During the holiday season, Santa’s Reindeer Roundup comes to Big Thunder Ranch at Disneyland. Santa and Mrs. Claus greet guests in the nearby cabin, while Santa’s reindeer, all eight of them, live in the corral area.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Maggie Gitchen, Guest Service Manager at the Circle D, who oversees all of the animal areas at the park. Her charges include horses, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, cockatoos, three pardoned turkeys, and, at this time of year, Santa’s reindeer.
Laura Gilbreath: How long have you been working with the reindeer?
Maggie Gitchen: I’ve been working with the reindeer for five years. It’s challenging, but it’s a lot of fun.
LG: What’s your favorite thing about the reindeer?
MG: I think they have the softest looking noses I’ve ever seen on an animal. They look like velvet. They’re different in personality than any of the other animals I’ve worked with. They’re a little skittish, but very pretty.
LG: You mentioned they are skittish – how do they react with guests around them all day?
MG: They’re skittish in that we can’t walk up to them and handle them or lead them anywhere. So we have to learn how to move around them and do it safely without exciting them or chasing them. We go through a special training with new people so they learn how to be around them and not excite them. You never trap them in a corner – you always give them a space to move away from you.
LG: We had some really hot weather here in November – how did they handle that?
MG: Actually, they have a special [lining] in their nose, and they breathe heavy and it exchanges the heat so the heat is blown out with their breath. It really helps them deal with the heat when their bodies are ready for winter. And we make sure they have lots of water.
LG: Does Santa come by every once in a while and make sure things are all right?
MG: He’s right next door in the little cabin all season, and then on Christmas Eve he harnesses up the reindeer and takes off back to the North Pole, loads up everything and takes off for the night. In the morning he lands them back, puts them back in the pen and then walks around the area in a smoking jacket, all relaxed since his job is done for the year.
The reindeer are pretty tired, but we make sure they have lots to eat to build their energy back up and we make sure they are healthy.
LG: What do the reindeer eat?
MG: They have a special reindeer feed – a ground-up grain which is specifically made for reindeer. And we have a grass cage that they eat all day long. That’s what they do in the wild, so it’s best to have food constantly available to them. You know they’re happy when they’re laying down chewing their cud.
LG: Do they have any special treats, like apples or even candy canes?
MG: The night that they go out for Christmas Eve they get some carrots and some apples.
LG: Other than the North Pole, where are reindeer found?
MG: They are found in the northern areas of most [northern] countries. Reindeer are actually a breed of caribou that came from the Laplands [in northern Finland, most of it above the Arctic Circle]. They are smaller than the caribou found in North America, but these are the ones that were actually used for harness work and they pulled sleds in the snow. They have been used as domestic animals but they are not totally tame.
LG: What little known facts can you tell us about reindeer?
MG: They have a big round hoof – they call them “shovel feet”. It gives them traction on the snow and ice, so when they get running and they take off and they fly it gives them traction to get going. It also helps when they drink water – if there’s ice on the water they use their hoof to break through the ice.
Their antlers are shed every year. They grow out in the spring and will shed late in the winter. The antlers are actually alive when they have their velvet on the outside and then they will start to die and the velvet starts to peel off and and they rub them to get that off. Then they have hard antlers, which they need for protection. The moms use them to protect the babies, and then the males use them [during mating season] when they fight for the females.
LG: I know our time is up, but one last question – the thing that we all want to know: How do reindeer really fly?
MG: How do they fly? Magic.