HALFWAY, Md. — Decked out in red velvet and leopard print with jingle bells around her neck, 3-year-old Brooklyn Dunkle awaited Santa's arrival.
"He's exciting," she said. "He's, he's ..."
As she searched for words to describe him, Jolly Old St. Nick came "Ho-ho-hoing" down the corridor at Valley Mall aboard a train. Flanked by elves and Mrs. Claus and waving to the crowd, he made his way to his red striped chair in the mall's festively decorated center court, known for the holiday season as Valley Mall Junction.
Brooklyn and her 6-month-old brother, Ayden Dovala, clad in red plaid with a newsboy cap, posed for a picture with Santa Claus and collected a couple of early gifts.
John and Chanel Dovala, 27 and 23, of Bedford, Pa., said they were visiting family in Chambersburg, Pa., when they heard Santa would be making an appearance.
"(Brooklyn) has been excited to put on her pretty dress and come to see Santa," Chanel Dovala said. "Getting to sit on his lap is super exciting. (Ayden) has no idea what's going on yet, but big sissy does."
Brooklyn wasted no time putting in a direct order for a princess kitchen, Princess Barbies and a Lalaloopsy doll.
Michele Wills, marketing director at Valley Mall, said Santa's holiday train theme is in keeping with Hagerstown's railroad heritage. Adding to the festive atmosphere was the Valley Mall Junction mascot Cully the Conductor. The towering dog high-fived many of the several hundred who had gathered and posed for pictures with the children.
Parents and children sat at tables in the court making Santa-themed crafts.
Wills said more than 10,000 children visit Santa at the mall in a typical season.
"I buy at least 10,000 gifts," she said. "We run out and I go buy more."
Katie Dewarf, 38, of Inwood, W.Va., took her sons Tyler, 5, and Zane, 3, to see Santa kick off the Christmas season.
"The presentation here is great and the kids love it," she said.
Zane asked Santa for a rocket ship. Tyler had some information to share with Santa before he made any requests.
"I told him I've been a good boy," Tyler said.
Then, he revealed that he'd like some monster trucks.
Lois Lockard of Hagerstown introduced her niece Aaliyah Cramblitt, 4, to Santa Claus for the first time.
"Santa said he's gonna leave some presents under my tree," Aaliyah said.
She's hoping Monster High dolls and some Play-Doh are among them, she said. But even though Santa offered presents, Aaliyah was less interested in him than in his equally jolly wife.
"All she wanted to see and talk to was Mrs. Claus," Lockard said. For some reason, she liked her better."
Wills said she is feeling "very optimistic" about the holiday shopping season.
"I think the crowd today indicates that people are ready, that they are getting in the spirit of Christmas," she said.
Retail sales were "decent" last year, Wills said. Given the current economy, it's difficult to make predictions for this year, but she has a "good sense." Retail space at the mall is nearly filled to capacity and most vacant spaces are in the process of leasing, she said.
The mall will continue to host special events throughout the holiday season, including pet photos with Santa, a Hagerstown Children's Theater performance and a Lunch with Santa to benefit the Community Free Clinic.