With just a tug of his beard, children believe in this kind and gentle Santa at the Cincinnati Zoo

CINCINNATI -- The kids can’t wait to meet him. They come from every local neighborhood and beyond to the Cincinnati Zoo, passing through thousands of twinkling lights, finally arriving at his throne. Waiting in line — some patiently, some not-so-patiently — they are hoisted onto Santa’s lap at last.

Some rattle off a long list of Christmas wishes and some forget that list altogether. Some laugh and smile for the camera, and some cry like they’re getting a flu shot. And some have a different reaction altogether — they reach up to Santa’s jolly face and give that big beard a nice, firm tug.

It may seem cruel to try and yank the facial hair off of a perfectly merry Santa. But the kids just want to know what he’s really like under all that “costume.”

In the case of Robert Weidle, they aren’t going to expose Santa as a fraud. He winks as they release his beard, and they look amazed when they realize it’s the real thing. And for that moment, no matter how convinced they were otherwise, they believe.

This is just one of the perks of not only acting the part, but looking it, all year ’round.

“My beard comes in naturally this color,” said the 51-year-old Weidle, running his fingers through the thick white strands. “I start growing it out in the spring, and don’t shave until after Christmas. However, my hair comes in brown. So four or five days before we start the (zoo’s) Festival of Lights, I bleach my hair.”

Weidle is going through this transformation for the sixth year in a row. He hasn’t always been the head honcho of the holiday season. He’s served time as Blizzard the Tiger, Needles the Talking Christmas Tree, and the Singing Forest Ranger during his 20-year tenure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Now he’s “paid to look good” as the famous man in red. He spends 31 days embodying Santa Claus, donning an $800 suit of rich velvet and faux fur accents. An hour of preparation is required every night, as he whitens his eyebrows, pulls on the heavy suit and boots and runs through special events for the night. Then, as the first child toddles over to the throne, show time begins.

Hundreds of kids cycle through, putting in their special requests and offering a myriad of different reactions.

“When they sit the kids down on my lap and they’re screaming, the photographs are hysterical,” Weidle said. “Parents can show that at the kids’ wedding to embarrass them, or show the photos to future prom dates.”

The zoo’s Santa brings a special skill that helps him deal with upset children and other situations better than any other St. Nick you’re likely to find. Weidle has worked with mentally handicapped adults for 23 years. That’s taught him a thing or two about patience and positive energy.

“You have to take a gentle approach with handicapped adults,” he said. “The gentler you are, the easier it is to gain someone’s trust. I think that not ‘ho-ho-hoing’ all the time makes apprehensive kids actually come up to me.”

Dan Moeller has worked with Weidle at the zoo since 2006. He’s never heard a single “ho-ho-ho.”

“He talks to the kids on a different level from what you normally see,” Moeller said. “He knows exactly what they are thinking. A kid can go into his arms crying and leave smiling big and wide.”

The requests Santa hears are a lot different from when Weidle was young. The children ask for iPads and iPhones, Kindles and cars. Yes, cars — for their parents, of course.

Another request he’s heard is for a girl- or boyfriend for mommy or daddy, to which Weidle replies, “I’ll try to talk to Cupid about that.”

No matter the wish for Santa, Weidle makes sure it’s heard. When deaf children come to visit him, he’s ready with sign language.

“It’s really touching when a kid with special needs comes,” Moeller said, “because he takes extra time to let them know that Santa’s there.”

Still, there will always be the little skeptics, Weidle said.

“I get a lot of kids ask me if I’m the real Santa. I say, ‘What do you think?’ They say, ‘Well, you look real.’ And the magical thing is, I tell them to pull on my beard. When they know it’s real, they get this amazed look on their face. I tell them, ‘I’ll always be real if you believe.’”

Dakota Wright, author and Carli Hudson, videography. Wright and Hudson are journalism students at the University of Cincinnati and members of the New Media Bureau.

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