SANTA BARBARA — When the wrong numbers started flooding in last year, John Dickson didn't just hang up.
Instead, he said "Ho ho ho" and solemnly heard requests for laptops and light sabers from children seeking Santa.
Dickson, who runs a website promoting Santa Barbara attractions, can be reached at 1-800-SANTABARBARA (1-800-726-8222). On a phone pad, that number varies a mere one digit from 1-800-SANTACLAUS (1-800-726-8225), which enterprising boys and girls had been dialing -- and misdialing -- like crazy to reach the jolly old fat man of their dreams.
This year, Dickson, a 44-year-old Santa Barbara native, prepared for the onslaught. In fact, he encouraged it, rounding up about 100 volunteers and alerting the media that Kriss Kringle and his emissaries would be taking calls from the world's children.
"Doing this is more important than my job," Dickson said. "Santa Claus is really a big deal -- a gigantic deal -- for these children."
Since he kicked off the effort a week ago, thousands of kids have checked in, eager for an audience with Santa. After a national TV news spot, more than 1,500 messages cascaded into Dickson's voice mail in just an hour.
In a tinsel-bedecked downtown space donated by Montecito Bank and Trust, Dickson and rotating shifts of half a dozen volunteers have been fielding calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (The line runs until 5 p.m. today.) On a recent afternoon, the action in what is ordinarily the bank's conference room was nonstop.
"Ho ho ho!" Dickson boomed hoarsely into the phone for the umpteenth time. "What's your name? Oh, yes, of course I remember you, Caitlin!"
What Caitlin and so many others wanted were unsurprising things: a doll named Baby Alive and a real pony and anything Hannah Montana and video games -- especially Guitar Hero -- and, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, a Nintendo Wii.
But more than that, the children wanted a word with The Man himself, or at least one of his many stand-ins.
"Santa's not real!" one boy shouted to his family after talking to one of Dickson's female volunteers. "But Mrs. Santa is!"
Some calls have been poignant.
"What one little boy wanted was for his parents to get back together," said Neftali Rubio, a student at Santa Barbara City College. "I told him that would be difficult for Santa to do -- but we'd see."
Occasionally, an adult calls. Some check out the call center before putting their kids on, but a few give Santa their own Christmas lists. One woman who may have been dipping into the eggnog asked for "a new cellphone and Shaquille O'Neal under the tree."
Before they first donned their Santa caps and started answering phones, volunteers were told to steer clear of big promises. They also were instructed to have the kids ask a parent if it was OK for Santa to deliver the presents they requested.
A list of pointers has guided the novices: Be patient. Mention Rudolph. For safety's sake, ask only the child's first name. Steer any offered donations to charity. Be prepared for misdialed calls to a similar number for Enterprise car rentals. (Calls to the actual 1-800-SANTACLAUS keep ringing, unanswered.)
Dickson, who has been pulling 12-hour Santa shifts, acknowledged that anyone who enjoys talking to children could master the routine after a few minutes.
"It's all second nature," he said. "You don't really have to have a big list."
Still, you have to think fast. One boy told Dickson he wanted a dinosaur -- not a model dinosaur, he insisted, but a real one.
"That's too big to haul in the sleigh," Dickson ho-ho-ho'ed, jingling a nearby set of bells for effect.
"You can shrink-wrap it," the boy said.
"Oh," said the momentarily stumped Dickson. "Well, there's no time. A dinosaur takes three weeks to build."
"Fine. How about a bike?"