Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Polar Express rides the rails in time for the holidaysWritten by Becky Johnson
Christmas is still two weeks away, but I’ve been rehearsing the dramatic tale of Santa’s arrival with my toddler for a month already.
“Talk about Santa on the roof again!” my 2-year-old daughter insists several times a day. It’s her first real Christmas, and her mind is busily plotting the scene that will play out that magical night, right down to the bowl of reindeer food she plans to leave on the front porch.
This year, for the first time since my own childhood, I was able to crack open the Christmas classic The Polar Express. The imaginative story follows a boy roused from his sleep on Christmas Eve by a train outside his window.
“All aboard!” the conductor cries. “Well, are you coming?”
“Where?” the little boy asks.
“Why to the North Pole, of course,” the conductor answers. “This is the Polar Express.”
The book is sheer brilliance, combining a child’s natural infatuation with train rides with a fantastical journey to the North Pole to see Santa. Santa gives the boy a silver bell from the reindeers’ harness — a bell that can only be heard by those who believe in Santa.
Equally brilliant is the effort by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City to capitalize on the story, billing their very own Polar Express holiday excursion every Christmas season.
Trains are so popular with my toddler that we often race through town to the nearest railroad crossing whenever we hear a whistle in the distance. Throw in Santa, and the Polar Express train ride seemed like one holiday treat we just had to splurge for — especially at an age where the line separating reality and imagination is still so blurry.
In preparation for our big Polar Express adventure, my toddler and I spent days reading the book and watching the movie — often simultaneously — while sipping hot chocolate like the children in the train cars.
The morning of our train ride, I was a little nervous. I regretted talking up the trip on the Polar Express as much as I had. Would she be disappointed when we didn’t actually arrive at the North Pole, and didn’t actually see Santa fly away on his reindeer?
But I didn’t need to worry. The Polar Express excursion successfully brings the pages of the book to life.
For starters, kids get to wear their pajamas and slippers, just like the little boy in the book. They also get a golden boarding pass that’s the spitting image of the ones in the movie. As we stood in line along the tracks, I bent down and handed my daughter her special golden ticket, and for a second time stood still as she clasped it with both hands and stared, wide-eyed and speechless.
Once on board, a conductor dressed in a navy suit with a gold stop watch — just like in the movie — worked his way down the isles punching the children’s special tickets. Chefs in big white hats served up hot chocolate and passed out chocolate covered Santa’s with a marshmallow filling — another throwback to the book, where the children on the train eat “candies with nougat white as snow.” All the while, the soundtrack from the movie is played over the speakers.
When we arrived at the North Pole — which is actually a roadside way station in Whittier — a life-size diorama came into view, decked out with snow blanketing the ground, little elves and reindeer. There in the middle of it all was a real Santa, waving from his sleigh.
Children began squealing, pointing and shouting, “There he is!” Mine pressed her face to the window and mustered a breathless whisper: “Santa!” It was, after all, her first real encounter with a very special man indeed. Who else can fly through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer or slide down chimneys with bags of presents?
Santa boarded the train and began making his way through the cars to visit each child — a departure from the actual storyline but hardly consequential given the frenzy over Santa’s imminent arrival.
Meanwhile, however, I braced myself for the magical journey to rapidly unravel. As much as she adored Santa from the safety of storybook pages, the real thing was an entirely different proposition. At best, I thought, my daughter will cower behind me, unwilling to even peek at the man in the white beard and red coat. At worst, she would begin wailing and burst into tears, a repeat of our failed attempt to visit Santa last Christmas.
As Santa walked down the aisle, he stopped at each child’s seat to hand them a large, silver bell just like the little boy in the book. It hung by a piece of brown leather, a nice touch since it had after all been cut off a reindeer’s leather harness.
I suppose my daughter wanted that bell pretty badly. When Santa stopped at our seat, she reached out her hand to meet his and promptly joined in the chorus of jingling heard throughout the train car by now.
When we got back home, she refused to relinquish her silver bell at bedtime. I worried she would never fall asleep with it in her crib, but the jingling sound eventually got softer and more intermittent and she finally dozed off. Our big Polar Express adventure was over, but it is one Christmas memory that will live on forever, at least for me.
As we were stringing lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, a layer of white snow in the yard outside, I noticed her peering out at the street from our living room window, absently ringing the silver bell in her hand. Perhaps she was merely marveling at the first snowfall of the year, but I think she was half expecting a train to pull up in front of the house, listening for those magical words shouted by the conductor: “All aboard!”