Ready or not, Santa Claus is coming to town, and the kids couldn't be more excited. Thanks to technology, families today have a lot more ways than a quick photo with the mall Santa to catch up with (or just plain catch!) the jolly bearded man.
Now kids can talk directly with St. Nick via the phone or an app, track his progress on Christmas Eve, and even watch a live reindeer cam. Want to really blow their minds? There are apps that let you share a photo of Santa handing out presents in your very own living room. Christmastime is already among the most magical seasons for children, but these fun tools take it to the next level. Read on for our favorite ways to check in with Santa before Christmas and follow all his antics on Christmas Eve. Our special gift for you: These 11 special Santa experiences are (mostly) FREE!
Vonage's North Pole Central
Vonage has offered its customers a Santa phone number for several years, but the phone company also gives the general public a holiday treat. If Vonage is your phone service, dial 1-700-Call-Santa for an instant connection to the North Pole answering machine, where kids can leave a message with a wish list for Santa Claus. Everyone else can visit the Vonage North Pole Central Website to request a call. The call is clearly prerecorded, not personalized, and slightly cheesy, but kids love it anyway. After previewing it on my own, I saved the phone number (1-800-969-9077) in my cell phone, along with a photo of Santa and conveniently left the phone next to my 7-year-old daughter as I stepped out of the room to request the call. The look on her face when she saw Santa calling was priceless. Needless to say, she listened attentively to the message and left a long list of American Girl-themed ideas on his voicemail! The best part of the service is that almost immediately, Vonage emailed me a copy of her voice message to keep, share, and shop from. Make sure you are home when you click submit, because the phone rings seconds later! She's still trying to figure out how Santa got my number. One word: Magic! FREE
While this Santa call isn't personalized, it allows parents to pick from a few options that make it better than the average prerecorded call. Choose between a call from Santa or an "Elf on the Shelf," and then select one of four possible messages. Again, this call comes within seconds of clicking submit on the website, so make sure the kids are at home when you do it. This call is strictly one-sided, meaning kids just listen and don't actually get to talk to the caller. You can opt for a premium package, though, which allows you to schedule the call in advance and save the message as a computer file. The first call is FREE; additional calls require an upgrade to premium, which starts at $1.
Portable North Pole
Available on iTunes and Google Play.
I used my 3-year-old as a test case for this service which creates free, well-made video messages where Santa and his elves check in from the North Pole. Type in your child's name, birth date, and age, then upload a photo, which appears on screen in Santa's big book of naughty and nice. The app even offers various pronunciations of your child's name to get it just right and offers you the option to select an "effort" you've asked of the child. For my daughter, I chose "always say please and thank you," and during the message, Santa asked her if she'd been working hard to try her best to do so. There are tons of options—to do homework, make it to the potty on time; to be more honest, and so on. The video is really adorable and my daughter keeps telling everyone about her special message from Santa. In-app purchases allow you to record your child's reaction as they watch the video, as well as unlock "premium" video content, create personalized phone calls, and more. There are two sides to this app—one for the children to interact with and see their personalized videos, as well as play a couple of games, and talk to an elf who repeats whatever you say; and a passcode-protected parents corner where you can "help" Santa craft the perfect video or call. Both apps are FREE, but offer in-app upgrades for a fee.
Talk or text directly with Santa via Santa's Magic Phone.
Santa's Magic Phone
Available on iTunes and Google Play.
When it comes to Santa phone calls, if you think tis better to give than receive, check out this app which, though more cartoony than the Portable North Pole interface, allows kids to give Santa a FaceTime-like phone call. Beware, the video is totally one-sided—your child's face will appear in the top right-hand corner, but there will be no interacting with a live Santa. Instead, you'll see his cartoon image watching as your child reads their wish list, which is recorded and accessible on the passcode-protected parent side of the app. The app also lets you compose text messages from Santa or request a phone call from Santa to congratulate "nice" behavior and reprimand "naughty" moments. These messages and calls all only take place within the app, making it best for younger kids who won't know the difference between the cartoony interface and your phone's real functionality. The kids' area also lets children play a variety of seasonally-themed games, like Christmas tree and cookie decorating, or mess around in a funny photo booth. Both apps are FREE but for the most customization, you'll have to upgrade to the full version for $5.99.
Heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house (or anywhere else) this Christmas? If your kiddos are worried about Santa finding his way, this website helps them effortlessly inform the North Pole of your travel plans so Santa gets the goodies to your vacation destination, allowing kids to rest easy (and early!) on Christmas Eve. You can rest easy knowing the site doesn't collect too much personal info: no actual addresses are left, just first names, hometown, and holiday destination. FREE
See Santa's reindeer live on Reindeer Cam.
If you're anything like me, you're probably reminding the kids incessantly that "Santa's helpers are watching," this time of the year. Turn the tables a bit, and let your kids spy on those helpers—at least the furry, antlered variety with this live Reindeer Cam. Bonus points if you take time to add your kid's name to the "Nice List" that scrolls below the barnyard feed (or maybe you can perpetuate that you-better-shape-up storyline by not doing so). FREE
USPS Letters from Santa
For some good, old-fashioned, analog holiday fun, participate in the USPS Letters from Santa program. Sneakily remove your child's Santa letter from the mail and write a response. The USPS even offers some examples to cure your writer's block. Then take both letters and insert them into an envelope addressed to your child with a "Santa, North Pole" return address and appropriate first-class postage, and mail them (in yet another envelope) to: North Pole Postmark Postmaster, 4141 Postmark Drive, Anchorage, AK 99530-9998. Hurry, though. Letters must be received by December 15 to be returned to your child with a North Pole postmark before the big day.
Christmas Eve Fun
NORAD Santa Tracker
Also available on the iTunes Store.
Growing up in Colorado, the fact that Santa's every move was tracked via NORAD, less than 100 miles from our living room, was common knowledge, but as we watched the local news for updates or read about Santa's adventures in the paper on Christmas morning, I never knew the charming story behind NORAD's entree into the Santa tracking business. I guess I thought it was classified! All these years later, NORAD's best people are still hard at work tracking Santa's every move, only now they've brought their technology to the iTunes Store and the web. Log on before December 24 and you'll see a Christmas countdown, plus be able to explore the North Pole with some interactive games, or watch videos about Santa and NORAD. Come Christmas Eve, the military's top Santa trackers man the command center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and transmit live updates on Santa's every move via the digital platforms. FREE
Follow Santa's sleigh with the Google Santa Tracker, plus enjoy holiday-themed kid games.
Google Santa Tracker
Also available on Google Play.
Google's Santa Tracker app doubles as an advent-calendar-type game by revealing a new holiday activity each day of the month leading up to Christmas Eve, and that's when the fun really gets started as Google's brightest minds stay up all night following Rudolph's light as it guides Santa across the night sky. Previously-released activities include a code lab, a snowflake generator, and a translator that allows you to hear "Santa Claus," "ho, ho, ho," "season's greetings," and "Happy New Year" translated into 25 different languages, including Elvish. If you've got an Android phone and a Cardboard VR headset, you can play Christmas-themed games through the app there, too. FREE
Catch Santa in my House app screenshot. Background photo by James Emery via Flickr.
Catch Santa in my House
Available on iTunes and Google Play.
Once the presents are unwrapped and the paper is bunched up and thrown away, blow your kids mind by letting them think you caught Santa in your living room with the help of this app, which lets you upload a photo of your Christmas tree and import a Santa into the scene. From a Santa busy at work barreling through his bag for the perfect present, to one of him looking surprised, or another shushing you to keep his secret, this app (out of many like it) offers more "free" Santa's (nine) to add to your creation than its competition, though a 99-cent fee unlocks 14 more. Beware of all the annoying pop-up ads that come with this and other free apps.
Capture the Magic
Available online, iTunes, and Google Play.
Another photo editing tool to show kids Santa was really here! Just like Catch Santa, use this service to essentially Photoshop Santa into your lives. Merge a photo of your tree laden with gifts with one of their Santa poses (unloading the bag of gifts, standing, smiling, you get the idea), and then share with kids on the day of Christmas. There are a dozen-plus Santa poses from which to choose, as well as a black Santa. The price varies. Buying a full pack of Santa "stickers," which includes a dozen poses averages $6.99, but the "Original Santa," which includes just five poses is $2.99. The "full pack" of 62 Original Santa poses is $8.99, and there are "Reindeer & Sleighs" for just 99 cents. Online photos begin at $1.99 for one image. By the way, come back to the app for Easter or when that first tooth that is lost. There are Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy options, too!
Top image: Catch Santa in my House app screenshot. Background photo by JD Hancock via Flickr. Unless otherwise noted, all images from the apps.
This article first published in December 2014, but has since been updated.