All aboard! Each Christmas, families are starting a new tradition and taking the “epic journey” to the North Pole by vintage rail trains. Scenic railways across the country offer kids the opportunity to meet Santa – without waiting in long lines at the mall – on rail cars decked out in holiday cheer.
Many of these trips closely follow the story of the Polar Express, while others put their own spin on the classic Christmas Story (and Warner Brother’s film). Here are a few places to experience the magic – and get a little traveling in as well!Santa, Mrs. Claus and the crew on a Christmas train ride — Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/amtrak_russ
In Julian, CA, the Julian Train and Gold Mine Tour combines the Christmas experience with a gold hunt! An open-air mining train will take passengers on a one-and-a-half hour tour that spans one mile to visit an authentic Smith Ranch 1870 gold rush mine.
Also in California, the Fillmore and Western Railway offers three different holiday options. Kids are encouraged to wear their pajamas on the North Pole Express to meet Santa, or they can choose to have Christmas dinner with Santa - complete with mashed potatoes turkey, and ham. The third experience is a Christmas tree train, which brings families to a tree farm so they can pick out the perfect fern.
When riding on The Northern Lights Limited in Thomaston, CT, families can see the display of lights both inside – and outside – the vintage train cars. Passengers will take an hour-and-a-half journey to Santa's train workshop where kids will pick out train-themed presents.
Although the Santa’s Paradise Express train has been chugging along for more than 50 years offering kids a chance to meet Santa on board, in 2012 the Strasburg, PA railroad is introducing a second train experience. "The Night Before Christmas," takes place on a classic coal train on two Friday evenings in December. Kids will be read the famous poem, as well as other classic Christmas stories as they snack on cookies and milk, and, in the spirit of giving, can donate their old pjs to charity. Back at the station, little ones can ride the miniature train and propel themselves down the tracks on the pump-and-crank cars.Santa delivering Christmas gifts at Strasburg Railroad — Photo courtesy of Strasburg Railroad
Down south, the holiday fun begins at the Grapevine, TX depot which hosts ornament making for kids, plenty of Christmas decorations and opportunities to receive a photo with Santa. Once onboard the North Pole Express, hot chocolate will be served to passengers and Christmas carolers will wander through the cars. The train travels through a maze of Christmas trees while Santa stops by with gifts for the kids. For added fun, check out the Gaylord Hotel's ICE! exhibit before leaving town, which features DreamWorks’ “Merry Madagascar™" and more than two million pounds of ice sculptures.
In New England, the Ho Ho Hobo Express runs a short, 20-minute route in Lincoln, NH (where kids have a good shot at seeing some Christmas snow), and includes hot cocoa, cookies, and a gift from Santa. The evening trains are part of the Polar Express network, which encompasses more than 30 railroads nationwide - all promising Christmas magic for the entire family. Book today: trains sell out very quickly.