GASTONIA, N.C. -- A Gastonia man will spend his 21st Christmas playing Santa Claus at Disney World in Florida.
It’s an honor 71-year-old Luther Hunter ranks with being elected President.
"You just can't get any better than being the Santa at Disney World,” Hunter said.
Hunter not only looks like Santa but lives like Santa year-round at his house on Dunham Road. Walk in and it feels like you’ve captured Christmas and Disney in a bottle.
"Welcome to Santa's home away from the North Pole,” Hunter said.
Take a look around and you'll realize he's not kidding. Hunter has Santa clothes, a Santa rug, a stuffed animal reindeer outside, all sorts of pictures of kids and adults smiling while meeting Santa, Disney character stained glass windows and toy trains mounted the walls in three rooms.
Hunter has played Santa since he was 20 years old. At 50, Hunter met a Disney casting director while working as Santa at a toy store. Hunter told the man his dream was to be Santa at Disney World on Christmas Eve. The man called him and told him he was hired.
Now, this Christmas is Hunter's 21st as a Disney World Santa.
He has listened to thousands of kids and adults as they sat on his knee and told him what they want for Christmas. One of his favorites is a boy who told Hunter his family did not celebrate Christmas.
Hunter says he was caught off guard and said happy Hanukkah instead.
‘I just came for the candy’ is what the boy told him.
“I loved it,” Hunter said.
There are sad stories too. Like a girl he thought wanted a laundry list of toys. At first glance Hunter thought the girl was spoiled and going to go over a laundry list of toys she wanted.
She ended up whispering in his ear that all she wants for Christmas is her parents to stop fighting. He says he misjudged her and felt bad about it.
"She took part of my heart with her when she left,” Hunter said.
Some Santa talks are a combination of both happy and sad. Hunter says it tends to happen when widows sit on his knee. Relatives bring them to see Santa to try to cheer them up.
‘Son, I haven't done this in 57 years,’ is what Hunter says elderly women have told him.
Hunter says he’s watched grown men stand off to the side stone-faced as their families get pictures with Santa. He says they pretend not to care, but run up and hog the spotlight when he tells them to come up with them.
Hunter says playing Santa is a license to be a little boy.
"My parents never told me there wasn't a Santa, so I never had any reason to stop believing,” he said.
Hunter says even when he's not dressed in red and wearing boots, kids at stores and restaurants whisper in their parents' ears, then and come up and ask him if he is Santa.
His answer is yes.