Santa Claus is coming up Grand Boulevard.
Two horses are pulling St. Nick in a yellow carriage. White hybrid SUVs, piloted by Crown Center's security force, are protecting Santa's fore and aft.
It's the day after Thanksgiving. Midmorning sunshine warms the families who wait outside the Crown Center Shops for a glimpse of the man in the red suit. Barricades are striped like candy canes.
The procession stops at the shopping center's glass entrance. A pair of horn players riding in Santa's carriage blast "Joy to the World."
Some Santas take pride in their ability to deliver a hearty "ho, ho, ho!" The Crown Center Santa takes a folksier approach. "Good morning, Kansas City!" he announces after being handed a microphone. "How are you all?"
As Santa enters the shops, his white gloves touch small heads and hands. Santaland is on the ground floor, beyond the food court. In the crowd, a mom says to a friend: "This is where I eat every day."
The day after Thanksgiving is one of the biggest of the year at Crown Center. When night falls, Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Eric Stonestreet, a TV actor (Modern Family, CSI) who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, will flip a novelty switch, lighting the mayor's Christmas tree.
Hallmark Cards broke ground on this "city within a city" on September 16, 1968. Company founder Joyce C. Hall had spent the previous decade meeting with architects, industrial designers and real-estate men. Walt Disney, a friend, had even contributed a few ideas.
Hall envisioned Crown Center as a sort of monument to corporate benevolence. "We intended for Crown Center to stand as a prime example of how private industry can contribute to the rebirth of this nation's inner cities," he wrote in his autobiography, When You Care Enough.
The development remade 85 acres into a vision of tomorrow — what tomorrow looked like in the 1960s.
Crown Center is perhaps the most audacious commercial venture in the city's history. The Country Club Plaza covers less ground. Adjusting for inflation, the Sprint campus in Overland Park was cheaper to build. "I think it's an incredibly ambitious project," says Josh Shelton, a principal at the Kansas City architectural firm El Dorado.
Ambition does not equal success. For most of its existence, Crown Center has operated at a loss. Intended to cost $115 million, it had grown into a $400 million development by the time Hall got around to writing his 1978 autobiography.
A mixed-use development before the term had cachet, Crown Center is partly a victim of bad timing. It was built in an era when planners operated under fairly dumb ideas about cities and how people relate to them. The activity at Crown Center takes place behind blank walls and in between escalators. It's introverted. The Plaza and neighborhoods like the Crossroads show that people prefer something a little more outgoing.
Still, for more than 35 years, it has been a spot where Kansas Citians go to live, work, see a show and watch a sheet of fudge get poured. "You could do so much in one place," says Janet Bloom, who in 1990 started d'Bronx deli and pizzeria at 39th Street and Bell with her husband, Robert.
The Blooms opened a second location inside Crown Center in 1998. Janet had family ties to the city within a city: Her father used to run the apothecary at Crown Center. She says it was the first place in Kansas City that sold Lancôme products.
Bloom loved to visit Crown Center with her children, who are now grown. She says her kids may hold the record for hours spent at Kaleidoscope, the Hallmark-sponsored workshop for children.