It's not just the wish. It's the entire wish experience. It's having something to look forward to, something to be excited about. —Autumn Thatcher
SALT LAKE CITY — Six-year-old Parker Allen snuggled onto Santa's lap, not knowing that the jolly old elf was bringing exciting news: His wish to meet his favorite professional wrestler would be granted.
"John Cena!" Parker said with a grin as Santa pulled a WWE action figure from his bag, along with a special travel pillow for the upcoming trip.
The Herriman boy and his family visited Hogle Zoo on Sunday, along with other families invited by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for an exclusive visit with Santa, made possible by Macy's and other sponsors.
"Have your cameras ready, moms and dads," Santa said as he called the children up to hear a story, then visited with them one by one.
Sheila Allen, Parker's mother, looked on with tears in her eyes as she took in the happy moment that she hopes will outshine countless memories of hospital trips and IV needles.
Her son, who she describes as "everyone's friend," was born with half a heart and underwent his first surgery after only five days of life.
At 22 months, Parker had a stroke, and his tiny heart failed. A transplant saved his life, helping him grow into the smiling blue-eyed boy seen abandoning his coat and sneaking away from the crowd Sunday to toss snowballs at his sister with his one working hand.
"I just get emotional when I think about the bad days, and then coming through to this," Sheila Allen said. "It's mind-boggling that he almost didn't make it out of that hospital."
The future is still unclear for Parker, but the family is staying hopeful as they look ahead.
"It's all up to him and his body, and how he takes his heart," said Jordan Allen, Parker's father. "We're hoping to see him go through school, grow up, get married and have kids of his own."
In six years, Jordan Allen said Parker has gone through more challenges than most people experience in a lifetime. Through it all, the small boy doesn't give up.
"He gets frustrated when he can't keep with the kids out running around, but he does his best in all he can," he said. "I teach him to never give up, to do what you've got to do with what God gave you."
Jordan Allen laughed as he explained that in imagining his day with the WWE superstar, Parker often says he hopes to go swimming.
"I don't know where he came up with swimming," he said.
Santa's visit put a spotlight on his son, which he happily shared with his two sisters.
"I'm sure he feels really special," Jordan Allen said.
The children took turns hugging the man in the bright red suit, making their Christmas requests and joining in an impromptu sing-a-long. He took a moment to remind parents that for every letter dropped into Santa's mailbox at a Macy's store, the Make-A-Wish Foundation will receive a $1 donation.
Santa gathered the three Allen children for one more surprise before he left, revealing two tiny puppies wearing red ribbons around their necks. The Yorkshire terrier and Shih Tzu were gifts from family members, brought to the zoo as an early Christmas present.
Autumn Thatcher, a Make-A-Wish communications manager, said the purpose of events like Sunday's visit with Santa is to give "strength, joy and hope" to children and their families.
"It helps take them away from anything they might be going through, especially if the kids are still fighting their illness," Thatcher said. "It's not just the wish. It's the entire wish experience. It's having something to look forward to, something to be excited about."