Step right up and get your tickets punched on one of the holiday season’s most magical train rides. From visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus to bottomless mugs of hot cocoa served by singing waiters, these are no ordinary trips. Scroll down to find our favorite Polar Express and Christmas train rides across the nation.
Polar Express - Jamestown, CA, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.
Experience a Polar Express that is off the beaten track when you head up into the California foothills to Jamestown, a historic gold rush town perfectly preserved for your holiday photo backdrops. Head to the Jamestown's Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. where you can embark upon your official Polar Express train consisting of several cars pulled by a vintage engine from Railtown 1897’s collection. All seats are comfy but consider upgrading to the First Class Sugar Plum Observation Car: This car offers large windows and comfortable seating. The elegantly decorated Sugar Plum Car is divided into two sections: Parlor and Lounge. (When purchasing tickets, passengers must select either the Parlor or Lounge section). All First Class passengers receive a souvenir cocoa mug, and are free to move about the car and step off onto the observation platform. All class tickets enjoy hot chocolate and yummy cookies as you ride along with many of the story’s characters. Once you reach the North Pole, the jolly old elf–Santa himself– will come on board to give each passenger a silver sleighbell, the “first gift of Christmas.”
Tip: You're not far from the gates of Yosemite!
Find out more: railtown1897.com
PS: At the time of this writing tickets were still available but going fast!!
Grapevine North Pole Express – Grapevine, TX
Grapevine’s North Pole Express is a standing favorite among Texas families, and it’s not just because they bring in snow machines that pump out cotton candy flavored snow to delight the kiddos. When the train pulls into the depot at the North Pole, Mrs. Claus herself leads gaggles of giggling kiddos along the winding Christmas Tree trail to spend a little time with her main squeeze, while they sip warm cups of hot cocoa. Kids line up, snap a complimentary pic with the Big Guy and then it’s back to the station.
This boss train ride isn’t the only thing to look forward to in Grapevine. As the Christmas Capital of Texas, it’s bursting with other festive, family-friendly activities that bring people from all over the U.S. to the area. Along the town’s historic Main Street families will find plenty of places to shop, eat, sip and take tons of pictures in front of oversized Christmas ornaments, gigantic reindeer and a larger-than-life Santa.
Insider Tip: Thinking about snagging seats in 2018? Tickets go on sale in July and sell out fast!
Find out more: grapevinetexasusa.com/grapevinerailroad
Blue Ridge Scenic Santa Express - Blue Ridge, GA
Just a day trip from Atlanta, The Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad’s collection of antique trains that run between Blue Ridge and McCaysville, Georgia includes The Santa Express during the holidays. Go for the Christmas stories, songs and characters—including Santa, of course—during this one hour trip, and enjoy checking out the quaint town of Blue Ridge following the trip.
Find out more: brscenic.com
B&O Railroad Museum Polar Express - Baltimore, MD
Take a ride through a classic holiday tale when you board the B&O Railroad museum's version of the Polar Express. Chefs will serve hot chocolate and cookies, while guests are treated to a reading of the classic book. The best part? Every rider will receive a special gift from Santa—the first gift of Christmas.
Find out more: borail.org./polarexpress
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s Holiday Trains - Cumberland, MD
Take a one-of-a-kind trek through Winter Land aboard the Western Maryland's three-hour expedition. Meet Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves, and be sure to join in on reindeer games as you chug along the line, waiting for your one-on-one time with the jolly guy. All riders will enjoy Christmas treats aboard the train, but diners who opt to eat dinner will enjoy a traditional turkey dinner in a vintage dining car. A snack bar is available to all passengers.
Find out more: wmsr.com/holiday-trains
Nevada Northern Railway Polar Express - Ely, NV
If your holiday plans take you to Nevada, then you’ll want to grab a ticket aboard the Polar Express that leaves from the town of Ely. This 90-minute ride includes hot cocoa and cookies, a reading of The Polar Express by some of Santa’s helpers, and—of course—a visit from the big man himself! The train is pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive, and if you have a group of 12 or more, be sure to ask for a discount when you purchase your tickets.
Find out more: nnry.com/pages/Polar-Express.php
Polar Express on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad – Utica, NY
All aboard for a two-hour round trip ride that leaves from Utica Station and arrives at the North Pole (Holland Patent, NY)! Guests will interact with hot chocolate chefs, listen to The Polar Express (narrated by Liam Neeson), and have a meet-and-greet with the jolly man in red. Pajamas are encouraged!
Insider Tip: For an intimate Santa experience, be sure to book a spot on the special Cocoa Class car. You’ll get to visit with Mrs. Claus and take home a souvenir mug!
Find out more: adirondackrr.com/polar-express-utica
Holiday Express on the 1880 Train – Hill City, SD
From Nov. 23rd-Dec. 23rd, holiday revelers can board the oldest continuous running tour railroad in the country for the Holiday Express. The one-hour ride takes visitors through the beautiful Black Hills to the North Pole on the 1880 Train (which gets a holiday makeover of its own) while snacking on cookies, a sweet treat, and hot chocolate! When the train stops, Santa gets on and hands out a gift to every kiddo. It’s the perfect holiday tradition.
Insider Tip: Want a keepsake photo? Snag a shot with Santa in the caboose for an added fee.
Find out more: 1880train.com/holiday-express
The North Pole Flyer - Austin, TX
Everything's bigger in Texas, including a ride on the North Pole Flyer, a special two-hour excursion on a diesel locomotive that features a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, all-you-can-drink hot cocoa, and a locally baked holiday cookie. Each car is decorated for the season where passengers enjoy a live reading of the North Pole Flyer book—the railway's own personalized holiday book. Santa “checks your list twice” and poses for photographs before handing out a gift to each child.
Find out more: austinsteamtrain.org
The Polar Express Train Ride – Tavares, FL
Is it any surprise that Florida’s best holiday train ride is near Orlando? Not to us! Join other pajama-clad kiddos for a ride that’ll take them from central Florida to the North Pole in just over an hour. This one is a trademarked Polar Express ride, so be prepared to have golden tickets punched, lots of hot chocolate, interactions with the hobo, and an out-loud reading of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic storybook, all before meeting Santa himself. Best part? Every kid aboard the train will receive his or her very own silver bell to represent the first gift of Christmas.
Find out more: mountdorachristmas.com
Elf Limited on the Mountain Rail – Cass, WV
For an Elf Olympics of sorts, riders can join Jinx the Elf on a journey of jolly proportions on The Elf, Ltd., where elves who are hoping to make the cut as one of Santa’s Little Helpers tackle some rigorous training: packaging, mischief making, snowballing and more. The destination of The Elf, Ltd. is the Parliament of the Pines—the magical spot where Santa picks the best of the best to join his team. At just under 60 minutes, this unique journey is do-able even for the little ones.
Find out more: mountainrailwv.com/the-elf-limited
Train to Christmas Town – NC, CA, CO and MS
Recreating the classic holiday children’s story The Train to Christmas Town is what this fantastic voyage is all about. From the minute tiny passengers hand their ticket over to the conductor, they’re plunged into the world of Janice and her brother, making their way to Christmas Town. Familiar friends will be on board (Bumblebee the polar bear, Wabash the squirrel and Zephyr the depot cat) for riders to visit with as they sip hot cocoa and sing Christmas faves. Once the train pulls into the Christmas Town station, Santa makes his way on board to visit with everyone and do what he does best—hand out gifts. Then it’s back to the starting point so tired kids can get to bed before the night is over. Phew!
Find out more: traintochristmastown.com
Durango-Silverton Polar Express – Durango, CO
Seeing the old narrow gauge train lumbering loudly down the track, prettied up for the Christmas season, your little conductor might just think he’s stepped into the classic story this Polar Express ride is named for. When he sees the train’s conductor and the boy recreating a classic scene from the movie, he’ll know he has. The movie magic continues to unfold as families sip hot cocoa, sing songs and nibble warm cookies while the train glides over snowy tracks on its way to the North Pole. They arrive to see Santa and the boy sitting in his sleigh, receiving the first gift of Christmas. On the return trip, wide-eyed onlookers relive this magic moment aboard the train, when they get serious face time with Santa and their own tiny tinkling bell to keep.
Find out more: durangotrain.com
Napa Valley Santa Train – Napa, CA
The Napa Valley Santa Train is all about enjoying a good glass of red. For the kidlets, this means whispering Christmas wishes into Santa’s ear and taking a picture to preserve the memory. For parents, it means enjoying a glass (or two) of red wine while on board. Everyone’s journey begins with a short video on the platform before Santa makes his big debut and poses for family pictures. Then it’s all aboard for a “beary” cute adventure your mini-me will never forget. After all, she'll be busy helping the conductor get Jolly the Bear to Santa’s workshop at the North Pole for a little fixing. Light up wristbands help guide everyone on the journey, and each little passenger gets her own sweet teddy to take home after Santa’s fixed him. It’s a grrr-eat way to celebrate the season!
Find out more: winetrain.com/santatrains
Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel Polar Express – Williams, AZ
Before The Polar Express made it to the big screen, back when it was just a classic children’s story, the Grand Canyon Railway was bringing it to life in the wilderness of Williams, Arizona. And with so many years of experience, they’ve perfected the art of this joyful ride that sells out every year. Just like in the book, the 60-minute ride leaves a sleepy town and heads out into the forest before a clearing in the trees reveals the North Pole, brightly lit for all to see. Christmas jammie-clad kids and their parents enjoy the ride from the comfort of festively decorated, old-fashioned cars that sprinkle more magic on the experience.
Insider Tip: While you can definitely come for the train, many families tack on an overnight stay at the historic Grand Canyon Hotel to fully take in the magic of the season.
Find out more: thetrain.com/the-polar-express
New Hope Railroad North Pole Express – New Hope, PA
A leisurely journey through beautiful Bucks County is just the start of this North Pole adventure that departs from a vintage train depot in New Hope, Pennsylvania. On board, there are plenty of kids sporting their red and green p.j. best, each one clamoring to get a glimpse of Santa and Mrs. Claus. But not to worry, they've got plenty of time on the 60-minute round trip to visit with each anxious cutie, smile for the camera and even give out a simple gift of the season before the ride is over. And while they’re eagerly waiting, kids and their parents can sip hot cocoa, nosh on cookies and sing Christmas tunes, alongside the roaming carolers and elves who are there to entertain.
Find out more: newhoperailroad.com/northpoleexpress
California Railroad Museum Polar Express – Sacramento, CA
The California State Railroad Museum’s Polar Express ride has everything your little elf wants in a magical experience. A lonely hobo to greet him, a friendly, but hurried conductor wondering if he’s coming, and a special golden ticket he can use to come aboard. But what really sets this railroad adventure apart is the special, vintage train cars where all the fun stuff happens. Whether you and your crew play it cool in the Kris Kringle or Gingerbread coach cars, or you want to live it up a bit in the French Quarter Lounge car or the El Dorado Parlor car—spectacular for big groups (hello, play date group reunion!)—you’ll have the perfect seat to watch the Christmas action unfold.
Insider's Tip: This one requires a lot of advance planning. Book it before it's sold out!
Find out more: californiarailroad.museum/polarexpress
The Chicago Union Station Polar Express – Chicago, IL
The quintessential Santa or bust experience for any urban kid, Chicago Union Station’s Polar Express doesn’t go over the river and through the woods. Instead, the hour-long train ride click-clacks through neighborhoods, tunnels and rail yards along the banks of the Chicago River. Kiddos and parents will sit two-by-two in totally tricked out train cars with comfy Amtrak seats and synchronized lights that guide passengers through the magical experience. In addition to a visit with Santa, where he doles out special gifts to good boys and girls, travelers can sip hot cocoa (served in a souvenir mug) and nosh on cookies while they make their way out to see him.
Find out more: chicagothepolarexpressride.com
Great Smoky Mountains Polar Express Train Ride – Bryson City, NC
The 70,000 passengers that rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Polar Express train last year know this is one of the best around. The ride mirrors sweet details from the movie, right down to the music playing overhead. And at the halfway point of this just-over-an-hour-long round trip, the train will stop at the North Pole to pick up Santa so he can hand out a special gift to each little boy and girl aboard. Expect music, dancing and sing-along carols on this one!
Find out more: gsmr.com/polar-express
Mount Hood Railroad Polar Express – Hood River, OR
Make sure your mini-me’s golden ticket is at the ready when you hear the conductor call, “all aboard!” this popular train that leaves from Hood River, Oregon. Because once the train leaves the station, the real party gets started with the sights and sounds that make the re-creation of the movie aboard this train so special. And while every tiny passenger’s face will beam with delight at the North Pole’s brightly lit backdrop, viewing it from the special dome cars definitely adds to the magical effect. Santa joins riders for the return trip to the station, and makes his way through the train, visiting and posing for post-worthy pics. Families can join in on the caroling and excitedly discuss the finer points of this year’s Christmas wish lists.
Find out more: mthoodrr.com/thepolarexpresstrainride
Holiday Trains on the Strasburg Rail Road – Ronks, PA
We couldn’t choose between the three awesome holiday trains that the Strasburg Rail Road hosts every year—so we decided to include them all. There’s the Christmas Tree Train on Dec. 1st (multiple departure times!), that will take you and your crew to Leaman Place Grove to pick up your very own pre-cut evergreen, before heading back to the station for holiday stories aboard the caboose. Or there’s the Santa’s Paradise Express, which runs from the end of Nov. through the middle of Dec. Mrs. Claus will greet kids at the station (be sure to bring a self-addressed envelope to get a response from the big guy), and Santa joins in on the fun as passengers make their way to Paradise, Pa and back. Finally, the very special Night Before Christmas Train will take lucky cookie-eating riders clickety-clack down the track as a pajama-clad host reads The Night Before Christmas.
Find out more: strasburgrailroad.com/ride/events/
—Shelley Massey & Allison Sutcliffe