Bryson City, a small town located in Western North Carolina, is home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train ride for 10 months out of the year, but each November and December it is the host of something more magical:
Based on the classic children’s book and subsequent movie, the Polar Express arrives to carry passengers – many decked out in their finest pajamas – from the mountains of North Carolina to the North Pole and back.
Complete with a dancing crew that serves hot chocolate and a visit from the big man himself to bestow a silver bell from his sleigh, the Polar Express celebrates the wonder of Christmas all set to the motion picture soundtrack.
There are several considerations you need to weigh before making the trip to Bryson City to ride the Polar Express, not the least of which is where your child is on the relative scale of suspension of disbelief and your general disposition towards the magic of Christmas.
Considering travel time, the Polar Express is not a cheap family outing. There are several prices levels from first class down to coach, each class with a variety of pricing options based on times and the type of train involved. Steam trains are more expensive.
Still, according to the website more than 90,000 guests rode the Polar Express in 2018, so they must be doing something right.
For us, our middle child, the boy was absolutely in love with trains. Riding a real train, any train, was an exciting prospect so really, the Polar Express hoopla was mostly icing on the cake.
To get the full experience, however, you have to come in with the eyes of a child, of at least the heart of one.
The train ride is an hour and a half, which means 45 minutes out and 45 minutes back. There’s a reason the scenic rides are significantly longer, chiefly it takes that much longer to get to the real breathtaking scenery.
The fictional Polar Express isn’t hindered by things like logistics. It goes where it needs to go, track magically appears in the right spot to get to each child’s house and take them to the North Pole. In real life, and in Bryson City, the railroad tracks don’t always run through the prettiest part of town. As you roll out, looking forward to a magical journey, it can be jarring to look out the window at so much reality.
Still, there are some pretty views as the tracks wind down by the river, across open fields – we saw some elk which we were able to pass off as reindeer – and mountains.
The train staff is game, playing with the kids, dancing and singing. It mostly falls upon their shoulders to put the merry in this Christmas journey.
Arrival at the North Pole is about what you’d expect. Production values for a small town tourist train ride aren’t exactly Hollywood worthy. Still, Santa was jolly and patient with the kids, making sure each got a Christmas bell.
And they each hung on to those silver sleigh bells as if they carried their very Christmas wishes. Some of that, I think, speaks to the validity of the experience, but some also to the fact that the boy in the book temporarily loses his.
Like many things in life, the Polar Express is a matter of perspective. My kids still talk about their train ride to the North Pole, drinking hot chocolate, seeing Santa and ringing their bells.
I’m the only one who remembers the flaws.
“The Magic of Christmas lies in your heart,” Santa tells the boy who doubts.
Maybe I need to ride that train again.
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