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The Polar Express is a Christmas book that’s been read to children listening with bated breath since 1985. In 2004, The Polar Express hit theatres, bringing life to the transporting story of the little boy, Chris, who trains it to the North Pole. Because The Polar Express became such a phenomenon, the opportunity to ride actual polar express trains started popping up all across the country. It’s one of the seasonal traditions, like trekking to the tree at Rockefeller Center, seeing the Nutcracker, or visiting an open-air Christmas market that makes December particularly delightful.
If you’re not exactly sure what the hype of a polar express train ride is all about, fear not. We’ve got the answers, so you can start integrating a ride to the North Pole into your holiday traditions.
What is a polar express train?
Polar express trains run throughout the U.S., in the spirit of carting us all up to the North Pole, just as Christopher was in the original story. Most polar express rides will include a face-to-face with Santa, always a treat for the little ones on board. But what's more exciting is the sheer spectacle of the train ride itself. On some rides, the conductor or hosts and hostesses will perform. On others, passengers are invited to show off their best Christmas PJs. And often there will be a live reading of a classic holiday tale on board—'Twas the Night Before Christmas, for example, or even, you guessed it, The Polar Express.
How should we prepare for our polar express experience?
For starters, read the book and watch the Tom Hanks movie—if you’re bringing your children on the train, they’ll definitely appreciate it more if you provide context beforehand. Beyond that, your family can enjoy picking out their polar express wardrobe together. Often kids are encouraged to suit up in their Christmas ‘jammies—so maybe now’s the time to break out the matching PJ sets. Alternately, your family could coordinate outfits inspired by your favorite Christmas stories, movies, or scenes. Think: Mrs. Weasley’s Christmas sweaters with everyone’s initials knitted on the front—arguably the original Lingua Franca sweater.
How long is a polar express train ride?
It varies, depending on which polar express trip you take. Generally, the rides are between an hour and an hour and a half.
Where are the best Polar Express Trains in the country?
Glad you asked. There are plenty of polar express rides throughout the country, but here are a few of our favorites:
The North Pole Express—New Hope, Pennsylvania
Mr. and Mrs. Claus will be on board as passengers ride through Bucks County to the North Pole. Santa will hear what the kids want for the holidays this year, and present each child with a gift. Prepare for caroling a-plenty onboard—musicians play throughout the train, encouraging singalongs as the pass through the aisles.
The Polar Express Train Ride, California State Railroad Museum—Sacramento, California
Featuring characters from the original story, this hour-long train ride winds up at the North Pole where Santa gives everyone their “first gift of Christmas.” You can ride coach, first class, or open-air, depending on your polar express preferences.
Polar Express, Grand Canyon Railway—Williams, Arizona
The Grand Canyon Railway runs a Polar Express ride each year that steams through Williams, Arizona all the way to the North Pole. When you arrive at the North Pole, Santa and his reindeer are there to greet the children with a gift. The entire experience lasts about 90 minutes, and mirroring the original story, it’s a night ride, with trains departing at 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
North Pole Express—Essex, Connecticut
On this North Pole Express, they do a live musical performance of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kids are encouraged to sport their best PJs on the 90-minute journey up to the North Pole. They receive a gift from Santa on the ride, and everyone is served hot chocolate and sugar cookies.
Santa Express—Blue Ridge, Georgia
The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, known for their leaf-peeping adventures in the fall—runs a Santa Express ride from late November until December 23. The hour-long train rides take place primarily during the day, though there is a night express at 4 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Claus will join you on the ride, and your family will get to enjoy Christmas stories read aloud as the train heads to the North Pole.
When should I book tickets?
The short answer: in advance. Some of the best trains book up fast, so hop online and grab tickets early. Most of these trains run multiple times a day throughout December, so there is plenty of opportunity. But to have your pick of dates and times, grabbing tickets early is the way to go.