FLAGSTAFF, AZ — It is one of Arizona's premier Christmas events, an experience that typically begins in November and draws families to Flagstaff from all over the country.
Last week, however, the news was less than jolly as organizers announced that the North Pole Experience canceled its 2020 season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the fluid changes in health and safety guidelines.
It is a devastating blow on its own, but it was the cancellation policies that left some families feeling frustrated and left out in the cold.
“Christmas is supposed to be about giving and giving back," said Sesalee Surls.
She had it all planned out: six tickets to the North Pole Experience for a trip for the entire family, including family members who would be traveling in from California for one last hurrah.
“I definitely wanted to do it especially because it’s gonna be one of the last things that we do with that side of the family before we leave,” said Surls. Her husband is in the Navy and the whole family is moving overseas in December.
So, she booked one last experience, a $490 expense that included tickets, insurance, and two souvenir ornaments.
But, the North Pole Experience was not issuing refunds.
“Covid is not their fault, the way that they’re handling this is,” said Surls.
Instead, anyone who purchased tickets would have their tickets automatically transferred to their 2021 season, same date and time, and would be able to make changes before tickets went on sale to the public next year. Tickets could also be gifted to a friend or another family member. Attendees would also receive a $10 credit for each ticket to the gift shop.
“Our whole family was more than excited. We were counting down the days to it,” said Jessica Reeder, a mother of four from Queen Creek, who shelled out hundreds of dollars for her family to go.
But, refunds were not an option.
“And I thought that was a slap in the face to a lot of families,” she said.
Soon, a blizzard of angry messages flooded the North Pole Experience's Facebook page. As of Wednesday, one post had more than 500 comments.
“I’ve talked to a couple of families that this is their kids' only Christmas gift,” said Reeder.
“I know Santa would never do this to me,” said Surls with a sad chuckle.
Now, it appears that organizers have had a change of heart.
In a written statement to ABC15 on Thursday, organizers said the decision to cancel was not an easy decision to make, but that based on feedback from hundreds of customers, they are working on a ticket buy-back option.
Details on how that program would work were still being finalized, but would be released next week, the statement said.
"We would like our customers to know that we have read each and every email, note, concern and heartache. We understand and respect the hurt and frustration and this is a shock and disappointment to us as well. We realize there are many individual concerns and cases with customers who live out of state, many first time guests, and other issues we will be addressing," the statement read. "This decision was not an easy one and we would like all guests to know there were many factors and limitations beyond our control including last-minute location restrictions with the county, an obvious drop in ticket sales due to Covid and a dramatic decrease in capacity due to social distancing guidelines."
You can read the full statement below:
The North Pole Experience has become a treasured Christmas tradition and over the past 12 years we have been delivering the magic and memories for families...bringing Christmas to life with enchanting interactions and storytelling through Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves.
We would like to thank all our customers for their patience over the past week since our 2020 postponement announcement. We would like our customers to know that we have read each and every email, note, concern and heartache. We understand and respect the hurt and frustration and this is a shock and disappointment to us as well. We realize there are many individual concerns and cases with customers who live out of state, many first time guests, and other issues we will be addressing.
Being a small company, Santa’s elves will be working diligently to address everyone who has contacted us over the next week.
As many know, NPX is not a seasonal operation that can switch gears from one holiday to another. Christmas is our one and only season and taking away visits to Santa’s enchanting workshop bears such a heavy weight on us all. Just like Disney and other Broadway productions that have been canceled across the world, an experience like the North Pole Experience is not one that you can replicate virtually.
This decision was not an easy one and we would like all guests to know there were many factors and limitations beyond our control including last-minute location restrictions with the county, an obvious drop in ticket sales due to Covid and a dramatic decrease in capacity due to social distancing guidelines. This paired with local mask mandates and our elves bright and cheery faces and having to adjust to Santa in a mask behind a plexiglass wall was just an experience that was not ideal and after speaking to many of our regular guests, Santa and the elves...we had to come to this gut-wrenching decision.
All guests that purchased tickets for 2020 have been issued tickets for the 2021 season. We are working on a ticket buy-back plan that we will be announcing next week and all 2020 guests will have the ability to switch their dates to new dates if they wish prior to 2021 ticket release.
While this is an extremely difficult year for all of us, we are confident that the Christmas Magic will endure on in 2021 forward.