Do you believe in Christmas? That’s what the Polar Express explores for children and adults of all ages. First a book by Chris Van Allsburg that became a hit movie featuring the voice of Tom Hanks, the story is about a boy's journey by train to the North Pole to rediscover his belief in Santa.
Over the past few years, Polar Express train rides have been popping up around the U.S., giving children and families a real life experience of the magical events – dancing crew and all -- captured in the story.
With some more than 500,000 people taking Polar Express train rides in 2012, it’s fast become a family tradition, and the rides typically fill quickly. At the same time, it benefits historic railroads, most of which are not for profit, by helping them raise money to preserve their historic trains.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to put families on very historic railroad rides across the country,” says Allen Harper, who with his wife owns Rail Events, which licenses The Polar Express™ experience from Warner Brothers for railroads in the U.S. “One of the greatest joys I have is putting on The Polar Express train rides.”
While the rides all have many of the same activities, such as a reading of the book, hot chocolate and snacks, carols and dancing, and a trip to the North Pole, the décor, pre-boarding experiences, the types of trains and how they execute the event can be quite different.
Here are 5 of the best Polar Express rides around the U.S.
1. Grand Canyon Railway: Arizona
On this train ride aboard a diesel locomotive, not only is the story magical, but the scenery is, too. With trips daily (from Nov. 8, 2013-Jan. 4, 2014) running from Williams, Ariz., to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (temporary home of the North Pole), riders are treated to a reading of The Polar Express while sipping their hot chocolate and munching on cookies during the one-hour nighttime adventure. The Grand Canyon North Pole features Christmas lights, storefronts, mailboxes and other structures to give the village a permanent, three-dimensional look and feel. Santa and Elf Bernard welcome guests and presents each with a special gift. December seats sell the fastest on this railroad, and there is even a Christmas Eve ride, which costs extra, but lets you experience the events the same night as in the story.
2. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum: Colorado
Another Western take on The Polar Express is offered by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad located in Colorado, running from Nov. 23, 2013-Jan. 4, 2014. The daytime scenery is also fantastic here and it becomes more magical if there's snow falling--which happens often. On this version of The Polar Express train ride, the crew does a full reenactment of the movie and its characters complete with a grand entrance of the train’s arrival. Guests then enjoy on-board entertainment as they head to the North Pole to pick up Santa, who visits each of the train cars decked out in holiday décor and lights. Upon your return to the museum, you can see 70 decorated Christmas trees and meet live reindeer.
3. Saratoga & North Creek Railway: New York
Hop aboard a stylish mid-century dome car, restored vintage coach car or double-decker rail car in Saratoga, N.Y. for a Northeastern Polar Express experience at the Saratoga & North Creek Railway. Decorated with garland and Christmas lights, the train cars offer room for families to sit together and enjoy the entertainment after getting their tickets punched. Riders hear a recording of the story read in the voice of author Chris Van Allsburg himself, and enjoy hot cocoa, music from the movie, lots of singing and dancing and a trip to the North Pole. While riders don’t get off at the North Pole (a village with elves seen from out the window), Santa and his elf do come aboard to give each child their special first gift of Christmas. Afterward, stop by gift shop for The Polar Express mementos and gifts.
4. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad: North Carolina
Riders can regain their belief in Santa while winding through the beautiful Smoky Mountains at the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad in Bryson City, N.C. Last year, approximately 48,000 people took this The Polar Express ride, which travels into the mountain wilderness. Aboard a diesel engine train, guests head to an actual small North Carolina village that is converted into the North Pole during the one-hour-and-15-minute trip. After Santa boards the train, guests travel back to the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, which is included in the cost of admission. The train is currently running now through Dec. 29.
5. French Lick Scenic Railway: Indiana
Down in southern Indiana is a lovely town with rolling hills called French Lick, also the home of basketball star Larry Bird. With two beautiful resorts nearby, a ski park and a variety of other activities, a train ride aboard the French Lick Scenic Railway’s Polar Express definitely evokes a holiday feel. Guests can pre-order a copy of the book The Polar Express to follow along with the reading on board. Travelers can also enjoy kid’s games and activities before and after the ride at the train station. Afterward, visit Santa’s Gift Shop for holiday shopping and keepsakes. There is also a professional photographer for pictures in front of the train and with Santa. This runs from Nov. 15- Dec. 15.
Before you hop aboard a Polar Express train ride, here are a few tips to keep in mind. All of the experiences encourage guests to wear their pajamas for fun, just like the boy in the story. Don't worry about the chill --the cars are heated. Many offer a variety of seating classes with more expensive options that offer additional benefits, like a souvenir mug and an actual table with table cloths.
Costs for the train rides average between $18-$60 for kids and $30-$70 for adults based on the class you choose. Finally, Harper suggests taking the last train ride of the evening. “It’s darker outside and the lights stand out more,” he says.
At the end of the book and movie, Santa gifts the boy with a special bell from his sleigh that plays a magical sound that only those who “believe” can hear. At last count, Harper says his train rides have given a half a million bells to kids around the country. He says, “Christmas is just such a wonderful happy time, and the Polar Express is one of the most fun events anyone will ever do.”
Lyn Mettler is a freelance travel writer based in Indianapolis, Ind.