It all started as an accident. According to thousands of kids across the nation, Santa’s number is 1-800-SANTACLAUS. But occasionally, they misdial. This is all for the better; dialing 1-800-SANTACLAUS (1-800-726-8225) connects you to nobody. But the accidental dial (1-800-726-8222) is where John Dickson enters the picture.
Throughout the holiday season, Dickson’s office phone (1-800-SANTABARBARA) rings not with calls from potential clients- tourists planning trips to Santa Barbara - but with thousands of children hoping to speak with Santa Claus.
It all started one day in early December of 2006. Dickson got a call at his santabarbara.com office from “a little boy who wanted a blue truck, a pony, and a spider.” Confused, Dickson played along. “He actually thought he was talking to Santa!” Dickson exclaimed. “Then another call came in about 15 or 20 minutes later. It was a little girl.” After a bit of investigation, Dickson understood the misdialing that was going on. For the next two weeks, he answered Santa calls at a rate of about one every 10 to 15 minutes.
The 1-800-SANTABARBARA lines then blew up. After his mother contacted the Santa Barbara News-Press, media outlets nationwide started broadcasting his story. “As it got to the media, and they put my phone number on the bottom of the screen on CNN, NBC, FOX News, and all over the Internet, the number of calls just went off the scale,” said Dickson. By December 20, 2006, the volume of calls had risen from one every 15 minutes to 1,000 per minute. “I didn’t think anything of it other than I was just having fun : I’m just having a blast talking to the kids!”
Over the next two years, Dickson expanded the accident to an official, full-blown call center. Montecito Bank and Trust offered space in 2007, followed by the Unity Shop in 2008. The program ran for 12 days, about 12 hours a day, with more than 200 volunteers from all over Santa Barbara. “When they heard I was doing a call center, they all wanted to be a part of it,” says Dickson of his ample supply of Santa volunteers.
This year’s location was made possible by Robert Perez, the senior property manager for SIMA Management Corp. “He contacted me and has generously donated some available retail space to be home for the Santa Claus call center this Christmas.” Santa’s office is 1221 State Street, #6, on the parking-lot side of Victoria Court, next to the post office and below SOhO.
But do not bring kids to the office if they want to speak with Santa. Volunteers - who will service six phone lines from noon to 8 p.m. (Pacific time) from December 19 through December 24 - will not dress like Santa. They will, however, don Santa hats and jolly voices, and emulate a workshop in the office. “While we’re on the phone we’re also making tons of noise so they think they can hear elves working. Rudolf can come to the phone, too.”
According to Dickson, the Accidental Santa Call Center handles about 20,000 calls yearly, but they miss hundreds of thousands. “We guesstimate that between two-hundred-fifty and five-hundred-thousand try to call. We can’t handle them all. If we had a hundred phone lines we wouldn’t answer them all, so we just answer as many as we can. It’s crazy. Mostly, it’s a lot of fun.”
One of many memorable moments for Dickson is when he got a call from a school in Philadelphia. Fifty to 100 children’s voices, all at the same time, said, “We love you Santa!” into a microphone in their school’s auditorium. He even got them to sing Jingle Bells. Dickson described the incident as “the cutest thing in the world.”
Also memorable are the timid callers, some of whom, according to Dickson, are so excited to speak to Santa that they are rendered physically incapable of speech. “You can hear their mommy or daddy in the background encouraging them to talk.” Some of the best calls have been recorded and can be heard via accidentalsanta.com.
While the call center will only be open eight hours a day for five days this winter, Dickson plans on taking calls well after the center closes on the evening of Christmas Eve. “I shoot for 1,000 kids over the six days,” he said, adding, “I will spend Christmas Day taking thank-you calls.” Dickson will continue taking thank-you Santa calls well into January, until business calls again begin to outnumber Santa calls.
In the meantime, Dickson is sure not to make any unwarranted promises to hopeful children; he and his volunteers instead encourage kids to ask their mommies and daddies, “the ones who are actually handling things for Christmas Day.”
Dickson hopes to continue the center as a noncommercial program. “I want it to be just the same as when it was an accident.” So far, the volunteers, whom Dickson expects to fill-in all of the two-hour volunteer slots by the end of this week, along with providers of office space and Cox digital phone lines, are making it happen.