Holiday train outings, or rides on the “Polar Express” can be a magical and festive event for kids. Some of these train rides are directly inspired by the “Polar Express” book and movie, some are all about Santa and his little helpers and most have some form of refreshment, singing, performance, and even a little gift. But take note! These rides tend to sell out pretty early, so if you want to take a train trip to the North Pole this holiday season, you’ll need to start looking now. We’ve picked the best holiday train rides this season, and all are located less than two hours (give or take 10 minutes!) away from central Manhattan by car. Book now and enjoy the ride!

photo: NYC Transit Museum

MTA Holiday Vintage Train Rides

Location: NYC

Date: Sun., Nov. 25, Dec. 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30

Price: The cost of a MetroCard

Online: nytransitmuseum.org

Before you go for the big ones, you can actually find an extra-special ride right in your very own backyard. Every year, the MTA brings out some old trains for a nostalgic ride on the rails on vintage train cars dating back to the 1930s! These special trains will run along the F line from 2nd Ave up to Columbus Circle, then switch to the A/C/D lines to continue up to 125th St. These trains will depart from 2nd Ave every two hours from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., though you can catch them on any of the express stops they'll make along the way. There's no need for a reservation, so just hop on! Although these aren't as exciting as the special Polar Express and Santa trains found outside of NYC, these make a wonderful way to take a ride around the city in a piece of history. Vintage buses will also be running on the M42 line, so be on the lookout for those, as well! 

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Wayne Tristate Santa Train

Location: Wayne/Route 23 Transit Center, Wayne NJ (1hr from NYC) 

Date: Saturday, December 14, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Price: TBD

Online: tristaterail.org

This hour-long experience will give kids a chance to meet Santa, who will also be giving each child a present and a candy cane. The trip will also have a few special guest appearances by other characters, and children will receive a small toy and an activity book. The train is equipped with bathrooms and is wheelchair accessible. 

Whippany NJ Polar Express

Location: 1 Railroad Plz, Whippany NJ (1hr 15m from NYC) 

Date: Select dates Nov. 16-Dec. 30 

Price: Coach - $46/adult, $41/child (2-11); Standard: $56/adult, $51/child; Peak: $66/adult, $61/child

First Class -$70/adult, $65/child; Standard: $75/adult, $70/child; Peak: $80/adult, $75/child

Online: whippanythepolarexpressride.com

This spectacular train ride is themed around "The Polar Express" movie, and it sets the mood by playing the sweeping soundtrack during the ride. This one-hour ride will take passengers to "the North Pole," where hot chocolate and cookie will be served to all those on board, a performance will be put on by "dancing chefs," and there will be a readalong of the children's book that the movie was based on. A small gift is included in the price—a silver sleigh bell (and a ceramic Polar Express mug if you're in First Class)—and throughout the ride, families can enjoy performances by characters from the movie, singing, and more references to the movie. First Class passengers get the benefits of larger windows, plush seating, and plenty of space for legs and little ones.

photo: New Jersey Museum of Transportation

The Christmas Express by the NJ Transit Museum

Location: 4265 Atlantic Ave, Wall Township NJ (1hr 30m from NYC)

Date: Daytime Rides - November 29 & 30, December 1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 & 22, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Nighttime Rides - December 7, 14 & 21, 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Price: $6/person (in person, no online sales)

Online: njmt.org

This ride is a more affordable option those who want to experience a holiday train away from NYC but don't need the full production. These holiday trains have been running for 35 years and tend to sell out, so this year there are even more train dates. Santa will be onboard each train ride and will make sure to visit every child for a chat, and trains leave every half an hour. The catch? No online ticket sales are available, and all tickets must be purchased from the station, in person. Call ahead at (732) 938-5524 to make sure tickets will be available for your family!

Northern Lights Limited and Santa Express

Location: 242 E Main St, Thomaston CT ( 1hr 50m from NYC)

Date: Every weekend (Fri.-Sun.) between Thanksgiving and Christmas

Price: Santa Express - Coach: $20/person; First Class: $45/person; $1 for kids 2 and under

Northern Lights Limited - Coach: $30/person; First Class: $55/person; $1 for kids 2 and under

Online: rmne.org

This train ride lasts about an hour and 20 minutes and gives families a chance to interact with Santa and his elves. Each child will receive a small gift from Santa's toy bag while elves and other characters lead passengers in carols and singalongs. First class travelers will also be served hot cocoa and get more comfortable seating. Afternoon and evening rides are available, with evening rides being lit up with Christmas lights. Keep in mind that there are no restrooms on the trains.

Phillipsburg Polar Express

Location: 100 Elizabeth St, Phillipsburg NJ (1hr 50m from NYC)

Date: November 29,30 December 1,6,7,8,13,14,15,20,21,22, Friday 6 & 8 p.m., Saturday 2,4,6,& 8 p.m., Sunday 2,4,6 p.m.

Price: $42/adult, $32/child, $5/lap sitters (under 2)

Online: 877trainride.com

The Phillipsburg rendition of the Polar Express train ride includes music from the movie, a reading of the book, hot chocolate and cookies, a gift of a sleigh bell, and more. There will be performances and jugglers, as well as visits from Santa and other characters. Travelers are encouraged to wear their pajamas to this whimsical ride. Tickets for certain dates have already sold out, so if you're interested in this one, act fast to get your tickets! 

Essex Steam Holiday rides

Location: 1 Railroad Ave, Essex CT (2hr 10m from NYC)

Date: 

Price: Santa Special Elf Academy - Coach Class: $26/person; First Class: $40/person

North Pole Express - Coach Class: $37.50/person, $47.50 Fridays and Saturdays after Thanksgiving; First Class: Sold out

Online: essexsteamtrain.com

This train ride has two options for travelers: the Santa Special Elf Academy and the North Pole Express. The Santa Special Elf Academy is a fun themed ride for little ones who wish they could help Santa out. This "training course for elves" will include fun characters, a small gift for each child, refreshments, and lots of fun activities for Santa's helpers-in-training. Travelers are encouraged to stop by the nearby River Valley Junction, where family-friendly activities will include a photo-op with Santa's sleigh, live music by Sunny Train, and the chance to enjoy some refreshments from the Kringle Cafe.

The North Pole Express is an hour and a half ride that turns each train car into an interactive musical performance of "The Night Before Christmas." Expect cookies and cocoa and visits from Mrs. and Mrs. Claus. First Class tickets for the North Pole Express are already sold out, so get your tickets soon to ensure a spot.

—Yuliya Geikhman

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