With Christmas tunes piped throughout the depot, and thousands of twinkling lights everywhere, Texas State Railroad once again becomes the starting point for a fantasy ride through a holiday wonderland.
Now in its twelfth year, the Polar Express is an hour-long train ride, based on a book and film of the same name. Children and adults alike travel on a steam locomotive to the North Pole, where they are greeted by Santa himself.
The Polar Express began Nov. 16 and runs through Dec. 28, carrying an estimated 65,000 riders.
“We are the third largest Polar Express in the world,” TSR General Manager Daniel Adair said, noting Polar Express operations nationwide and in Great Britain. “Our ridership is second only to the Grand Canyon Polar Express.”
With tickets $35 to $100, Adair said money raised during the Christmas extravaganza sustains the Texas State Railroad for the rest of the year.
Roughly 60 percent of all riders come from the Houston area, Adair said; most of the rest come from out-of-town. Last year, Polar Express had a rider from South Africa.
With so much out-of-town traffic, Adair said, Palestine can't help but profit.
“Hotels during the Polar Express are booked from here to Tyler,” he said. “Plus, there's the shopping and the restaurants. We're also working on finding a way to partner with more local businesses,”
Currently, the Polar Express partners with the Redlands Hotel and Hampton Inn and Suites, where guests can purchase tickets on the Polar Express when they book their rooms.
The magic of the Polar Express seems to happen seamlessly, effortlessly.
Not so, Adair said.
“We started planning next year's Polar Express before this year's even began,” he said.
Polar Express staff routinely work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, just baking cookies. The 185-person staff, 150 of which are temporary workers, consists mostly of high school students.
“We start hiring, and auditioning for the show in September,” Adair said. “For a lot of the kids, it's their first job; it feels nice to see the thrill on their faces when everything comes together.”
The Polar Express cherishes its role in the Palestine community, Adair said. To give back, TSR regularly invites area groups, such as foster children, CASA kids, adults with disabilities, and others take the trip free during their dress rehearsals.
This year, at the request of the Texas State Railroad Authority and Palestine City Manager Leslie Cloer, the Polar Express started running another special car for specific children in the community.
“For the first time, we ran a 'sensory deprivation' car for autistic children in the Palestine area,” Adair said. “It has muted lights, softer sounds, and the actors don't move as suddenly or touch the children. It was a tremendous success.”
The Polar Express show, including actors and dancers on every car, continues to evolve.
“Every year, we're given more guidelines from Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to the Polar Express,” Adair said. “We evolve with it, and put on the best possible show for our riders every year.
“The Polar Express is an important part of a lot of people's holiday seasons. We take that seriously. We're here to create memories.”