While many families must brave holiday mall crowds to get an annual photo with Santa Claus, children in Tustin simply have to walk out their front door.
The Tustin Police Department’s annual Santa’s Sleigh has come to town — a 16-year tradition that is a holiday staple in the community drawing hundreds of families every year.
The sleigh visits every neighborhood in the city over 15 nights unless inclement weather grounds Santa and his reindeer.
It was a clear night Tuesday, Dec. 9 — and not even very chilly — as Santa and Mrs. Claus boarded their sleigh ready to make more than a dozen stops in various neighborhoods of southeast Tustin.
Santa — played that night by Tustin PD’s Lt. Robert Wright — called out to motorists, residents filling their tanks at gas stations and drivers waiting to pickup dinner from drive-thru restaurants.
He was met with waves, horn honks and hollers of appreciation.
“Thank you Santa,” one motorist on Newport Avenue yelled out his window. “You guys are doing a great job.”
Santa and Mrs. Claus — played by Tustin PD police records specialist Stephanie Distefano — pulled in to their first stop on Del Amo Avenue calling families from their homes.
Eight-year-old Junior Palacios paused when asked the standard Santa question, “Were you good this year?”
Palacios later decided that all his help around the house should be enough to keep his name on the nice list.
“I did the laundry without my mom asking,” he recalled. “And I helped with the dishes and helped my dad wash his car.”
Maria Valdivila said her three children look forward to Santa’s Sleigh every year.
“I just think it’s wonderful,” Valdivila said. “We’ve been coming to this for about five years now and the kids just love it.
“They have been so excited and waiting and getting ready since they got home from school today.”
The sleigh weaved through neighborhood streets, even making an impromptu visit to a few families outside the Foothill Regional Medical Center.
Children brought homemade cookies, drawings and letters to give Santa.
Some were shy, a few babies cried, but most were visibly excited — one boy shouting as he exited the sleigh, “This is the best Christmas ever!”
Helping to make the holiday season the “best ever” for Tustin families is why members of the police department and city volunteer to run Santa’s Sleigh.
The program started in 1998 when, after 13 years as a motor officer, Master Reserve Officer George Vallevieni was assigned to the Community Resources department (which is now called the Professional Standards Unit) and tasked with developing a holiday program.
Vallevieni had an idea for a trailer outfitted to look like Santa’s sleigh that would visit children in the city, but he needed to find funding.
Over a hot cocoa with friend and Tustin councilman Chuck Puckett, Vallevieni shared his vision.
“Chuck, who was president of the Tustin Community Foundation, said, ‘This is the best idea I’ve ever heard. I’ll get you the money,’” Vallevieni said.
The budget was $3,000.
Vallevieni tracked down a trailer and a business in Fullerton offered to refurbish it for free, painting it a bright red (as Santa’s sleigh should be).
“When I got it back it was like a brand new penny,” Vallevieni said.
Vallevieni eventually found a sleigh at an antique shop in San Juan Capistrano and the shop owner dropped the price from $1,500 to $700 when she learned what the 1909 antique would be used for.
It took Vallevieni about three months to build Santa’s Sleigh.
Santa’s Sleigh started with four nights but quickly grew to 10. Once cell phones with cameras came on the scene, Tustin PD had to add more visits, Vallevieni said.
Nearly 200,000 children have visited Santa on his sleigh since the program started.
Santa and Mrs. Claus will be riding through Tustin starting at 5 p.m. every weeknight through Dec. 22. Tustin PD will post signs to alert residents when the sleigh will be visiting their neighborhood.