Home » Attractions

The Real Polar Express Train Ride in NC, an Honest Review

two young kids in front of the bryson city train sign

Bryson City's Polar Express train ride is great for kids (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Please note, that TheSmokies.com may receive commissions for links in this article that lead to purchases from third-party vendors.

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 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 warm cocoa and also a visit from Santa Claus to bestow a silver bell from his sleigh, the Polar Express celebrates the wonder of Christmas. There are a few things to consider before your magical journey on the Polar Express in North Carolina as noted below:


Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Please wait...

Thank you for sign up!

red train cart of the great smoky mountain railroad
The Polar Express Train ride in North Carolina is a real train ride that offers a themed, immersive experience in the holiday season (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How much is the Polar Express train ride?

Ticket prices vary by selection. At the time of this writing, tickets for children range from $29-69 and $44-99 for adults. Family first class, premium crown class, crown class and coach class are available unless sold out. Coach class will be on the less expensive end of the spectrum. For information on each class, visit the website and click on more details. With a travel time of 1.25 hours, the Polar Express is not necessarily a cheap family adventure. Still, the Polar Express train ride in North Carolina is very popular, so we recommend you book early if you plan to ride this season. The experience features Christmas carols and sounds of the motion picture soundtrack.

first class seating on the great smoky mountain railroad
First class seating, pictured above, comes with a few more amenities (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How long is the Polar Express train ride in Bryson City?

The train ride is an hour and 15 minutes round-trip. There’s a reason the scenic rides are significantly longer. Chiefly, it takes that much more time to get to the real breathtaking scenery. The fictional Polar Express isn’t hindered by things like logistics. In other words, it goes where it needs to go. The 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 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.

mural of great smoky mountain railroad at the depot in bryson city nc
All excursions with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depart from Bryson City (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Is the Polar Express train ride worth it?

For us, the price was certainly worth it. Our middle child is 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, or at least the heart of one. Like many things in life, the Polar Express is a matter of perspective. Consider before going where your child is on the relative scale of suspension of disbelief. 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 and they do a good job of capturing the magic of the season.

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 special gift, which was a silver sleigh bell. 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. Importantly, my kids still talk about their train ride to the North Pole, drinking hot chocolate, seeing St. Nick and ringing their bells. I’m the only one who remembers any flaws.“The Magic of Christmas lies in your heart,” Santa tells the boy who doubts. Maybe I need to ride that train again.

blue cushioned seats inside the great smoky mountain railroad train
Prices vary by seat selection when you ride the Polar Express train ride (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Is the Polar Express running this year? (2023)

The Polar Express runs from Nov. 9 to Dec. 31, 2023. No trips are scheduled on Christmas Day, but there are some steam options available on Christmas Eve. At the time of this writing, select days are already sold out. Therefore, we recommend you book as early as possible. Visit the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad page to learn more.

Where is the Polar Express train located?

The Polar Express Christmas train ride in North Carolina departs the Bryson City Depot. The entrance to the parking lot is at 45 Mitchell Street, Bryson City, NC. It is recommended that guests arrive one hour before departure.

Have you ridden the Polar Express train ride in North Carolina? Did you think it was worth it? If so, let us know in the comments below. View the web story version of this article here.

21 thoughts on “The Real Polar Express Train Ride in NC, an Honest Review”

  1. We rode the Polar Express on 11/14/2020, a group of 11 of us, and we all enjoyed it! The kids were so excited to see Santa’s house and the reindeer stables in the “North Pole”. I enjoyed the hot chocolate (and would love to know what kind it was because it was the first time in years I have drank hot chocolate and not gotten an upset stomach). We will try to take this trip again next year!

  2. No. It is not worth the money or time. It was a night ride for us. You could not even see the lights bc of condensation on the big windows. Sad

  3. So worth it. My wife had cancer at the time we went and has since passed. It was a trip were we all could feel special for a little while. We could watch our son really, really have a great time which in turn made for an incredible experience.
    It was a time I will always remember, a great memory in mine and my son’s life.

  4. Worth every penny. We have rode the Poler at least four times with different members of our family, different years. Would recommend to anyone that believes in the true reason for the season.

  5. There were 8 if us. I sprang for first class tickets and we put all we had into the experience. So it was great. It’s expensive for the amount of time you spend on the train. Would I treat my family to this experience again. Absolutely. We had a blast. But it’s like anything else. You get out of it what you put into it. We have memories to last a lifetime.

  6. We rode the Polar Express December 2020 with our three Grandsons and parents. We all wore matching pajamas over our clothes (cold) and we surprised the boys with a Build-A-Bear Polar Express Bear as they boarded the train. The hot chocolate in the 3D commemorative mug was delicious. We were given a program with Christmas songs so we had the whole train car participating in a Christmas sing-a-long. The cast was very entertaining and Santa delivered special Polar Express bells at the end of our journey. I highly recommend this adventure.

  7. It was worth it I took my kids and grand baby we love it. Just seeing the mountains on the way. Was beautiful. We want to go back .. but the ride to get the was awesome.. the little town was Amazing.. Polar Express was a great get away for Christmas..

  8. I rode the Polar Express in Connersville Indiana nearly 10 years ago with my granddaughter and great grandson. I loved. He loved it and we both still have our bells. Money isn’t everything, but memories are.

  9. 10 of us just went. We had first class seats and it was well worth it. Only downside was some of the scenery. The workers and Santa made up for that. The weather was great and the house we stayed in was very nice.

  10. My family just rode the Polar Express and it was definitely worth it! So much fun and the staff made it so entertaining with their little skits! The kids were all smiles the whole way and loved every minute of it! I would highly recommend to anyone with children! It definitely made our Christmas magical!

  11. We rode the Polar Express train ride on November 13, 2021. A family of 21 and we had ball. My daughter is almost 40 years old and her inner child could not be contained. All of my grandchildren (young and old) really enjoyed the Christmas spirit in Bryson City, NC. We didn’t think that the tickets were over priced. The children were allowed to get refills on their hot chocolate and the staff was very polite. Oh ya, let’s not forget that we were able to wear our pajamas and bring blankets. We decided to stay for the weekend and that was the best decision we made.

  12. It was our first time doing the Polar Express and we had a blast!!!! We had the time of our lives. We took out granddaughter who loves trains, and she has a great time. Hopefully we will be able to do this again. I didn’t think that it was over priced at all we sprang for first class. We wanted it to be memorable for our granddaughter and it was. We went on November 12 2021. I would advise you to book your trip ASAP when you know you are going.

  13. We rode the polar express last night with our grandkids. It was such fun! It’s expensive but it was a great Christmas present for them. Seeing the “north pole” and Santa was wonderful. The hot chocolate is really good!

  14. 2021 was our 2nd year ridding the Polar Express, never disappointed. We had a group of 16 this year. Can’t wait to ride it next year! Boggs Family Hot Springs VA

  15. The kids and adults were excited and it didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed it had a hugh cabin in Sevierville stayed two nights had a great vacation for fourteen people.

  16. The Polar Express is well worth the time and money!! We plan to rent a cabin next year and continue our yearly tradition collecting bells, seeing Santa, drinking the best hot chocolate and eating a huge cookie, and enjoying the staff acting out the polar express movie!! I now have 4 bells on my little polar express Christmas tree!! Better reserve tickets in the summer…they do sell out!! They accommodated my 7 month old grandson (2018), my 80 year old mom in a wheel chair(2019), and every other member of my family!! See attached

  17. My husband and I have been the last three yet. Well worth the money. Loved every minute. Highly recommend going. Make sure to get reservations early.

  18. My best friend, her husband, and I took the Polar Express ride in December. The staff was phenomenal and I must say that that was the most exciting experience I have had in a long time. Even getting my picture taken with Santa. I cannot wait to do it again.

  19. I never leave comments on excursions that my family take, I have to say this train ride was a joke. The best part about it was the mug you get in first class. Honestly you people need to step up your game plan cause us not worth it to pay money to watch the girls dance in the aisles etc. No don’t waste your money!!!!

  20. After Christmas ride was a bit anti-climactic. But, that was what was available. it was very disorganized as to where we boarded and a difficult walk for older folks on the farther cars. Not to be a Debbie Downer but I paid top dollar for our family of 8 and was disappointed that the servets/actors wore dirty, ill-fitting costumes. They didn’t have microphones so they screamed their lines as they walked the aisles. Surely GSRR can up their game next year. Spend some of that money and invest in live reindeer at the North Pole ! The positive highlight was our grandchildren when Santa came through with their gift. I’d say all the negatives were worth the smiles but you can do much better…..turn this review into some improvements next year….


Leave a Comment