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Riding the Polar Express

From November through December, kids of all ages can hop aboard the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Ariz., and visit Santa at the North Pole.

Santa and riders on the Polar Express, Grand Canyon Railway, Arizona, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Terrence McCarthy
Photo caption
Aboard the train, Santa greets riders with his customary good cheer.

On a crisp December night not so long ago, I stood on a railroad platform holding the hand of my 6-year-old daughter, Isabel. We breathed silently. We were listening for a sound—a sound we had traveled all the way to Williams, Ariz., to hear: the lonesome whistle of the Polar Express.

From November 12 through December 22, the Grand Canyon Railway stages a charming and hugely popular nightly reenactment of the dreamlike journey described in Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, one of the loveliest children's books of the last 20 years. Late one Christmas Eve a boy who is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus is ushered aboard a train filled with other pajama-clad children. They sing carols, sip cocoa "thick and rich as melted chocolate bars, " and speed through the dark to a vast and brightly lit North Pole. There, a sage old Santa gives our hero a bell—a symbol of faith and belief that he loses, and then receives wrapped on Christmas morning.

The cocoa on board this nonfictional Polar Express does not resemble melted chocolate bars and the ride will bolster your faith in nothing more lofty than the profound pleasure of making small children extraordinarily happy. When the diesel engine pulled into the Williams depot, many of the travelers on the platform were squealing with anticipation. Isabel, one of the older and more dignified passengers, found our assigned seats and spent several minutes deciding whether it was better to spot Santa from the window seat or to be close to him should he appear in the aisle. Attendants in baker's hats passed out cocoa and sweets, and to the tune of "Winter Wonderland" we chugged through the complete blackness that is northern Arizona at night. It took half an hour to reach the "Pole, " which resembled a ghost town garlanded with lights. Santa waved from his sleigh, then leapt aboard and strode through the cars, passing out bells and scaring the daylights out of the littlest kids.

Other railroads offer versions of the Polar Express, but the particular beauty of this one is in the loveliness of the old trains and the proximity to the Grand Canyon at a time of year when few visit. A day trip makes a perfect complement to the Polar Express experience. Entertainers decked out in Old West costumes keep the kids happy with songs until you arrive at the Grand Canyon. Optional bus tours departing from the train station hit all the most breathtaking vista points. On the day we visited, the park was empty, and at stop after stop we stood in silence and solitude, gazing out over the rim. As much of a miracle—and almost as memorable—as meeting Santa the night before.

read the book, see the movie, and take the train

THE BOOK Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 book The Polar Express, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, is available in bookstores for $18.95 and in libraries.

THE MOVIE An animated version of The Polar Express, featuring the voice of Tom Hanks, is scheduled for November release.

THE TRAINS Several railroads plan excursions inspired by the book. Amenities and doings aboard may vary, so call for information. Grand Canyon Railway Williams, Ariz. Nov. 12–Dec. 22. $20 (adults), $8 (ages 2–16). For information, call (800) 843-8724 or visit www.the See page 59 for information on The Polar Express and Rails to the Rim package available exclusively from your AAA Travel Agency. Fillmore & Western Railway Fillmore, Calif. Fri.–Sun. Dec. 2–23. $20 (adults), $10 (ages 4–12), $5 (age 3 and under). For information, call (800) 773-8724 or visit Heber Valley Historic Railroad Heber, Utah. Nov. 26–Dec. 23 (check Web site for specific dates). $27 (adults), $24 (seniors), $16 (children). For information, call (435) 654-5601 or visit Nevada Northern Railway Ely, Nev. Nov. 27, 28, Dec. 4, 5, 11, 12. $20 (adults), $15 (ages 4–12), free for children under 4. For information, call (866) 407-8326 or visit

This article was first published in November 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.