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Copyright - The Journal Newspapers

12/21/98

A visit to Santaland(.com)
Area man keeps old-fashioned holiday spirit alive online


By ANNE MEDDIS Journal staff writer

With less than a week to go before Christmas, the real Santa Claus can't be nearly as busy as Jeff Guide of Santaland.com.

As creator of the popular, huge Web site at http:/www.Santaland.com, the Dale City, Va., man is attempting to use high technology to bring back the old-fashioned Christmas spirit. And computer users are responding in a big way: The site attracts more than 20,000 people a day from all over the world, and has recorded more than 900,000 "hits," or requests for information, this holiday season alone. Now in its eighth year, Santaland also has the distinction of being the first Christmas site on the Internet, Guide says.

But it's not all fun and computer games: Guide is literally working night and day this time of year on his Web site. He labors on Santaland until the wee hours most nights, spends lunch hours tweaking it and, in any spare time, travels around taking pictures of holiday scenes to add to the site. "I put in at least eight hours a day" on the site, Guide says.

That's in addition to arising at 5 a.m. weekdays to make the commute to his administrative position at the Library of Congress in Washington (a job that's unrelated to computers, he notes), being active in the Prince William County Democratic Party, serving as a newly elected Soil and Water Conservation District director for the county, and being involved in an active family life with wife Marty and children Jeff, 9, and Kasey, 4.

The site is not a money-making venture so far ("I wish," Guide laughs) - in fact, it costs increasing amounts of money just to keep it on the Internet. There is no big advertising campaign, and he shuns self-congratulatory plugs on the site. So why do all the work?

"I just have this thing about Christmas," Guide says. "It's a special time, and as you get older you try to remember what it was like when you were a kid, now that everything is so commercial. ... You try to make Christmas more the way it should be."

Indeed, the site offers everything one could possibly think of relating to a happy, wholesome holiday season, with an accent on Christmases past: Both original material and many Internet links are offered relating to holiday recipes, traditions, music, books and stories, video games, arts and crafts, plant care, movies and TV shows, digital greeting cards (a huge selection), celebrations around the nation and the world, and more. The "Kids Corner" alone features an excellent collection of links to sites on games, calendars, artwork, toys, science, TV shows, education and more.

The site's emphasis on New York City holiday traditions stems from Guide's own warm memories of visits to the city from his suburban New Jersey home while growing up. The 46-year-old fondly recalls trips to the Macy's Santa Claus and Radio City Music Hall - and his site features links for sites related to both. There's even a live view of skaters at Rockefeller Center.

The newest feature at Santaland.com is an opportunity to send holiday greetings to troops participating in Operation Desert Fox in the Persian Gulf. It was added late last week, and attracted user support immediately, Guide reports. The greetings are posted online, and will also be printed out and mailed.

On Christmas Eve, Guide will activate his own Santa tracker - "I call it the low-tech version" he laughs. Using satellite and other images doctored with a tiny Santa picture, kids can track Santa via the "Santa Space Scope," "radar" and "Santa Cam." There are also links to more high-tech Santa-trackers such as the NORAD Santa Scope system by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (www.noradsanta.org).

Guide's version requires him to activate a new segment of the program as Santa's travels progress, which means that every Christmas Eve finds him at home, on the computer.

Does his family mind all this? Not at all, Guide reports. They've been completely supportive - even though he hasn't had the time this year to set up his own home Christmas lights. In fact, his wife is amused by the fact that she's been getting online holiday greeting cards from Santaland, sent by friends who have no idea that the site is Jeff's.

The Santaland idea was sparked by his son, when Guide realized back in 1991 that "there was nothing out there for kids at the time" on the Internet. "I was actually the first one to put something on the Internet like this." Since the World Wide Web wasn't in existence at that point, Santaland started as a gopher site, which was the system then used for organizing and displaying files on Internet servers. The idea received quite a bit of attention that first year, with several journalists calling Guide for interviews.

It wasn't until last year, however, that Santaland.com started attracted a wide audience - and visitor figures "have gone through the roof this year," he says. More than twice as many people are visiting this year as compared to '97, the previous biggest year, he said. And the numbers are growing by the day.

Santaland is entirely produced on a Pentium 300 clone, equipped with "every graphics utility you can think of." All the coding and most artwork is done by hand, all "learned by scratch."

Guide attributes the jump in visitors this year to an increasing popularity of holiday sites in general on the Internet, increased attention from search engines such as Excite and AltaVista, the fact that he added the site to some international search engines (some 30 percent of the site's visitors are from outside the United States), and higher visibility because Santaland is now linked on more than 300 sites, not including search engines.

The top five most popular features on the site, in order, are: Christmas music, traditions, children's activities, the cyber-cards (more than 8,000 have been sent in just the past week or so) and arts and crafts.

It amazes Guide that even after Christmas, about 150 people a day visit Santaland. "The only thing I can think of is they go for the arts and crafts and recipes," he says. Noting that many people also visit the holiday music area during the off-season, he adds, "don't ask me what they're doing with that in July!"

One feature that was dropped this year from Santaland is letters to Santa, which were posted online in previous years and also answered personally by Guide as Santa. Guide says he gave up trying to screen out the "demented" people who would post messages not suitable for children.

He still receives 25 to 30 messages a day, from complimentary users, people offering material for the site and children seeking Santa. Guide says he responds to them all. It's a lot of work, but he regards it as his contribution to the spirit of Christmas.

"The satisfaction that it's well-accepted by the kids and their families, that's the only satisfaction I get [from doing the site] - especially the letters from kids," Guide says.