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Polar Express wraps up another magical season

Polar Express wraps up another magical season

Hearing the joyful sound of a small silver jingle bell from Santa’s sleigh — it’s what separates those who believe in the spirit of Christmas and those who don’t.

The jingle jangle of the bell comes through loud and clear when we’re children, but can fade away as we get older. Hope is not lost forever though, as children and adults alike are sure to find their Christmas spirit restored aboard The Polar Express train ride. 

Based on the 1986 classic children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express excursion begins at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City and magically transports passengers to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus and all his helpers. All families return to the train depot with a silver bell of their own and a renewed Christmas spirit.

“Santa was able to give both our kids their own silver bell from his sleigh as he left our train car. This is the highlight of the Polar Express story and indeed it was the most memorable part of our time on the train,” said Tracy Harrell of Asheville. “Those bells now hold a sacred space hanging from the Christmas tree in our living room, a perfect token from our memory made.” 

It was the Harrell family’s first Polar Express excursion with their kids — Lawson, 5, Stella Grace 3, and baby Harrell who is due in early 2019. Like many parents, Tracy and Billy both remember reading The Polar Express as children and wanted to keep the tradition going for their own children.

“Chris Van Allsburg just had a way of making the story come alive through his illustrations and kid-friendly story writing — it’s such a timeless and classic story,” Tracy said. “Billy’s family had read the book on Christmas Eve for years as a family tradition. Now that we have our own kids, we too have a tradition of reading the book and watching the movie as a family around the holidays. Our kids are enthralled with the magic of Polar Express.”

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Santa Clause hands a silver jingle bell to Sutton from Mississippi during The Polar Express train excursion aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Jessi Stone photo


The story

The book tells the story of a young boy on Christmas Eve who is confronted with an age-old conundrum when his friend from school tells him there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. As he lies in bed listening for Santa’s sleigh bells, he’s awoken to the sound of a steam engine outside his window. He climbs aboard to take a midnight voyage to the North Pole with many other children. 

When they arrive, Santa and the elves are gathering to see who will get the first Christmas gift of the year. The boy is chosen and simply asks for one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. Santa happily obliges, but when the boy gets back on the train to go home he learns the bell has fallen through a hole in his pocket. While he’s saddened to lose the only proof he had of his magical trip to the North Pole, his joy returns when he unwraps a small gift under the tree on Christmas morning and finds the bell. 

The Polar Express is a story that sticks with you throughout your childhood and into adulthood as life’s tribulations tend to test your Christmas spirit. The ringing of the bell may begin to wane in your memory as you get older, but then there’s just something about sharing the story and the experience with your own children that makes it return.

“It was an experience that I know our kids will never forget and always look forward to,” Tracy Harrell said. “Even Billy and I can’t help but smile when we think back on that night. It was an enchanted night indeed.”


The experience

As the sun goes down over downtown Bryson City, bright blue and white lights line the streets and cover the trees around the train depot. Children and their parents are dressed in festive pajamas as they pose for pictures in Santa’s sleigh and order hot chocolate to keep them warm while they wait for the conductor to tell them it’s time. The anticipation is palpable. 

“Give me five, Tony,” the conductor says quietly into his walkie talkie. 

All of a sudden the train whistle blows five times.

“All aboard,” the conductor proclaims. 

Parents start shepherding their kids toward the line in front of their assigned train car. Children are jumping up and down — partly from excitement and partly trying to keep themselves warm as the temp drops into the mid-30s.

Stacy Stanley from Kentucky tries to corral her little boy and girl — Tate and Taylyn — in front of the MacNeill train for pictures. They’re both dressed in Christmas pajamas and red robes. They are trying hard to hold a smile for mom’s pictures, but they keep looking back at the train like they’re going to miss something. 


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The Polar Express train ride includes a reading of the classic children’s book. Jessi Stone photo


“It’s our first time on the train,” Stanley said. “We came just for this. I tried to get tickets in September, but all the weekends were fully booked. I’m a teacher so I had to take off a couple of days to do it.”

From the looks on their faces when they stepped off the train an hour and a half later, the trip was well worth it. 

The Harrell family, who recently moved from Athens, Georgia, to Asheville, also learned their lesson last year when weekend tickets for Polar Express sold out early, but they were determined to make it this year. 

“Tickets were sold out for the season and had been for weeks — we would just have to miss this unique experience on our first year living in the mountains,” Tracy said. “So this year, in 2018, we booked our tickets in the summer. I’m not a fan of planning things that far in advance but I knew we had to be here this year.”

Sarah Pressley, a spokesperson for GSMR, said the railroad began the Polar Express excursions after the major motion picture starring Tom Hanks was released in 2004. Each year the Polar Express, which runs from late November to New Year’s, grows in popularity. While ridership was about 30,000 in 2010, the number continues to climb each year.

“We are trending about 4 percent up and so far we are around 82,000 (passengers),” she said. “Our goal is to exceed 90,000 riders this year.”

The Harrell family traveled to Bryson City for their Polar Express excursion the weekend after Thanksgiving. All decked out in their brand new pajamas purchased just for the train ride, the kids were bursting with excitement and ready to see Santa. Tracy said she couldn’t believe how bustling the small mountain town was on a Saturday night as families milled about in front of the train depot. 

“We went through the hoards of people making their way to the boarding platform. It was very crowded but everyone was in the highest of spirits,” she said. “Families far more festive than ours had gone all out with everyone, even the parents, in matching pajamas or coordinated Christmas attire. It was awesome to see everyone there and on the same jolly wave-length.” 

Pressley said GSMR believes in the Christmas spirit and making Polar Express the “ultimate experience” for families. From dancing chefs and waiters, to a mysterious hobo who tests your true belief and the conductor who makes sure to punch your golden ticket, passengers truly feel they are a part of the classic Christmas story. 

“Of course the main attraction is making it to the North Pole where Santa is waiting with his special elf friends and even the Hero Boy from the story reminding you to keep that silver bell close and not to lose it,” she said. “Once Santa boards the train and you make your way back, Santa will greet each child and present all with the official first gift of Christmas, which is the silver sleigh bell that we hope still rings for all.”


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Families dress up in their holiday pajamas to board the Polar Express in Bryson City. Courtesy of the Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce


Once seated on the train, Tracy said the atmosphere was cozy and the staff friendly. All of The Polar Express pieces started to fall into place. Immediately, families are greeted by a lively chef and waiter who help everyone get seated before serving a cookie and hot cocoa inside of a Polar Express mug to take home as a souvenir. 

“From the first moment we stepped on the train we knew we had truly entered the story of the great Polar Express,” Tracy said. “Our golden tickets were punched, we immediately were served hot chocolate by a singing and dancing staff, the train’s spirit character appeared right away telling us whimsical and lively tales, we sang carols, saw Santa, visited the North Pole, ate warm cookies, sang and danced, did a group read through a large-print version of the book — the works.”

While the Polar Express offers plenty of entertainment throughout the ride, that tiny jingle bell from Santa’s sleigh being hand-delivered by the big jolly man himself is still at the heart of the experience. 

“I believe, I believe,” the kids yell in unison as they ring their silver bells on the train. 


Behind the scenes

A tremendous amount of work goes on behind the scenes to make The Polar Express such a magical experience for its patrons. 

GSMR’s sister company RailEvents Inc., licenses the event and works closely with Warner Brothers to provide a clear outline of what a great Polar Express Train Ride experience looks like. 

“The event is by far our most popular and has only grown in popularity due to the multi-generational draw that the story has and the Christmas tradition or spirit that it brings during the holidays,” Pressley said. 

The train ride departs eastbound from Bryson City on the Tuckasegee River Excursion route but only goes to the North Pole and back. Downtown Whittier serves as the North Pole — all the houses along the tracks are decorated in bright lights and Christmas decor. In addition to Santa, The Polar Express requires an entire team working together to bring the story to life several times a day for hundreds of people. 

“The behind-the-scenes is certainly controlled chaos but very fun. This year with the addition of new characters and added capacity to our train the special events staff for the event alone is over 120 people who are all interchanging every night based on their working schedules,” Pressley said. “We worked very closely with the WCU theater department this year to develop a fresh script, new overhead onboard voiceovers and recruited several actors to work with us this year.” 


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Passengers aboard The Polar Express travel to the North Pole, which is staged in Whittier. Courtesy of the Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce


It’s obvious the actors on the train take their roles seriously and have taken the time to develop their characters. They also take the time to talk to each child on the train to engage them in the story. Pressley said the staff spends 12 weeks together during the holiday season — making them a tight-knit Polar Express family. 

“Rehearsals that consisted of choreography and read throughs began in early October and ran up until the week of the first train. Our Special Events Manager Andrew Hill, in addition to all that, has also worked tirelessly to bring new lighting and sound to the depot and boarding area,” she said. “Not only does this provide a whole new level of safe boarding but the lights are used as added effect to the theatrical side that the event brings and guests enjoy a really great light show before they board.”

Other staff members are local high school and early college students who have been working the Polar Express season for multiple years. 

“We have become invested in their lives even after the event is over. We’ve seen them grow year after year and it’s such a treat to get to know them,” Pressley said. 

Everyone on the train is served hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies prepared fresh every night by the food and beverage staff. If you’re fortunate enough to grab a first-class ticket, you’ll also enjoy a chocolate train lollipop made by Heavenly Fudge Depot in Bryson City. 

Pressley said weekend dates do sale out quickly but usually weekday tickets are always available with Polar Express trains departing several times a day. GSMR also offers special discounts for local residents in early December. 

As The Polar Express gains popularity, the town of Bryson City is also expanding its holiday appeal to add to the tourist experience. New this year are 80 Christmas trees grouped around town, with the largest display in front of the Visitor Center & Heritage Museum on the town square. Over 200,000 LED Christmas lights enhance stores, bridges, lamp poles and the town’s 75-foot Christmas tree. The iconic red caboose on Caboose Corner provides a holiday-themed venue for group photos.

Guests are now treated to a sound and light theatrical presentation never before experienced on the Polar Express in Bryson City. There is a spectacular synchronized light show to a familiar Christmas song that guests will enjoy while waiting for the train. All 18 train cars have white rope lighting around the exterior edges and light up the landscape as the train travels to pick up Santa at the North Pole Village, which is illuminated by 62,000 colorful lights.

For more information about GSMR or Polar Express rides, visit

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