Deep in the heart of suburban Virginia, in a shopping mall that sells discounted sweaters and low-cost shoes, is a glittery castle with fiber glass reindeer and a red velvet throne that is the sometime seasonal home of Dan Morgan, Video Santa.
Although parents can have conventional Polaroid pictures taken, or can have their children visit for free, it is video that lures most of them to this booth at the Potomac Mills shopping center in Woodbridge, just off Rte. I-95.
For $9.95 with a coupon from participating stores, or $10.95 without one, parents can take home up to three minutes' worth of their child crawling on Santa's lap, in living and permanent color and sound.
There are four different Video Santas at the mall, but on Tuesday, the lap that the children sat on belonged to Morgan, a 26-year-old graduate student at George Mason University.
He said he wouldn't have much time for adult chatter once he ascended his velvet throne, but he took a few minutes beforehand, while changing in a back office.
Morgan said that he lived in Alexandria, and that he felt as if he had been a student for about 85 years.
To make money on the side, he had held a variety of part-time jobs, including giving horse-drawn carriage tours of Old Town Alexandria, and delivering bunches of balloons to birthday parties and office soirees.
He said that he had found his latest job after taking a workshop offered by The University of the North Pole at Washington, D.C., which he described as a local Santa training course offered by The Wonder Co. -- the special events firm that staged Video Santa at the mall.
Among other things, the course taught him how to answer the tricky questions all Santas get, such as "Are you real?" The answer: "I'm as real as the twinkle in your eye and the love in your heart."
The workshop also taught him about Santa makeup. Too much, and Santa looks like he's masquerading in drag. Too much blusher and -- "One time, I put on too much, and I looked like Santa on the warpath."
Morgan also learned to lower his voice, but wishes he could deepen it further. "I don't bellow enough," he said.
Other questions and answers come quickly, as Morgan calls for a rope to strap a pillow to his belly.
What does he want to do when he graduates from George Mason?
"Raise a family of reindeer."
Could he elaborate?
"I'd like to have my own company and be a judge on Star Search."
Is Video Santa a coming thing?
"I think this is going to be the start of something new on the horizon," he said. "How about 'Santa's Workout Record?' And, just remember -- I thought of it."
Did he sit on Santa's knee as a child?
"I was terrified of Santa."
It's now 3:30 p.m., and about 15 parents are waiting with their children in the mall hallway. Morgan apologizes; he has run out of time.
He practices a "ho-ho-ho."
Joe Jeff Goldblatt, executive producer of The Wonder Co., reminds him that lots of parents want the videos to send to relatives, especially grandmothers.
"Make sure you ask the children to wave for grandma," Goldblatt says.
"What if there is no grandma?"
Goldblatt thinks for a second.
"Well, then, we've got a problem," he says. "But, usually, there's a grandma."
Together, Morgan and Goldblatt dance into the mall lobby, where Jingle Bells is playing from the speakers, and the children are smiling and pointing.
"All right, Santa -- are you ready for your first video visit?" asks Goldblatt.
"Ho, ho, ho," smiles Morgan. "I certainly am."
He steps up to the velvet throne, beside the white-flocked Christmas trees, and the first child crawls into his lap.
Surprisingly, about 20 percent of the Video Santa business isn't children at all, but teen-agers.
"They think it's camp," said Morgan.
"'We'll sit on Santa's lap and this will be so camp, and we'll send it to Billy and Joey and Jeffy.' "
But the main effort, of course, is directed at the children.
For four hours, Morgan listened patiently to child after child.
Morgan answered questions about chimneys and toys, and told the children how much their parents loved them, and dispensed sage answers to impossible questions.
But, by dinner time, Morgan said his ho-ho-hos were becoming increasingly drawn out, and his North Pole stamina wearing thin.
He needed a break, and he needed one badly.
"By 7:30 p.m., I was just begging Joe to let me go feed the reindeer," he said.