The Polar Express Train Ride

We recently rode on the Polar Express on the Texas State Railroad in Palestine, Texas. We did not think it was worth the money but we were glad we went (once) for Boe. If you are thinking about making the trip, there are things to know about this adventure that may make it more pleasurable:

1 – Choose the 1st trip of the evening – mostly for the parking situation. Those on the 2nd trip will find a full parking lot and have to walk much farther (sometimes in the rain) than the first departing guests. Another plus to the first trip is that the train departs during daylight and arrives back in the dark so there is some time to see some scenery.

2 – Get to the depot early. The instructions that you receive tell you this but what I learned from a friend is to get IN LINE early (really early). This is to insure seating together. I was in line at 45 minutes before departure and I was about 20th in line. They pack the train cars (even when there are 2 completely empty ones!) and seating is not assigned (unless you pay for 1st class) so if you’re at the end of the line in standard class, you and your kids could be sitting with strangers.

3 – Bring snacks and water. Being that we snack regularly, I was prepared for this. I didn’t know that we would need it, but we did. The train ride is an hour and you only get a cup of lukewarm cocoa and a cookie. We rode in the first time slot so we were riding during our dinnertime. I brought these on discretely but I don’t think it was against the rules anyway. The train ride is kid-friendly in that way.

4 – Sit on the far side of the train (from the depot). At the 30 minute mark, you arrive at the North Pole. Everything is on one side (the side we weren’t on). Thankfully, Boe didn’t care about any of the lights or elves (they were real people) or fake snow or giant candy canes. There was a caboose half-lit in the background (probably for another event) so he was going ballistic over that. No doubt, the ONLY kid who noticed the darkened caboose.

5 – Bring something for the downtime. This is where I was lacking. I was under the impression that the ride was an hour of entertainment. It’s not. Another friend told me that “there are acrobats that flip down the aisle and you sing Christmas songs and you get cookies and cocoa and Santa comes! It’s non-stop!” It wasn’t. There was a lot of stop. There is about 25 minutes with nothing going on. And there was no acrobat (which I had hoped to see) – maybe in first class but we didn’t get that in standard class. B/c the train ride takes place at night, there is nothing to see outside so all the “entertainment” has to be on the train – did I mention that the ride is an hour long? So, except for the 3 minutes at the North Pole, it’s you and the staff in charge of entertaining your kid and the staff are holiday help that are mostly high school and college kids. I saw MANY parents checking their watches (before the North Pole even!). So bring something to do. DH pulled through with his version of the Polar Express (movie, of course – it’s much more entertaining to a bored 4 year old boy than the book) and we used up about 10 minutes with that. The condensation on the window kept Boe entertained occasionally throughout the trip – he practiced some letters and shapes. And the snack that I (thankfully) brought took up another 5 minutes. I noticed one girl sitting quietly with an iPhone – so I guess you could go the way of technology, as well.

6 – It’s loud. This is more of a mental prep but that will help, too. We would not have been able to take Boe on this train ride last year (pre-Feingold info). He would have been out of his head! Even before we departed, the noise and energy levels were so high that Boe was beginning to get antsy. B/c we now know how surrounding activity affects him, we were able to help him deal with all the stimuli in this very small, confined area. The kids are excited and closed-in. The train car is packed. They play overhead music. And there’s really nothing to do so it gets loud! And I’m fairly certain that on the return trip, they cranked the music up a little louder (maybe in an attempt to cover all the noise – it didn’t work). Either that or I was just getting more desperate to let Boe run! When we finally did get back, I rushed to the gift shop to purchase a poster (really reasonably priced @ $5) so we could GET OUT OF THERE! I get in to the gift shop and it’s quiet. Quiet. Just me and another patron and the two teenage cashiers. Apparently, all the other riders had herded into the large, tent gift shop outside the depot. It takes a few seconds for the calm to sink in and in my moment of awareness, I say to the cashiers “It’s so nice and quiet in here!” They just politely smile. So, I say, “Have you guys ever ridden on that train?!” One is looking at me like I’m crazy but the other has a knowing grin on her face and is slowly nodding her head. “Yeah”, she says. “And I’m so glad I’m in here.” I’m telling them how I feel so sorry for the staff that has to do that 2 and sometimes 3 times a night! Again she says, “Yeah, I’m so glad I’m in here.”

7 – The ride is not a ton like the movie. Depending on the age of your child and his or her love of the movie, this may be important to tell them. Boe thought we would be going up and down steep hills and sliding on ice (his favorite part of the movie). I thought we might be in trouble when we pulled up in the parking lot, he saw the train and said “THAT’S not Polar Express.” But once on the train, he was too caught up in all the chaos to care one way or the other. The conductor is NOT Tom Hanks and has nowhere near the personality. I didn’t expect the fabulous hole punching but some conversation would have been nice. Boe wouldn’t even have known that the man had gone thru the formality of punching his ticket except that we made him hand the man his ticket. Maybe the dude’s been doing this so long that he knows that getting the attention of a train car full of kids is impossible. Or maybe he just hates his job. Anyway, prep your Polar Express movie fans.

8 – And, if you plan to wear your pajamas (Moms and Dads), wear flannel pajamas. I found this out the hard way. I, as usual, was out of fashion. I had my cotton knit p.j.s on amongst a sea of fleece and flannel. I got a number of down-the-nose looks from some of the flannel-wearers. The kids were in all kinds of material but the unwritten rule for adults is fleece or flannel. Oh, and, winter theme – summer stripes are not where it’s at on the Polar Express.

And, this is what you get during the train ride:

Polar Express reading – the reading is piped in overhead so it can’t really be heard, the staff walk the aisle with the book for the kids to catch a glimpse of (she came by our seat during the wolf part so Boe checked it out for a few seconds), and I felt sorry for the staff b/c I didn’t see any kids paying attention to them so it seemed like they were doing it all in vain.
Refreshments – the cookie and cocoa.
Conductor ticket punch – amid the noise and chaos, this guy was barely noticed by the kids.
North pole – sit on the far side of the train to get a good view.
Santa – it was too loud to talk to him so this was just a photo op.
A bell – after the kids sit with Santa, they get a bell. So now, we had noise-makers for the return trip.
A sing-along – Christmas music is piped in and some people sing along. I thought it was hilarious when I caught a snippet of “Silent Night” – there was nothing calm about that ride.
March up and down the aisle – the two staff personnel in our car were really friendly and whether this is part of the routine or not, it got the kids out of their seats for a little while during the LONG ride. It was comical b/c the younger kids were having so much fun and parents are snapping pics but the ones that were a little older, like 5 and up, had confused looks like “WHAT are we DOING?! Just walking up and down the aisle?” It was a welcome relief to every one of us with bouncy kids, though (and there were a lot!). And I greatly appreciated the effort!

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All that being said, if you’ve thought about doing the Polar Express, I say go. I have a friend who has made this trip for the last 3 years (her son is now 6) so some people think it’s loads of fun and worth the money. For us, it’s a been-there-done-that thing.
We’ve done the Day Out With Thomas and loved it and would do it again – the ride is shorter, it’s a daylight ride so there are things to see out the windows, it cheaper, and there’s a TON to do off the train (bounce house, petting zoo, brio train layouts to play with, and much more). And, we’ve heard positives about the Peanuts Pumpkin Express so we may try that next year – you can get off the train at the half-way point and release some of that energy and, I think the kids get a pumpkin.
As for us and the Polar Express, that was our last trip.

On our way home, we asked Boe to tell us his favorite part of the evening.
He said, “looking at the engine” – we could have done that for the $5 parking fee.

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