July 25, 2012 at 4:38 PM ET
With his roly-poly body and bleached-white hair, mustache and beard, 52-year old Thomas Tolbert of Roswell, Ga., is a spitting image of Santa Claus.
In June, during a Father’s Day weekend trip to Disney World with relatives, theme-park officials pulled Tolbert aside and ordered him to stop signing autographs, posing for photographs, and dressing to look like Santa.
“I wasn’t wearing a red suit, a hat or black boots,” Tolbert told NBC News, “just khaki pants, red high-top sneakers with green laces and a billowy, specially-made shirt decorated with a collage of Santa Claus heads and sayings from ‘The Night before Christmas.'”
During his first two days at the park, Tolbert — a professional Santa Claus who once took third place for looks, believability and photo at a national Santa Convention — said he spent a good deal of time chatting and posing for photos with many children, adults and Disney “cast members,” But after a crowd gathered around him on this third day in the park, he said a Disney employee asked him to step around a corner.
“He told me, ‘You cannot be Santa and you can’t wear that shirt in the park.’ He asked if I had any clothes in my hotel room that were less ‘Santa-ish’ and took me into a shop and pulled a 3X T-shirt from the rack to see if it would fit me.”
It didn’t. But a large, short-sleeve, white button down shirt from the theme-park wardrobe department did. “Then they said to tell people, ‘I'm not who you think I am. I’m on vacation and you need to leave me alone.'"
Tolbert refused. “I told them Santa would never tell people that.”
Walt Disney World Resort confirmed that it asked Tolbert to change his clothes and to stop interacting as Santa with other theme-park guests because “it was disruptive to our operations and confusing to our other guests, particularly children who asked to take photos with him.”
Tolbert was given some complimentary park hopper passes “because of the inconvenience,” but he’s not satisfied. “Disney doesn’t own the character of Santa, the world does,” he said.
“And as Santa, I will try to make anyone’s day more magical. So my question is: If I go back with my free passes, how will it be different?”
Tolbert is not the first to be asked to change his outfit at a Disney theme park. Citing the theme park’s dress policy, park recently officials asked April Spielman and her boyfriend to change out of their Tinker Bell and Peter Pan costumes.
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