebook and Instagram. And if you like what you're reading, please sign up for our once-weekly email of events and ideas in the wonderful world of Westchester parenting.
See you next time!