One of the sweetest Christmas traditions for many is reading the classic story “The Polar Express” (or maybe watching the movie). Both tell the tale of a magical train ride to the North Pole and the power of a child’s belief in Christmas. It’s really touching stuff, especially if you grew up with the story.
Since the book’s publication in 1985, and especially since the 2004 release of the movie adaptation, many train stations have adapted the story into an interactive train ride inspired by the tale. Wherever you are, it’s kind of a perfect little experience. Most serve hot cocoa and cookies in the warm, cozy train, and you get to enjoy the scenery whizzing past, along with carols and stories. And, of course, there’s the part where you get to see Santa himself!
Lots of places offer Polar Express train rides, and here’s a map of some of our favorites.
The Pere Marquette 1225 at the Steam Railroading Institute
The train that originally inspired the book’s author actually does Polar Express train rides! Chris Van Allsburg stated that he played on the PM 1225 steam engine growing up, and always loved that its number (1225) corresponded to the date of Christmas. Additionally, this train was used as inspiration when animating the train in the movie, and most of the train sounds in the film were recorded from the PM 1225, so a ride on it might feel eerily familiar. Climb aboard the train at the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso and enjoy hot cocoa as you ride over to the Village of Ashley’s Country Christmas. The Village has loads of Christmas fun, like a petting zoo, reindeer, performers, craftsmen, games, rides, food and drinks. And Santa. Don’t forget Santa! All the info can be found on their website.
This popular railroad offers some of the best winter scenery and the richest history. Chefs will serve passengers hot chocolate and yummy treats, read the story of the Polar Express, and lead everyone in caroling as Santa goes from train car to train car, making sure everyone that’s on the “nice” list gets a chance to tell him what they want for Christmas. Ticket prices vary based on the seats, so find info and book a ride here!
Bundle up in your warmest Christmas-themed jammies and hop aboard the Mount Rainier Polar Express for some Christmas cheer. Each night, the train (pulled by the circa 1922 historic Polson Logging #70 steam engine) makes three journeys from the Elbe to the North Pole and back… thanks to a little Christmas magic. The heated train cars are all decked out in holiday decorations, and passengers can expect cocoa, cookies, and silver bells, a reference to the book, of course! Get all the details here.
How do you make a Polar Express train ride extra cute? Make it mini! Head to O.J. Watson Park in Wichita for the more adorable take on the experience. It starts with storytime, where the book is read, and then kids get to make a craft before hopping on the mini train for a ride to the northern end park of the park, which has been decorated to look like the North Pole. Here, passengers hop off and enjoy s’mores, hot chocolate, and a visit from Santa. Here’s where you can check times and ticket availability.
Main’s utterly enchanting narrow gauge railroad gets a holiday makeover each winter for their annual Polar Express, which will be in its 10th year this year. Thousands of passengers, including many children, will take the journey to the North Pole. Included on the ride are all of the details; hot beverages, stories, carols, sweets, and the chance to chat with the conductor and meet Santa. The views of the Casco Bay and the fact that the money is used to support the museum are added bonuses to the experience. Find all the relevant details here.
The California State Railroad Museum’s Polar Express features stunning vintage train cars pulled by authentic diesels from the museum’s collection. During the ride, you’ll get to meet characters from the movie, including the Train Conductor, Dancing Waiters, and a ghostly Hobo. Passengers are served cocoa and cookies, and kids will get a silver bell as their own first present of Christmas. The event may be sold out, but if you’re lucky, you might still be able to snag a spot as they process refunds!
Okay, so Miami might not conjure images of North Pole scenery, but families are still able to experience the magic of the Polar Express train ride at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum. Gear up in your pajamas and hop aboard for a read-along of the book, treats and carols from the chefs aboard the train, and a visit from Santa and his merry helpers. Even if the weather is balmy, you’ll still leave feeling Christmas in the air! Get the scoop on how to book tickets here.
The Union Station Hotel is one of St. Louis’s prettiest historic hotels, but with its railroad past, it also serves as the perfect hub for a Polar Express themed experience. They offer a 45-minute Polar Express train ride with singing and holiday cheer that leaves right from the hotel. But, for an extra-special event, they also put on Magical Meals, which are dinners held in the hotel’s Grand Hall prior to or after the train ride. The decor is over-the-top Christmas-y, and you get the chance to interact with Polar Express characters and witness their lights show projected on the ceiling that tells the story from the book. Here’s the site with all the info.
Each Christmas, Montana’s Charlie Russell Chew Choo dinner train turns into the Polar Express, set to take kids from Lewistown to the North Pole. Kids take part in games, stories, and songs while enjoying delicious treats and awaiting a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus. At the end of the journey, you can buy a commemorative ornament to remember the occasion by! Check times and ticket availability here.
For the all-out Christmas experience near Dallas, you can’t do any better than Grapevine’s North Pole Express. Head to the Historic Cotton Belt Depot platform to board vintage Victorian Rail coaches all done up in Christmas finery. You’ll get into the holiday spirit with carols and fun and a visit from Mrs. Claus on the ride, and then passengers will disembark at the North Pole. They then journey through a snowy forest, where they’ll meet Santa and get to enjoy a mug of Frosty Chocolate Snow Milk. Commemorative mugs and a picture with Santa make awesome souvenirs of the experience. Here’s where to find all of the details!
The forests and rolling mountains of the Smokies make for the perfect backdrop to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Polar Express journey. On the way to the North Pole, passengers are treated to music from the movie and a reading of the story, along with hot chocolate and sweets. Then, Santa will climb aboard and visit with each kid before the train returns to the station. Whether you’re in first class or coach, it’s a perfect way to immerse yourself in cozy holiday vibes. Here’s their site with all of the info!
For those in Duluth, you can climb aboard the Christmas City Express for holiday fun! Board the train and then enjoy the ride, which passes by Bentleyville, home to one of the largest holiday lights displays in the country. Passengers can explore the Duluth Depot, which has a Christmas model train display set up. There will also be a reading of a story called The Christmas City Express, carols, a visit from Santa, and lots of fun to enjoy before you board the train for the return trip. It’s a little different than the average Polar Express train ride, but it’ll get you in the Christmas spirit! Learn more about the Christmas City Express here.
More Christmas cheer…