The Polar Express Is Real -- Sort Of

TRAVEL TALK

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For several years, the Grand Canyon Railway has been operating its version of the Polar Express. We had heard so much from parents and grandparents about the wonderful experience that a few days ago we decided to take the grandchildren to the "North Pole" of Arizona.

This is the sixth year GCR has offered this special Christmas experience for children. It began modestly with two trains on the weekend. In the six years of operation, each year gets better, grander and they expect some 75,000 people in 2006. Two trains are now operated per evening. One departs the Williams depot at 6:30 p.m. and the other at 8:30 p.m. Santa rests on Tuesdays.

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The conductor of Arizona's "Polar Express" welcomes young riders, in their new pajamas, robes and slippers, aboard for a special holiday tradition.

After checking into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, we wandered into the warm and beautiful lobby where the children hovered around the very large fireplace, which was keeping everyone warm. The children had changed into their new pajamas with the built-in feet covers as well as new bathrobes especially purchased for the adventure. Johnny, the four-year-old, was so excited that he kissed the robe many times.

I have never seen young children so excited.

Outside the hotel lobby window was a preview of the Polar Express engine decorated in full Christmas regalia ready to pull the train to the "North Pole." Most of the children who had gathered around the fire were also wearing pajamas and robes, just like in the movie. Everyone was at the height of excitement, even the adults.

At 6 p.m., the train conductor announced that boarding would begin for the Polar Express to the North Pole. The loudspeakers carried the message all over the vast facility. Upon hearing the announcement, the children jumped up and down with excitement. We put on our warm coats and caps and walked the short distance from the hotel to the depot.

It was now dark and we were surrounded with lights ablaze with Christmas themes. I have never seen so much Christmas lighting anywhere before. If this doesn't get you into the Christmas mood, nothing will.

The train consisted of 12 passenger cars all titled "Polar Express" on the outside. The seats are assigned which makes the boarding process easier. Once inside our car, the passenger service representative and his two elves greeted us.

At 6:28 p.m., you could hear the conductor announce, "All Aboard for the North Pole." This prompts another round of excitement as the children place their heads against the cold windows for a better opportunity to view the departure. Promptly at 6:30 p.m., the engineer toots a few blasts signaling the departure and the train rolls out of the Williams station past more Christmas lights until we leave the town and chug into the night, headed to the North Pole.

Soon after departure, the passenger service representative tells us it is time for the "Polar Express" story as told by actor Liam Neeson. During the recording, the elves walk up and down the aisle with the book, which is filled with wonderful pictures depicting the narrative. The elves also serve hot chocolate and cookies to everyone.

In about a half-hour we are told to look ahead as the train rounds a curve and there it is, the North Pole. North Pole, Arizona consists of a large brightly-lit set depicting Santa's workshops and buildings. Close to the train track is Santa himself, sitting in his sleigh, waving to the train. Soon, the train stops and Santa boards. The train then begins picking up speed again, heading back to Williams. Santa walks through each passenger car, asking the children if "they believe" and of course they respond with "Yes!" Santa then gives each child a beautiful bell. From this point on there is a lot of bell ringing.

The passenger service rep now leads everyone in singing well-known Christmas carols.

Soon, the town of Williams is visible once again and we roll into the brightly-lit station to disembark.

The entire Polar Express experience takes about an hour and ten minutes, just long enough to hold the young peoples' attention.

We walked back to the hotel and into the warm lobby with the fireplace ready for the onslaught of children who once again gather and talk about their experience. Excitement continues for another hour or so until everyone seems hungry and we move to the dining room for a late dinner.

It took the children a long time to finally fall asleep as they lay in bed talking about their trip to the North Pole.

This is a wonderful experience and one the children will never forget. Williams is only two hours and 15 minutes from Payson and a beautiful drive, which passes Mormon Lake and Lake Mary through Flagstaff and on to Williams.

Reservations are hard to get this late in the season, but you may be able to get space midweek. You might consider booking the train for Christmastime 2007. The Grand Canyon Railways will sell you train-only tickets for $12 per child and $24 for adults. A better experience is to book one of the GCR packages, which includes the Polar Express, one night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel next to the depot, dinner and breakfast for each person at the GCR restaurant. An example package for two adults and two children on weekdays is $269.

You may call the Grand Canyon Railway for information and reservations by dialing 1-800-THE-TRAIN (1-800-843-8724).

All aboard!

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