The following is a guest post by my good friend, Chris Stevens…
The Polar Express is an actual train ride for children and their parents, and it’s based off of the Christmas-themed book and movie of the same name. In this post, I’m going to tell you my experience of not only the train ride, but also the journey of just trying to get there…
First of all, let me just say that I love movie theater popcorn, and I’m eating some right now… yum…
Two years ago, my wife tells me that our family is going to ride the Polar Express in Sacramento.
“The Polar what…?” I say.
“The Polar Express! It goes to the North Pole! Didn’t you read the book?!” she asks.
“Nope. I’ll wait for the movie.”
“We HAVE the movie! Babe… I swear.”
So, we’re off to Sacramento to ride the Polar Express, and everyone had a lot of fun. However, that trip almost didn’t happen, as we got stuck in Thanksgiving traffic going over the pass. What should have been a two-hour drive turned out to be four, and we thought it was going to be all for naught. We finally got there, but missed our train! They were really cool, though, and let us get on the next one (the last one). Crisis… averted!
I’m only mentioning the trouble of our first trip because the universe likes to throw parallel curve balls at me, over and over. You’ll see…
Fast-forward two years, and my wife tells me that we’re going on the Polar Express again, but this time it’ll leave from Carson City.
“Sweet! Carson City is less than a half-hour away. We should have no problem…“
Famous. Last. Words.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the story, let me preface: Children are whisked away on the magical Polar Express train in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. They’re in their pajamas, encounter elves, and get to see Santa. The conductor gives the kids some words of wisdom and encouragment, and in the morning, they wake up with presents under their Christmas Tree. One of the children (the one that the story follows) is the only kid to get an actual bell off of Santa’s mystical sleigh, a gift that Santa makes sure he receives.
So, taking this trip to Carson City is myself, my wife, my kid, our sister-in-law, and our niece. We’re all in pajamas, and we’re looking forward to some good, family fun…
We leave super early, because we don’t want another fiasco like we had the last time. As we drive past the Sparks Century Theaters, I painfully choose to keep on driving, not stopping for their delicious popcorn (I don’t really want to tempt fate, because if we miss that train, well, that would just suck). So we keep driving… In no time, we’re zooming past the Summit Century Theaters, and I again (responsibly, but even more painfully) forego the popcorn. I swear, I could smell it as we drove by.
We get to Carson City with plenty of time to spare…
60 minutes to Go Time.
The wife says, “We need to take Hwy 50 to Flint.”
The sister-in-law (who is apparently very familiar with Carson City) says, “Whatever you do, don’t take a left. The railway is down to the right and off the main drag.”
“Sweet! Easy money. Hey is there a movie theater along the way?” I ask.
She says, “Yeah, it’s just before the railway.”
“Awesome!” Looks like I’m getting me some triple-layered buttery goodness afterall.
We hit the main drag, and drive up to the theater…
50 minutes to Go Time.
In my red and white Christmas pajamas, I stroll on up to the front doors, pass the ticket booth, and then up to the cute girl taking tickets.
“I’m just here to get some popcorn.”
“No problem, go on right ahead.” With a smile and a wink, she adds, “I like your pajamas.”
“Thank you. I like your popcorn.”
Now that I have my medium-sized bag of triple-layer buttered popcorn, life is good.
40 minutes to Go Time.
I get back to the van and the ladies tell me that we actually passed the turn-off for the railway a few blocks back.
“No problem, we’ll just turn around…”
Now, somewhere between the two kids laughing and singing, the two ladies talking, and me steering the van with my knee while digging into the popcorn, I turn up Hwy 50. Just after we pass what appears to be the point of no return (and Carson City is now in our rear-view mirror), someone asks, “Um, is this the right way?”
30 minutes to Go Time.
We continue driving forward because we can’t turn back. California is getting closer and closer, and Carson City is getting farther and farther.
I tell my wife, “Call the place and get better directions. I don’t think this is the way.”
“I can’t call them – the phone number isn’t on the sheet.”
Sister-in-law: “It’s pitch black out. There’s no lights anywhere. This isn’t the way, and we’re not going to make it!”
“Are we ever going to be able to turn around? This barrier just keeps going on forever!”
“Even if we do get to turn around, how do we get there?!
“I don’t know!”
“What street is it on?!”
“It’s on Flint St.”
“Well is Flint St. in front of us or behind us? You said it’s off of Hwy 50!”
“We’re not gonna make it…”
Out of nowhere, as the three adults are trying to keep heart attacks at bay, one of the kids in the back says, “Hey, um, do you guys have GPS on your phones?”
It takes a young kid to tell three adults to use the GPS on their damn smart-phones… Talk about feeling like an idiot…
25 minutes to Go Time.
So, the nice computer lady in the phone tells us:
"In 4 miles, turn around. Estimated travel time is 20 minutes."
22 minutes to Go Time.
“We gotta go 4 miles before we get to turn the heck around???!!!”
Ok, so eventually we get turned around, and end up right back where we got off the freeway.
Nice computer lady: "At the light, turn left."
“Are you effing kidding me?!!! You mean, an hour ago, when we got off the freeway and you said that no matter what, don’t go left, we should have gone left?!!!”
2 MINUTES TO GO TIME.
So, finally we get there. We take our reservations to the tent and they immediately escort us onto the train (again, the last train of the night). We were literally the last to get on. 45 seconds after we sat down, the train tooted its booming horn and we were off…
[sigh] I need a drink.
I take a swig of my soda and my wife gets all up in my face about bringing a drink onto the train. Yadda yadda yadda. Look, I was thirsty, and I still had half the bottle left. Deal with it.
“You know that they’re going to serve us hot chocolate, right?”
“I don’t care! I want my soda!” I was going to say that I wished that I also had my popcorn, but I didn’t want to push it.
The inside of the train was cool. It was decked out with Christmas lights, stuffed animals, and other decorations. The staff were awesome – they were totally animated and really got into the role. They seemed like the kind of people that were happy to be there; not the kind who were just waiting for their paycheck. They really help amp up the mood, really adding to the atmosphere.
On the way to the North Pole, a narrator read the book and it was played over the speakers. Staff walked up and down the aisle showing the kids pictures from the book, and the Conductor stopped by to punch our tickets (a scene right out of the story).
Then came the refreshments. They served us hot chocolate and a Christmas cookie, only the hot chocolate was barely lukewarm, and the cookie’s flavor was Charcoal Garlic. First came the cookie, so we ate that. Then came the almost-warm hot chocolate. The drink was so hard to consume that most people didn’t even try. We all suffered for awhile with that Charcoal Garlic flavor stuck in our mouths. Then I remembered something…
“Gee, I sure wish I had something to wash this down with. Oh look… a soda!”
Yeah, I got the look from the wife. And if you’re a married man, then you know the look of which I speak. Nuff said.
So, about a half hour into the ride, we arrive at the North Pole. It was pretty cool. They had an area set up with Christmas lights, small buildings, some boxes of presents, and dancing elves. Santa was there, too. We weren’t allowed to get off the train, so we were forced to take pictures through the windows (and they didn’t turn out so well). It didn’t matter, though, because when a kid’s eyes grow three times bigger, and their smile grows three times wider, you know they’re having a good time no matter what.
After a few minutes, the train toots its horn and heads back. The ride up there was fun, but this second half of the trip is so much better…
Getting back to the staff, they were just awesome. They got all of the kids to sing all kinds of Christmas songs and play a bunch of games (Santa Says…, and others). There was just a lot of energy and a lot of laughter and a lot of fun. The Conductor chit-chatted with some of the kids, and even the hobo from the story walked through the train. He only made a brief appearance, though, but the kids really dug him.
In the Polar Express story, the main kid gets to meet Santa, and Santa gives him a special bell off of his magical sleigh. It’s kind of a big deal in the story, so they (naturally) make this part of the ride.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid who believes in Santa, or not – all the kids exploded when he walked through the train car, handing out these really cool sleigh bells. Everyone got to feel like that special kid in the story. Pictures were taken, Ho-ho-ho’s were said, and hugs were given. My niece is 10 and doesn’t believe in Santa, but it didn’t matter – because she was just like my son… Their eyes grew three times bigger and they grinned from ear to ear.
When you chug back into the railway station, there’s a gift shop for Polar Express-themed items as well as normal railroad/train items. As you can imagine, it’s a bit over-priced. Of course, you have to expect something like that going in and prepare for it. And you know that your little ones will be disappointed if they walk away empty-handed. You can also get family portraits with Santa, but we skipped that this year.
As I’ve said already, the Polar Express takes off every year from both Carson City and Sacramento (Old Sacramento). I’m sure there are several other places, as well. The Sacramento station was cooler, but we had more fun on the Carson City train (plus, it’s a lot closer to Reno). Tickets go on sale around August or September ($24 for kids, $34 for adults), and they sell out really fast. The rides are available for the four weeks before Christmas. If you’d like to read more about it, you can check the website for the Carson City Train Ride here, or the overall company’s website here.
I whole-heartedly recommend the Polar Express ride for any family with kids. Toddlers (3 and under) might not appreciate it as much, but everyone else should have a blast (nevermind those pesky teenagers).
As we were leaving the gift shop, the kids were beaming, saying they couldn’t wait to go again next year. It was really cool, and I admit, I’d go a third time (and more). I definitely think you get your money’s worth.
With the van in view (and it being really cold by then), we all raced to get inside – everyone else because they wanted to get warm, and me because I was gonna dig back into that bag of buttered popcorn…