Santa Claus is going high-tech as more children and parents are able to reach the jolly old elf online.
"We can use this technology to our advantage and provide a much more believable experience for our kids," said Anne Gaskell, co-owner of SantaSpeaking.com.
The Sioux City-based Web site, launched last year, features an online form where parents, friends and relatives can request personalized letters and phone calls, which last three minutes or more depending on how many children are whispering — or shouting — their Christmas wishes in Santa's ear.
Gaskell said the company has made about 1,000 calls this season, with many more requests rolling in just days before Christmas.
The live calls range in cost from $15 to $39.95 — add $5 if the call if made after Dec. 15. SantaSpeaking.com also offers a selection of MP3 and CD recordings of the holiday conversations, in which Santa lets little children know that he's aware if they have been naughty or nice.
"When you go to the mall, Santa's not able to know all of those details," Gaskell said. "Parents are just overjoyed with the reaction their kids are getting — that Santa knows they've been stealing cookies from the cookie jar or fighting with their brother or sister.
"It just blows them away," she said.
Gaskell, the mother of three children under age 5, said she started the Web site because "I wanted something a little bit better for my children."
A series of four prerecorded telephone calls update the tiny tots on Santa's travels on Christmas Eve. Kids also can log on at noon on Dec. 24 to watch Santa's departure from the North Pole through a CG animation video —the type of technology used in the holiday hit "The Polar Express."
And if that's not enough to update kids on the comings and goings of Mr. Claus, he's even taken up blogging at the site.
High-tech services from Santa are available on Web sites popping up around the nation and world. Other sites feature names such as santasayshello.com, livesantacalls.com, santacalledme.com, santaphonecalls.com and chatwithsanta.com.
At SantaSpeaking.com, parents also can order personalized letters that include the child's name, age and activities. Those cost $14.95 and arrive in a plastic tube filled with festive "magic dust" to be sprinkled outside the home to "help attract the reindeer."
A sample letter, addressed to young Lydia, reads:
"I know that you have been doing so well in preschool, picking up your toys and learning to ride your bike. Don't worry about accidentally cutting your sister's hair, we know that it's impossible to be good all the time."
The cheery and colorful Web site, which features a live reindeer cam and children's games, was developed by a Rhode Island company, and the graphics come from a designer in Ohio. The Santas make their calls from Omaha, Neb., contracted through a call center.
According to a press release issued by Gaskell earlier this month, About.com and Google Zeitgeist report that the word "Santa" has been the 6th most popular search in December.
By comparison, a separate survey found the number of Santa visits to shopping malls has dropped about 40 percent between 2001 and 2003, Gaskell said.
"To skeptics, the thought of going online to find Santa can sound high-tech and impersonal," Brandon Lobaugh, Gaskell's business partner, said in a statement. "But the live phone call from Santa in reality is more believable and more in keeping with the Santa Claus legend because they are highly personalized by the parents ... Santa knows all."