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Santa Claus to return by airboat

Posted on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at 1:30 pm

By Katie Petty

For the News-Gazette

The atypical children of the Russell Home in Orlando don’t know Dave Johnson, 76, by his name but rather by Santa Claus.

For 35 years, Johnson has dressed up in a red suit, rode an airboat into the Boggy Creek Resort and RV Park and presented the children of the Russell Home with gifts.

The Russell Home is a nonprofit, private home in Orlando for the severely handicapped.

“The children just jump up and down [when they see me,]” Johnson said. “They’re atypical children, they’re in pretty bad shape, but they get real happy.”

Johnson was inspired to become the Russell Home’s Santa Claus after having a discussion with fellow members of the Osceola Airboat Association.

“We were more or less talking about the Russell Home and how those children don’t get to go anywhere,” Johnson said. “We spoke about having an airboat Santa Claus and we just did it.”

The presents Johnson distributes are usually ones the children have requested. Gifts typically range from baby dolls and watches to radio headsets.

“They kind of get whatever they want,” Johnson said. “They don’t ask for much.”

Johnson has touched the lives of several kids at the Russell Home, according to the home’s administrator, Betty Turner.

“A lot of them don’t talk a lot,” Turner said. “ But the joy [is evident] in their smiles and their hoorays and their ‘Here comes Santa!’”

Turner said a girl named Amy was 5 when Johnson began posing as airboat Santa Claus. Now 40, the excitement Amy gets when Santa Claus visits hasn’t faded.

“[Every year] she will run up to him, hop in his lap and say, “I love you Santa,” Turner said. “It hasn’t changed since she was 5.”

Johnson’s most cherished memory from being airboat Santa Claus comes from a boy named Edwin. Edwin was extremely distraught when Santa didn’t bring him a wristwatch.

“[Edwin] was back there all mad and puffed up and he said he didn’t like Santa Claus anymore,” Johnson said. “So I had my wife get a watch… When I gave it to Edwin he screamed out, ‘Oh look, Santa Claus had brought my watch, I like Santa Claus.”

Johnson will transform into airboat Santa Claus on Dec. 7 this year. He will ride into the RV Park at 10:30 a.m. and distribute gifts immediately afterward. The children will be served breakfast at 9 a.m.

More information about the home can be found at

“I’ll keep doing this until the day I die,” Johnson said. “I’m going to keep doing this until I can’t do it anymore.”