There’s just something about little kids and trains. When you put Santa in the mix, it’s a guarantee for Christmas magic. So it was a lovely gift for our in-laws to give Sprout a ride on the Polar Express run by the Saratoga and North Creek Railway as his big Christmas present.
The Polar Express is an actual train ride modeled on the famous book that was made into a movie. Both are about a little boy waiting on Christmas Eve to hear Santa’s sleigh despite his friend telling him it isn’t real. A magical train picks him up, along with a number of other children, and brings them to the North Pole. When the boy is picked to receive the first gift of Christmas, he requests a bell off of Santa’s sleigh. On Christmas morning, he discovers it makes beautiful music, but his parents think it’s broken. As time goes on, his friends and sister lose the ability to hear it, but his belief in the magic of Christmas allows him to always hear it.
While I had read the book ages ago, my father-in-law adores the movie. With a local train company offering a “Polar Express” package, he wanted to bring Sprout on the real-life version.
We boarded the train at night in our pajamas, just like the children in the story. I chose pajama pants and a sweater, but my in-laws decided to go all-out in full-body one-piece fleece jammies. Instead of the train picking us up at our house, we had to drive out to the station, pay $5 for parking, and trudge through the parking lot in the rain.
Not the most magical, but they did a lovely job once you actually got in the station. A huge Christmas tree took up most of the entranceway, flanked by a Polar Express themed gift shop and murals.
The train further built upon the plot and themes of the story, decorated in its holiday best. Pine garland wrapped around the overhead luggage storage, bright presents stored there instead of suitcases. Once the train started, “chefs” and waitstaff pranced down the aisles, skipping and kicking up their feet. As they didn’t do anything “waiterly” except pass out styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and sugar cookies, their main job was to be hilariously enthusiastic, which they did quite well. Sprout slurped down his hot chocolate, which was little kid friendly lukewarm. In addition to distributing goodies – just like in the book – the waitstaff also sang Christmas carols and showed children the pages of the book as the narration played over the loudspeaker. The conductor even made his rounds and stamped our “golden ticket.”
After a very slow 30 minute ride, the train arrived at the North Pole itself. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or coincidental, but the cell service was so poor that there was no way to figure out its location. It did preserve the magic a bit! As we approached, we gazed out the window at a “village” bright with multi-colored lights staffed by “elves” dressed in red and green. The combination of the dark and the train slowing down created the illusion of it seeming quite large. As we approached, Sprout stared out the window, transfixed by the fantastical sight.
Unlike in the book, no one got out of the train. Considering it took 20 minutes to get everyone on the train in the first place and the weather was crummy, it was very much for the best.
Instead, the elves and Santa came to us! They boarded the train, elves in the lead. Although I asked the elves to take a photo with Sprout, I didn’t expect one of them to pick him up. Considering his earlier skepticism about sitting on Santa’s lap, I winced, but he didn’t cry. But in the one decent photo we have, he doesn’t look super-thrilled. Then Santa made his way down the train car, stopping at each family to take photos and bestow a single (not real) silver bell to each child. As he entered, Sprout cried, “Santa!” While he was excited to get the bell, there was also no way in heck he was allowing Santa to pick him up.
The only critique I have of the trip was the presence of one character who isn’t even in the book. As the book is just over 30 pages, they obviously had to add quite a bit to the movie to pad it out to a reasonable length. One of those additions was a hobo, who in the “real life” version yelled a lot and simply didn’t make a lot of sense. He was vaguely scary, confusing if you hadn’t seen the movie, and generally didn’t fit in with the whole aesthetic.
Overall, the Saratoga and North Creek’s Polar Express was a lovely concept come to life. The full-sized train was a delight and was the first time Sprout had been on a non-subway train. I can’t say it will be a holiday tradition – this may be the last Christmas for us in upstate New York – but I can see why it could become one for many families.