I was chatting with Santa Claus the other day while we watched a little girl, about four years old, gleefully chasing hither and thither after the soap bubbles emanating from Oswald the Bubble Elf's pipe at Children's Fairyland.
"You'd never see that at Disneyland," I said. "Her parents would be scared to let her run free like that."
"Yeah," he laughed, "and even if they did, they'd probably be charged $15 per bubble."
Of course, he isn't the real Santa. (The real one is rather busy at the North Pole right now.) His name is Ron Zeno, and for the past 10 years he has stood in for The Big Guy at Fairyland's annual Fairy Winterland, which will take place from noon to 7 p.m. on December 5-7, 12-14, and 19-23 if weather permits. And you couldn't ask for a better stand-in.
"He's the best Santa we could possibly wish for," says C.J. Hirschfield, Fairyland's executive director. "He's so sweet and gentle with the kids. That rich, chocolaty voice of his instantly puts them at ease."
The secrets of his success: Never say "Ho-ho-ho" ("It scares the bejezus out of little kids," he explains), never promise anything specific, and never make direct eye contact, which can also frighten them.
"I start off by making myself small," he says, no easy task at 6'1 and 260 lbs. "I take my time, stay out of their face, and let them come to me. It doesn't always work; but when it does, it feels great."
Santa will welcome his little visitors every afternoon from 5 to 6 p.m., and every child will get a special treat.
Then, at 6:15, Santa will lead the little ones through the park in the nightly Festival of Lights Parade. It's a rare chance for them to see what Fairyland looks like after dark. Every structure and tree will by festooned with sparking lights, with a snow machine completing the wintery impression. The effect is magical, even for grownups.
On the Emerald City Stage, the Fairyland Children's Theater will present its annual holiday program, spotlighting winter celebrations from around the world including Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Dwali, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas, Chinese New Year and the Winter Solstice.
Meanwhile, actors in animal costumes from Critters Across the Bay will be roaming around the park acting silly, and some of the real-life animals who live at Fairyland will be featured each day as Animal of the Day.
Last but not least, the Puppet Theater will present not one but two productions: "The Midas Touch," written and designed by Fairyland's late, great Master Puppeteer, Lewis Mahlmann, and a puppet production of "The Nutcracker," written and designed by Mahlmann's handpicked successor, Randal Metz, featuring dancing candies, prancing clowns, mechanical toys, Chinese dragons, and a climactic battle between the Mouse King's armies and the toy soldiers.
If your kids are still too young to take to the Oakland Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker," this is a great, no-pressure way to get them started. Nobody will mind if they get up and start wandering around in the middle of the show.
Plus: jugglers, magicians, storytellers – including the Blue Fairy, Jacqueline Lynaugh, as the Snow Queen - and free hot cocoa and cider.
Sounds like fun, huh? Wish it had been around when I was their age.