By ANGIE ALVARADO
The threat of rain and cold in the air did not lessen the excitement of children and adults Sunday evening as they made their way toward the train station to board the popular Polar Express™.
Dressed in festive pajamas, children squealed with delight as they took in the sight of the Texas State Railroad’s Palestine Depot all aglow in Christmas lights and brightly decorated trees.
The Polar Express™ is based on the award-winning book by Chris Van Allsburg which tells the story of a young boy’s magical journey aboard the train bound for the North Pole.
“This is one of our most popular events because of the book and the movie,” said Texas State Railroad Marketing Manager Janet Gregg.
Enhancing the experience for riders is the steam-powered engine that pulls the train cars.
“The Texas State Railroad has the only two functioning steam engines in the state,” Gregg said.
Young and old lined the iron fence at the depot to watch as the train rolled in, steam blowing from the engine and happy riders waving from the car windows as holiday music blared.
In no time, those passengers got off the train, clearing the way for others to embark on the special journey.
“We are out here making memories tonight,” said Candace Rousse of Pineland, Texas as she sat in the upper deck of the dome car with her sister, niece and nephew.
This was the first trip aboard The Polar Express™ for Rousse and her sister, Ginger Bailey, and her two children, Addison Bailey, 4, and Ranon Bailey, 14.
The family had ridden the train before from the Rusk Depot, but never experienced the popular Christmas ride.
Next to them sat Jim and Karen Nix of Nacogdoches and their 2-year-old daughter, Harper. The toddler, wearing red plaid pajamas sat in her mother’s lap ready for the trip to the North Pole. This also was their first time on The Polar Express™.
Also aboard the dome car was the Vaszily family from Calhoun, La. Chris and Laurie Vaszily watched as their two boys, 4-year-old Cole and 2-year-old Ty, excitedly romped on the seats as they waited for the train to roll out of the station. The family found out about the popular event through friends who had taken and recommended the trip.
With one final whistle blow, the train slowly pulled out of the station, bound for the North Pole to pick up a special guest. Soon, just like in the movie and book, chefs served hot chocolate and cookies as the story of The Polar Express™ was read.
Before long, the train slowed and one could see the thousands of lights that illuminated the North Pole and Santa’s workshop. As youngsters peered through the windows to catch a glimpse of Santa and his elves, the jolly man in red made his way to the train.
“Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!,” Santa bellowed as he entered the train car. As he made his way through the car, he stopped at every seat to present children with a shiny silver bell. He made time to listen to their Christmas wish lists and pose for pictures.
“I want a Barbie car,” Addison Bailey said after whispering her wish in Santa’s ear. “A pink one that I can ride back and forth.”
Her brother asked St. Nick for an Xbox.
Cole Vaszily wasn’t shy about telling Santa what he wanted for Christmas.
“I want a scooter, a hockey water bottle, two hockey sticks and one hockey puck,” he stated.
After every child aboard the train had received their gift, Santa waved goodbye and was gone in a flash.
The festive mood continued aboard The Polar Express™ as bells jingled all the way back to the train station. Happy children and adults sang Christmas carols and the sound of laughter filled the air.
Little Harper, still sitting on her mother’s lap, held on tight to her present from Santa.
“It was fun,” Karen Nix said, adding that the family hoped to make the trip aboard The Polar Express™ an annual event.
“We loved it,” an excited Rousse said. “We’ll be back next year with the grandparents. We’ll book (our reservations) early.”
Nearby, the Vaszily family soaked in the atmosphere.
“This is really neat, I like how they brought Santa aboard (from the North Pole),” Laurie Vaszily said.
According to Gregg, the highly popular Christmas event accounts for two-thirds of the Texas State Railroad’s annual ridership and revenue.
“It is a very memorable train ride for families to enjoy,” Gregg said. “Some rides are already sold out. The closer it gets to Christmas the more days and runs we add to meet demand.
“Last year we sold more than 40,000 tickets and had visitors from 34 states and even some international visitors,” she added.
“We run between 40,000 to 48,000 people each year on The Polar Express™. It’s our biggest, longest running event, at six-weeks long.”
The Dome Car
New to The Polar Express™ this year is the addition of a 1954 Sky View dome car from Chicago that arrived at the Texas State Railroad after Thanksgiving.
“The dome car is a stainless steel, double decker passenger rail car that features upper seating 16 feet above the rail in a cabin enhanced by larger than normal windows,” Gregg explained. “The lower seating area offers a more intimate passenger experience, by seating a smaller number of people than most passenger cars.”
Featuring a “winter wonderland” theme, the dome car’s upper deck is decorated in silver, blue and white while the lower deck matches decorations in the Lone Star class cars.
Gregg said the addition of the dome car has spurred ticket sales of The Polar Express™ this season.
“Tickets for the dome car have been selling like hotcakes. We’ve never had a dome car on our rails before, so it makes what is already a unique experience even more special. It’s exciting to know people get that and want to enjoy it while it’s here,” she stated.
The Polar Express™ Runs
The Polar Express™ will continue with runs from the Palestine Depot through Dec. 29. Trains depart at 3:45 p.m., 5:15 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. Tickets start at $40 for adults and $20 for children.
For more information or reservations, go to www.easttexaspolarexpressride.com or call 1-888-987-2461.
The Texas State Railroad Gift Shop is open before and after every ride and features a wide variety of Texas State Railroad and The Polar Express™ souvenirs.
Food vendors are open at the depot before and after every ride.
Also at the depot, Lee Loveless Photography will be offering commemorative photos before and after the rides.
The Texas State Railroad is a drop off location for Toys For Tots. On Saturday, all of the attendants on the Lone Star Car will donate 100 percent of their tips to Toys For Tots.
Toys For Tots drop-off boxes are set up at the Palestine and Rusk depots throughout the holiday season.
Guests are encouraged to bring a new toy for their child to donate to less fortunate children in Anderson and Cherokee counties.
The Texas State Railroad
The Texas State Railroad is owned by Iowa Pacific Passenger Rails, a family of freight and passenger railroads across the United States that offers scenic excursions and unique rail experiences to passengers as well as a variety of freight services.
With operations in Hood River, Ore. (Mount Hood Railroad); Alamosa, Colo. (Rio Grande Scenic Railroad); Palestine and Rusk (The Texas State Railroad); and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (Saratoga and North Creek Railway); Iowa Pacific has one of the largest fleets of classic American rail cars in the country.