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Surfing for Santa on the Internet

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FAMILY COMPUTING

Copyright - The Journal Newspapers

12/20/99

Popularity of Santa Internet site has snowballed in '99


By ANNE MEDDIS Journal staff writer

h sure, all the talk this time of year is about the wonders of online holiday shopping. But one of the Internet's greatest benefits has been all but ignored: The 'Net has brought Santa to his fans.

Forget about waiting in long lines at the mall to get a few seconds with the Big Guy. With the Internet, we can e-mail him and get instant replies, chat with him live, touch base with the elves and reindeer, check out his significant other, Mrs. Claus, and even visit the jolly old elf's secluded home at the North Pole.

On Christmas Eve, savvy youngsters have a range of Web sites to choose from to track Santa as he makes his rounds - thus rendering useless the time-honored parents' warning that children should go to bed early because you never know when Santa will show up.

This year, more and more people are taking advantage of all these opportunities to find Santa online.

A lot more people.

"It boggles my mind to think about those numbers," reports an astonished Jeff Guide, founder of SantaLand.com and a resident of Prince William County, Va. I met Guide online last year, as I was poking around the various holiday Web sites, and wound up doing a HomePC story on the remarkable history of his site, www.santaland.com.

It began as the first Christmas site on the Internet way back in 1991, he reported - as a gopher site, in those pre-glitzy World Wide Web days. Guide's memories of the calmer, less commercial holiday season of his childhood near New York City inspired him to construct a cyber version of past holiday celebrations.

Although he tinkers with some features every year, the basic idea of connecting with the spirit of holidays past has remained constant. I especially like the opening screen, which features a short essay on past holiday celebrations. Every word that describes a facet of those celebrations is a link to another site that delves into that particular subject. A mention of the traditional plate of cookies left in homes for Santa on Christmas Eve, for example, links to a terrific cookie recipe site. A fond remembrance of skaters at New York City's Rockefeller Center links to a live Webcam of that scene.

SantaLand.com also features a very popular electronic card area, Christmas stories and music, arts and crafts, links to other holiday sites and more.

The site's founder told me last year that he worked long hours at the site over the years, all by himself, in his spare time from his government day job, community service activities and active family life.

This year, things have changed a bit, due primarily to the overwhelming demand for Santa on the 'Net.

Let's take a look at the amazing stats first: Last year, there were a total of 225,000 unique visitors to the site - a hefty increase from previous years and a gratifying amount of attention for a "grassroots" site like SantaLand.com.

They were tremendous visitor figures - until this year rolled around, that is. "This 1999 holiday season the numbers have gone through the roof," Guide e-mailed on Friday. "As we `speak,' the number of unique visitors is 750,000. By Christmas we are going to be pushing the 1 million mark!"

Wow. And in case you think the figures are being inflated a bit, Guide added that "Those numbers are actual individual users, not hits on the site." (A hit is an electronic request for information.)

"If you want to know just hits, we already passed 10 million hits [this year]," he said. "In 1998 we only had 1.5 million."

Other new features are the Chat with Santa, Letters to Santa and Call Me Santa areas, all contracted out to other companies. The regularly scheduled chats ended this past weekend, presumably since Santa is pressed for time this week.

There are also free Santaland.com e-mail accounts available this year. "People can sign up for an e-mail address with no strings/ds attached. We've given away over 2,000 already," Guide said.

The electronic holiday cards are again proving very popular - some 20,000 have been sent this holiday season.

This Christmas Eve, there will be a new option for tracking Santa. Guide has a new domain, christmasevewithsanta.com, which will help kids locate Rudolph and the gang. (Also check out the North American Aerospace Defense Command's high-tech Santa-tracker at www.noradsanta.org).

A bigger challenge has been handling all those visitors clamoring to enter Santaland.com. "On the technical side, I added three load-sharing mirror sites to handle the expected SantaLand traffic. It was a good thing we did because with the numbers [of visitors], the system would have bogged down. I had the sites set up in California, Virginia and Georgia."

And anticipating even more popularity for Santa, Guide is already making plans for improving SantaLand.com for 2000 and beyond. He's taken on a partner in Manassas, Va., and is looking forward to "a better interface, a streamlined site to cut down on the now-high maintenance factor, ...new bells and whistles, and possibly ... a free homepage concept for other unrelated Christmas sites."

He said, "I can no longer do this all myself and spend all those late hours. With numbers like this I have to take SantaLand.com to the next level. To survive on the Internet today you have to begin playing with the big boys."

It's ironic that the tremendous popularity of the old-fashioned Christmas theme has forced the site to become a bit more commercial and more high-tech.

Last year, when I asked him why he does all that work on SantaLand.com, Guide replied, "I just have this thing about Christmas. 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."

I hope he succeeds in using the technology to help us have an old-fashioned, less commercial holiday. I think Santa himself would approve.

Anne Meddis is editor of HomePC and community news editor for the Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria Journals. She can be reached at ameddis@jrnl.com.