Sam Brown's little face split into an enchanted smile as Santa Claus zipped up to him with a jolly “merry Christmas!”
When the bearded harbinger of holiday joy offered the 3-year-old a peppermint, the boy's smile spread into a full-blown grin.
Whether it was the sight of St. Nick in the flesh or his Segway two-wheeled scooter, Sam's little sister, Nora Brown, 1, was less charmed, immediately reaching for her father, Rob. She didn't cry but regarded Santa solemnly as her dad accepted a mint on her behalf.
“It was her first encounter with Santa Claus,” Rob Brown said, adding they were surprised to find Kriss Kringle hanging around the Devon Ice Rink on Tuesday night “on a Segway. That was the surprising part.”
“I thought it was cool that there were some interesting characters out,” added the Oklahoma City resident. “There's so much that attracts people to the Myriad Gardens now and to downtown, whereas several years ago nobody even wanted to come here at night. But it feels very safe and it's active. And it's just fun.”
Like the Devon Ice Rink, the Sonic Segway Santa is an official part of Downtown in December, a monthlong holiday extravaganza with attractions ranging from snow tubing and zip lining to holiday light displays and free Water Taxi rides. The upwardly mobile Father Christmas shows up at Downtown in December attractions, at lunchtime hot spots, at Thunder games and anywhere else a crowd might gather during the month of December.
“I think it adds a little bit of a surprise to Downtown in December. With the other events, there are set dates and hours. But with Sonic Segway Santa, you never know where he'll be and when he'll pop up, so I think that makes it extra exciting,” said Gentry McKeown, communications coordinator for Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.
“When people see Segway Santa going down the street, they literally do a double take; they'll pull out their cellphones. They'll chase him down to go get a coupon for free food or a picture with him. It's just sort of an unexpected surprise.”
Ricky Smith, one of the two men playing Sonic Segway Santa this season, got all those reactions and more while cruising the Lower Bricktown Plaza on a recent sunny afternoon. Cars passing by honked and their passengers waved, while pedestrians accepted his gifts of Sonic peppermints and coupons. Teenagers tried to act cool, but some gave into the childlike urge to get their picture taken with Santa. Firefighters on lunch break shook his hands, and a couple of tourists said “merry Christmas” and then asked for directions to Kevin Durant's new restaurant.
“Who else would know but Santa?” Smith quipped. “What kind of job would you have where everybody that sees you smiles at you? I have a great time.”
A Bethany retiree who also works with the Oklahoma City Police Department's Ambassadors program, Smith, 65, has been playing Sonic Segway Santa for about four years. While riding the Segway can get tiring — he and fellow Sonic Segway Santa Gene Sanders work in two- or three-hour shifts to cut down on the fatigue — Smith said he loves the wonderment on the faces of the children he encounters.
“I think Santa draws them, but the Segway draws them, too,” Smith said. “Everybody likes to see Santa. If you meet Santa in the Bass Pro (Shops) or the Devon (Tower) or something, well, Santa's waiting there and you have to come to Santa. Well, Santa on a Segway comes to you.”
One of his most poignant Santa encounters involves bringing out some holiday memories for a young woman at a bus stop.
“The impression I got was she was homeless … but she was real excited to see Santa. I gave her some candy and I was wishing her a merry Christmas, and her mood really turned then. I asked her what was wrong and if she was OK, and she said, ‘Well, the last time I can remember talking to Santa was when I was with my mother, and it was the last time I was with my mother because she passed away.' So apparently Santa creates a lot of emotion,” he said.
When the Sonic Segway Santa program was initiated in 2006, Sanders, 72, became the first Kriss Kringle to trek around downtown on the self-balancing personal transport.
“There's always people down here, and there's always something going on,” said the Oklahoma City retiree, adding one of the Santas tries to be out every day, unless ice, snow or heavy rain makes riding the Segway unsafe.
He enjoys hitting all the family hot spots, taking part in special events like the SandRidge Santa Run and even occasionally rolling into some of the restaurants.
“I think taking pictures with the kids and the parents is my favorite part,” he said while making the rounds at the ice rink.
“Like at the snow tubing, when I go in there, they just surround me and want pictures. Sometimes they'll even get underfoot, you know, but we manage.”
Of course, St. Nick isn't just for kids. Frank Mendoza, 46, of Oklahoma City, eagerly called out for and chased down Santa Tuesday evening and asked a passer-by to take his picture with St. Nick.
“I grew up in New York City, and the trees, the lights, all the ambience of what the Christmas spirit is, includes Santa, it includes elves, it includes Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and ice skating. … I want to get into the spirit of Christmas,” Mendoza said.
“He made my day.”