‘Sensory Santa’ offers a calmer, quieter holiday experience at The Collective | AspenTimes.com

‘Sensory Santa’ offers a calmer, quieter holiday experience at The Collective

Event has fewer distractions, stimuli for people with sensory sensitivities

Bill Boineau, dressed as Santa, gives a high-five to August Smith, 2, in Santa’s Village in The Collective in the Snowmass Base Village on Saturday, December 21, 2019.
Kelsey Brunner/The Snowmass Sun

When it comes to a visit with the jolly old man in red, most anyone who has ever waited to meet Santa knows the chaos that can ensue.

Not so with a “Sensory Santa” experience that will happen at 4-5 p.m. Wednesday at The Collective in Base Village in a collaboration among organizers from Challenge Aspen, Snowmass Tourism and The Collective.

The experience, which also went on Tuesday night, offers a mellower opportunity for people with sensory sensitivities to still get the holiday experience without overstimulation.

“I think ultimately, Santa probably will not have any loud ‘ho, ho, hos,’ when our participants are visiting, so we try to reduce scents and smells as much as possible, reduce distractions, and create opportunities for people to interact in a meaningful way that is difficult for them in regular life,” Challenge Aspen CEO Lindsay Cagley said.

Instead, the experience will focus on simplicity for people who might be sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, strong scents or close contact.

“We’re just trying to keep things a little quieter, less chaotic,” said Deb Sullivan, the program director for the Recreational, Educational and Cultural (REC) program at Challenge Aspen.

During the Sensory Santa hour, participants get “one-on-one time” with Father Christmas — no long lines to wait in or crowded rooms with distractions, said REC program manager Callie Dickson. There also are activities set up on the lower level of The Collective where participants can keep busy while they wait.

The goal, overall, is to cater the experience to each participant, Sullivan said.

“Maybe since sitting on Santa’s lap might not be their cup of tea — maybe they want to sit on the ground, or maybe they just want to stand and talk to him or something like that,” she said.

Participants don’t even need to visit Mr. Claus to partake in the experience: Dickson said Challenge Aspen is encouraging athletes in the locals’ program who might not be interested in the Santa Claus component but “might want to have the socialization aspect of it, or want to come and do the crafts or just interact with the community.”

“I know a few locals who probably won’t go and talk to Santa, but they want to be there for just the energy and the social aspect of it all,” Dickson said.

The inspiration for the offering came out of a meeting between Cagley and Lisa Rigsby Peterson, the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House.

“She’s so passionate about advocacy for people with disabilities and we had a really great conversation about … ‘What else can we be doing for our community?’” Cagley said.

It’s a question that’s frequently on the mind for the crew over at Challenge Aspen.

“I think that our program team is always looking for opportunities to create space for people with disabilities to participate and (do) the special things that … (are) normal for the rest of the world, but maybe because of their disability, they feel they can’t participate or it’s uncomfortable for them, so our program staff is always seeking opportunities to do more,” Cagley said.

It was a group effort to bring the event to fruition, according to Cagley.

“(Rigsby Peterson) was part of the inspiration and the team at Challenge Aspen jumped right in and so did the town of Snowmass and we quickly got Santa on board,” she said.

Adding a sensory-friendly Santa Claus experience to the usual roster of Snowmass Tourism’s holiday offerings was a “no brainer,” said Julie Hardman, the events manager for the town’s tourism department. When organizers pitched the idea to Santa, “he didn’t hesitate, of course,” Hardman said.

Creating a positive, calm experience for participants is the central focus, but organizers hope that adding accommodations to events like this one can help foster accessibility throughout the community.

“Hopefully it can just create a little bit of awareness too — like, I never really even thought about Sensory Santa prior to the season when we started working on this event,” Dickson said. ”So hopefully, it just gives a little bit of awareness to that side of things for the community.“

Cagley seconds that.

“We want to push inclusivity to the top of people’s minds, right, so every time you plan an event, how do you also include people with disabilities in your plan to make sure it’s accessible for them?” she said.

Anyone can walk up to the Santa’s Village event that runs from 2-4 p.m. through Friday at The Collective; for the Sensory Santa experience from 4-5 p.m. Wednesday, registration is available at challengeaspen.org/sensory-santa.



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