What: The Polar Express holiday journeys
When: 3:30, 5, 6:30 and 8 p.m. Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 23-25) and Wednesdays through Sundays, Nov. 28-Dec. 19
Tickets: $30 general; $45 first-class; children under age 2 are free but must ride in an adult’s lap; tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. Monday at www.csrmf.org
By Jeff Aberbach
Pull out a world atlas and you’ll see the distance between Davis and the North Pole is substantial. Quite substantial.
But for those who believe — those who truly believe — the North Pole is just a short journey away, especially when you’re aboard a magical train like The Polar Express.
The adventures, sights, sounds, tastes, joy and amazement captured in Chris Van Allsburg’s classic book — and last decade’s Robert Zemeckis film — come alive each holiday season at a handful of tourist railroads across the United States, including the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.
Now in its sixth season in Sacramento, The Polar Express has become the hottest ticket in town. It’s also the largest fundraising event of the year for the railroad museum’s support organization, the California State Railroad Museum Foundation. Last year’s train rides — nearly 20,000 seats over 18 operating days — sold out less than two hours after ticket sales opened to the general public. (The museum gives its paid members an advance opportunity to buy tickets a few days before the public sales begin.)
“Families and kids seem to love the whole package of The Polar Express train ride,” said Delta Pick Mello, the foundation’s director of membership and community relations. “We try to make it fun from the minute they walk through our passenger station to the end when they step off the train.”
The story of The Polar Express is widely known to young and old alike. It tells the story of a young boy who reaches the critical age when he begins to have doubts about Santa Claus. He’s awakened out of a deep sleep on Christmas Eve by the sound of a train — The Polar Express — that has pulled up directly in front of his house, offering him a magical journey to the North Pole and a chance to meet Santa and the elves.
As luck would have it, Santa selects him to receive the first gift of Christmas. His choice of gifts is a bell cut from the harness of one of Santa’s reindeer, because it makes the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It’s a sound, we soon learn, that can only be heard by those who truly believe.
Returning to The Polar Express after Santa takes flight to deliver toys and gifts to all of the world’s children, the young lad discovers he had lost the bell through a hole torn in his robe. Yet on Christmas morning, he finds the bell in a gift-wrapped box under the family Christmas tree, complete with a note from “Mr. C” to “fix that hole in your pocket.”
However, the bell’s magical sounds cannot be heard by his parents for they are no longer true believers.
Many families — parents and children alike — get into the spirit of the Christmas Eve tale by boarding the train dressed in flannel pajamas, robes and slippers. And museum officials say the sleepwear attire greatly adds to the magic of the experience.
“The most exciting thing … is to see generations of families really getting into the spirit,” Pick Mello added. “When I see kids, parents, and grandma and grandpa all dressed in their pajamas, I know they are going to have a great time.”
It takes approximately 100 volunteers to operate each day’s train, which Pick Mello says separates the Sacramento experience from the 30 or so other tourist railroads nationwide that also are licensed to offer Polar Express trips.
“We are one of the only, if not the only, Polar Express train ride run entirely by volunteers,” she says. “This is a huge undertaking for our volunteers … from handing out the tickets to serving cocoa and cookies to driving the train.”
The hourlong train rides, most of which operate after dark, include onboard refreshments and entertainers en route to the North Pole, holiday music and songs from “The Polar Express” film, and a very special visitor on the return trip from the North Pole who awards each passenger their own “first gift of Christmas.”
The California State Railroad Museum operates The Polar Express on Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 23-25), and Wednesdays through Sundays from Nov. 28 through Dec. 19. Tickets are $30 for general admission; $45 for first-class. Children under age 2 ride free but must ride in an adult’s lap.
Departure times are 3:30, 5, 6:30 and 8 p.m. Advance ticket purchases for museum members have been available online this week; public sales begin online at 9 a.m. Monday. Details are at the museum website at www.csrmf.org.
— Jeff Aberbach was a staff writer and news editor at The Davis Enterprise from 1979 to 1999, and is a 25-year volunteer docent at the railroad museum.