Once the Thanksgiving dishes are cleared, families all over SoCal will head to the nearest Christmas tree lot to pick out a tree. It usually goes something like this: pile the kids in the car, drive a few blocks to the lot (nobody walks in LA!), pay for the tree and strap the tree to the roof of the SUV. Simple? Yes, but hardly something that increases the holiday spirit. This year, try something different. Bundle up the kids and take a real train to a real Christmas tree farm. The Fillmore & Western Railway Co has been helping LA-area families create Christmas memories since 1996.

 Go: Board an authentic train at the Fillmore station and enjoy the ride directly to the Santa Paula Christmas Tree Farm. During the 45-minute ride to the farm, grab a cup of hot cocoa, munch on tamales and even shop for gifts from local purveyors. Santa himself comes along for the ride, chatting with passengers and posing for pictures. He’ll even take those handwritten wish lists from the littlest riders.

Get there: Fillmore is at the tip of Ventura County, just a bit west of Santa Clarita, east of Ventura. From LA, take the I-5 north to the 126 West. Go about 19 miles on the 126 to the first stoplight in Fillmore (Central Ave). Make a right on Central Ave. Continue two blocks and make a right on Main St. Ticket office is at 364 Main Street, Fillmore.

Travel time:
From LA’s Westside, you’re looking at approximately 60 minutes (depending on traffic, of course). From the San Fernando Valley, figure on 45 minutes. From Santa Clarita and points north, about 25-30 minutes.

What to bring: Cash for train tickets, (unless you pre-purchase), your tree, and snacks on the train. Strollers are permitted on the trains; however, car seats are not. The railway folks recommend leaving your stroller in your car as the aisle ways can be narrow.

How to dress: Be sure to bring a jacket. It can get pretty cool during the train ride (not to mention the time you spend finding/cutting down your tree).

What to do: When you arrive at the railway station, go to the ticket office and buy your tickets. If you can plan head, consider pre-purchasing your tickets online (these trains fill up quickly!). After boarding, hit the concessions and grab a cup of hot cocoa, some fresh tamales and other treats. Snuggle up with your kiddos and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to look for Santa — he’ll be joining you for the ride! Once you get to the farm, you’ll have about an hour to select your very own tree, cut it down and haul it back on the train. “We have had families coming back to do this train ride for years,” says Kathleen McCreary, director of sales and marketing for Fillmore & Western Railway Co. “Parents have been bringing their families for years, and the kids grow up and now they are bringing their own children,” McCreary says.

Where to eat: If you don’t fill your tummy with the goodies available for purchase, there are quite a few good places nearby the train station to grab a bite. Try El Pescador for fresh Mexican food. For a good-old stand-by, head to the nearby IHOP.

Cost of the trip: The Christmas Tree/Holiday Trains run twice a day (10:00 am and 2:00 pm) on Saturdays and Sundays, beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving until December 23. Prices: $24/adults; $22/seniors; $14/children ages 4-12; $10/children ages 2-3. Trees are priced separately.

Bonus: The Fillmore & Western Railway also offers a couple of other innovative ways for little train buffs to get ready for the holidays. The North Pole Express takes you straight to Santa’s Village. Wear your jammies, bring your favorite teddy bear and enjoy the ride on a vintage train with your family. Share some cookies and milk, and get ready to sing your favorite Christmas carols. When you arrive at Santa’s Village, Kris Kringle and his elves will be waiting to greet you. Visit their website for prices and details.

Want to have dinner with the big guy in red? Hop aboard the Railway’s Dinner with Santa Train. On Friday evening, December 7 and again on December 14, join Santa for an up-close-and-personal dinner. Prices: $47/adults; $26/kids ages 2-12. Includes train ride, dinner and dessert (children younger than 2 are free; however, no meal is provided).

Even if you don’t need a tree and couldn’t care less about actual face time with Santa, these train rides provide great opportunities to spend some time with your family — all while making some new memories and creating new traditions.

What is your favorite holiday tradition in your family? How do you kick off the season?

— Robin Heinz Bratslavsky

All photos courtesy of Western & Fillmore Railway Co.