A man who spent a lifetime playing Santa Claus became a "distraction" to other guests during a recent visit to Walt Disney World, according to a theme park spokesperson.
Thomas Tolbert did not come to Disney wearing the full Santa suit, but he admits that he normally wears clothing that is Santa-related. Regardless what he wears, Tolbert said his white beard, facial features, and physique makes him the target of stares, smiles from children and requests for photos.
When he came on a recent family trip to Disney, people asked for autographs, which he signed. All appeared fine, until his last day, when a Disney representative saw him in the middle of a crowd obliging to photos with children.
"He said, 'You can't be portraying Santa,'" recalls Tolbert, who said Disney asked him to change into something less Santa-ish.
But he said that didn't help. People still pointed and shouted "Santa!"
"I never had a red suit on, I never had a hat, I didn't have fur boots on. But that doesn't make Santa. The face and the persona is what makes Santa," said Tolbert, who insists he never approached any guests portraying himself as either Santa or a Disney employee.
He said Disney even told him to turn children away if they were curious.
"They said, 'You need to say I'm sorry, I'm not who you think I am. I'm on vacation and you need to leave me alone,'" but Tolbert said that's not something Santa would say, and he refuses to turn away any child.
In a statement, Disney spokesperson Kathleen Prihoda said "The guest was asked to change his attire because it was disruptive to our operations and confusing to our other guests, particularly children who asked to take photos with him. He was not asked to leave, instead, we tried to work with him so that he could continue his visit."
To that, Tolbert said, "Disney does not own the image of Santa. Santa Claus is not owned by anybody, except for the world."
Tolbert said Disney gave him special passes for his next trip, but he wonders if he's going to encounter a similar problem next time. He said if Disney views people who resemble icons as "distractions" then the company should treat them like they do celebrities, and shield them from crowds.