Many news outlets, including IQ, reported on Thomas Tolbert, the Santa Claus look-a-like who was treated as persona non grata during a recent trip to Disney World with his family. Like the Tinkerbell Disney guest of months past, Tolbert was told to turn away guests who wanted his autograph or a quick picture with him and was advised to change his clothing (despite the fact that he was not wearing a Santa Claus costume). Here’s the kicker: Tolbert was actually “playing” Santa for days with Disney’s consent before they finally put a stop to him. It’s all below from our exclusive sit-down with Thomas “Santa Claus” Tolbert.
Tolbert is a frequent Disney World guest, and, when he called ahead to secure Disney’s VIP tour service for himself, his aunt, his cousin and her two children, he made sure to note his changed appearance. “Just so you guys know, I’ve changed my appearance some. I look like Santa Claus,” he explained. After a shared chuckle, the response was simply, “Mr. Tolbert, that is no problem.”
A tender family man and child-at-heart, Mr. Tolbert doesn’t seem all that threatening. His close resemblance to Santa Claus might disarm some at first glance, but he projects a warmth and collects smiles everywhere he goes. It’s just all part of the job as a professional Santa Claus: Tolbert often makes appearances as Father Christmas at schools and various charity events close to the holiday season. For Disney, he was merely a guest, not a paid performer in any capacity. And he wasn’t exactly dressed for the role either. Though his wardrobe is admittedly unique, it leans more toward grandfatherly than odd and eccentric. Make no mistake, he wasn’t dressed as Kris Kringle.
Throughout his first day with the VIP tour, Tolbert frequently posed for pictures with anyone who would ask including several Disney employees who snapped pics with the Santa look-a-like with their cell phones.
“The funniest thing was the Disney photographers who sell you photos were asking Santa to pose with them,” Tolbert recalls.
At dinner (the Cinderella dining experience at the Grand Floridian Hotel), several park guests asked Tolbert to visit their table, say hello to their kids, and take a photo with them. He says he made sure to tell each table that he didn’t work for Disney, rather, “I work at the North Pole.” After all, Disney World may have a Santa Claus, but they don’t own Santa Claus, do they? Not wanting to cause a disruption, Tolbert pulled the manager on duty aside and asked if his presence was causing a problem. “No, not at all. This is wonderful,” was the reply.
Tolbert kept up in his way for the first several days. Just enjoying his time in the parks, like you or I, though occasionally conceding to the occasional autograph or photo with guests and staff.
“I do not see any harm in making a person’s day a little more special,” he explains. “And it only cost me a movement of my time. Yet it will be a memory of their lifetime, if done correctly.”
Tolbert even recalled that his tour guide provided him with a pen to sign autographs with.
Though Tolbert was reluctant to go overboard as “Santa” without at least a verbal blessing from Disney staff, he was willing to keep up the charade for the kids. But it didn’t seem to be a problem, despite spending hours each day in the parks. Some Disney employees even played along. All of this changed Monday, when Tolbert and his family visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
As Tolbert and his family were wrapping up their visit to Hollywood Studios, set next for the Animal Kingdom, Tolbert was swamped by a group of 15 or more: more Disney guests who wanted his autograph and picture. In the midst of acquiescing, a gentleman approached Tolbert from behind. “Could I speak to you for a moment please?” he asked. “Sure, just one moment,” Tolbert replied. “I need to see you around the corner, please,” the man insisted.
The man was the Attraction Guest Service Manager for the park, and he informed Tolbert that they had been watching him on surveillance for two hours. The manager explained that Tolbert could not pose as Santa Claus within the park and that persons over 10 were not allowed to dress as Disney characters. “Santa is not a Disney character,” Tolbert diplomatically explained, also stating that he clearly was not wearing a Santa Claus costume. Still, the manager asked Tolbert to change his shirt. The somewhat dejected Tolbert, confused, but wanting to avoid conflict, agreed.
Tolbert was told that if anyone else in the parks wanted his autograph or a picture, he was to say “I am not who you think I am, I am on vacation, and you need to leave me alone.”
This resulted in a bit of conflict when Tolbert and the AGS manager went to find a new shirt for him to change into. A mother and her child approached Tolbert for a picture. Tolbert looked at the manager with an expression saying “you take it from here.” The manager, whom Tolbert was quick to add was a very kind and cordial individual, simply told the child that “Santa cannot have his photo taken.” The child began to cry, and Tolbert, feeling compassion for him, knelt down in front of the child with the AGS manager and security officials looking on.
“Santa has a problem,” Tolbert told the child. “I have brought Dasher to the park with me today. Dasher is scared of crowds, and he is lost. I have to find him before he becomes too frightened, and these nice people have agreed to help me find my reindeer. I wish that I could have a photo, but I need to go find Dasher.”
Tolbert then asked the child, “Can you do Santa a few favors?”
The child stared at the ground but nodded.
“I know that you have been very good, and I need you to hold your mother’s hand so you will not get lost. Say your prayers every night, and brush your teeth. I would ask you what you want me to bring you on Christmas Eve, but the elves and I have not finished making some really great toys, so I promise if you will let me go find Dasher now I will bring you something very special on Christmas morning.”
The child looked up for the first time with tears in his eyes and said, “Ok, Santa.”
Tolbert smiled and told the child that he was very proud of him. The child smiled, hugged Tolbert around the neck, and said “I love you, Santa.” Tolbert recalls that the mother and one of the security guards became emotional from the scene, and he swears that one of the Disney officials had wiped away a tear.
Disney park officials furnished Tolbert and his family with guest passes for the inconvenience and pledged to assist them with the rest of their visit in any way they could. Despite their cordiality, park officials denied that any park employees had even silently consented to his activities as “Santa Claus” within the park and advised him to discontinue the charade.
Now, Tolbert only wants his side of the story to be told.
“I’m not there to hurt Disney,” he says. Responding to criticism that Disney has a responsibility to protect their guests from predators, Tolbert stresses, “I couldn’t agree more. But if there was any concern of that, Disney should have pulled me out an hour and 58 minutes after I got to the parks, they wouldn’t have let me go around with a tour guide and take pictures with families,” for as many days.
He says that he was simply on vacation; he didn’t alter his appearance to attract children in a perverse way. After all, he works as a professional Santa Claus and has a background in theater. His appearance is all part of the job, and he has appeared as Santa Claus in a professional capacity since the age of 16.
“A lot of people say ‘this guy’s weird and he thinks he’s Santa Claus.’ No, I know that I am not Santa Claus. What’s important is that I make the person that has come to visit me know that they had just visited with the real Santa Claus when they leave. That’s my job.”
And even though Tolbert wasn’t “on the job” at the parks, the charade is still important since children can’t differentiate between someone who looks like Santa Claus and someone who is professionally portraying Santa Claus.
“People see magical characters with their heart first, their eyes second, and their mind third,” Tolbert argues. He wasn’t looking for attention. He’s not a predator. Innocently enough, he just wanted to protect the reputation of Santa Claus and didn’t see any harm in it.
“I love what Walt built, but as Thomas Tolbert, I’d like to ask Disney’s high officials about how this was being handled. Do you think that Walt would have handled this the way you people have?” Tolbert recalls asking one specific official that very question. “No, he would not have,” was the reply.
Later, Tolbert sought an audience with the AGS manager’s boss to ask him about how the situation was handled in the park that day. While he was waiting outside, yet another child asked for a photo. Prepared to make the Disney-approved speech once again and break yet another child’s heart, he heard a voice from behind him.
“Go ahead, Santa. Have your picture taken.”
Tolbert did, and after the child had left, he asked who the man was. “I’m the man you’ve been waiting for,” he said. Tolbert was stunned by the park manager’s kindness,and asked why he let him take a photo after all that had happened that day. “I can’t stand to see a child cry,” the manager replied. The manager winked at Tolbert and shook his hand.
Thomas Tolbert works as a Life Enrichment Director at Summer’s Landing Tilly Mill in Dunwoody, Georgia. Part of his job responsibilities at the upscale assisted living facility include various appearances in-character as Santa Claus (it’s part of the reason they hired him). He works full-time as Santa Claus during the holiday season and receives payment for his portrayal outside of charity appearances.
Though we can appreciate Disney’s efforts to protect their guests from predatory visitors, Tolbert’s innocence and long-standing career as a professional Santa Claus vindicate him from such labeling, and it’s good to know that even though Tolbert experienced some negative kick-back from park officials and subsequent media reports, several Disney employees recognized him for what he is and intervened to help him protect the real at-risk casualty that day: the innocence of children.