They’re back! Your favorite holiday train rides are filling up fast because Santa + trains is an irresistible equation to kids of all ages. From the Polar Express train ride to vintage steam locomotive rides, we’ve mapped out our favorites from around the country, so you can find the perfect train to board this winter. Keep reading to see them all.
Grapevine North Pole Express – Grapevine, TX
Grapevine’s North Pole Express is a standing favorite among Texas families, and we can see why. Every year, they offer something a little new and different on this ride. This year, expect to hop aboard the festively decorated Grapevine Vintage Railroad train cars, where you’ll be greeted by jolly elves handing out souvenir mugs. Then it’s on to Reindeer Ridge to meet up with Mrs. Claus, who hands out special bells to each child aboard. It all ends with a Christmas stage spectacular featuring Santa himself, and a post-show photo session your little one won’t soon forget!
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. And this year, you can do it all with the Grapevine Christmas Passport. It opens doors everywhere so you and the kids can try your hand at one-of-a-kind activities like stamping brass luggage tags and making metal tinsel.
Tip: Tickets go on sale Sept. 25th and sell out fast. Be sure to mark your calendars!
Polar Express - Jamestown, CA
Experience a Polar Express 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 (it's got large windows and comfortable seating), which is elegantly decorated and divided into two sections: Parlor and Lounge (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.”
Good to know: You're not far from the gates of Yosemite!
Find out more: railtown1897.com
The Magical Christmas Journey - Clarkdale, AZ
It turns out that Santa and Mrs. Claus like to winter in the desert, too. In fact, they’ve got their own secret train tracks to the North Pole, hidden at the Verde Canyon Railroad, just outside of Sedona. Families can take a Magical Christmas Journey with the jolly pair all season long. It starts at the railroad depot, where kids can get a bird’s eye view of a lighted Christmas town, using their eagle wings to peer into these tiny, lighted houses. Then it’s time to board the train (with inside and outside seating options) for a one-hour journey that takes families through a magical tunnel before emerging at the North Pole on the other side. Once there, riders get to meet Santa and his elves for photos and a simple gift.
Insider tip: Check out the perks that come with the Magical Journey VIP Kids’ Club to add a bit more magic to your holiday experience.
Find out more: verdecanyonrr.com/events/christmas-train/
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/tickets
THE POLAR EXPRESS TRAIN RIDE - Elby, WA
It’s time to get your ticket to THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride, operated by the Mt. Rainier Railroad & Logging Museum. This delightful ride starts out with a platform performance while families gather and are finally ushered on to the historic trains, ready to carry them to the North Pole. Expect plenty of cookies and steaming hot cocoa on the ride out, alongside a reading of the ride’s namesake book. The train makes a brief stop at the North Pole to pick up Santa before making the return journey. Settle in and spend time with Santa, who listens intently to Christmas wishes before passing out silver bells that kids can take home.
Find out more: mtrainierrailroad.com/polar-express/
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s Polar Express - Cumberland, MD
Take a magical ride over bridges and through tunnels from the Cumberland Station to the North Pole and back on WMR’s Polar Express train ride. You’ll meet Santa, of course, but not before enjoying a platform show, a reading of the beloved children’s book (complete with dancing waiters) and cookies and cocoa to fill your bellies. Dress in your holiday jammies to fit in with the other passengers, and make sure your phone is fully charged to capture those magical memories digitally. You’ll look back on this ride for years to come!
Find out more: wmsr.com/experiences/polar-express/
Nevada Northern Railway Polar Express - Ely, NV
Hop on board the Nevada Northern Rail, aka Santa’s Reindeer Flyer, to kick your holiday season into high gear. Passengers will board the train at the depot in Ely, Nevada before starting their trip to the North Pole. As they ride, they’ll get to hear the exciting story of Santa’s Reindeer Flyers, where both Christmas and the NNR need saving. It’ll take the energies of the Reindeer Express Agency, and quite a few Garys and Mikes, to cure Santa’s sick reindeer and find coal for the NNR steam locomotives. But don’t worry, this story has a happy ending, as does the train ride it’s powered by. Kids will have a chance to meet Santa when they finally arrive in the North Pole, whisper in his ear and even deliver a Christmas letter directly to the Big Man.
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: Check out the Adirondack Christmas Train that runs the weekend after Thanksgiving if you want to try tree lighting with a new twist.
Find out more: adirondackrr.com/polar-express-utica
Holiday Express on the 1880 Train – Hill City, SD
From Nov. 27-Dec. 28, 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: Check out this year’s new Holiday Express First Class, which offers an “elevated” riding experience for this season. It’s only offered Nov. 29 & 30 and Dec. 21-24, so plan accordingly.
Find out more: 1880train.com/holiday-express
Denton Farmpark’s Country Christmas Train - Denton, NC
‘Tis the season to take a ride on the Handy Dandy Railroad. It’s all part of the holiday activities at the Denton Farmpark, where families can sing carols and hear a Christmas story or two at the church, meet animal friends at the petting zoo and of course, board the festive train to tour the park and enjoy the lights. Settle in to watch the story of the Nativity while you’re on board. Don’t forget to check out the wagon and pony rides after you sit for a pic with Santa (additional fees apply).
Find out more: dentonfarmpark.com/country-christmas-train/
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—the railway's own personalized holiday book. Santa “checks your list twice” and poses for photographs before handing out a gift to each child.
Tip: This trip’s usually sold out by Oct., so if you’re thinking about getting tickets, make the move soon.
Find out more: austinsteamtrain.org
Santa Train—North Bend, WA
A Northwest Favorite, the Northwest Railway Museum’s Santa Train has been making the trek from the North Bend depot to Santa’s Workshop (in Snoqualmie) since 1969. The 40-minute there-and-back trip includes a stop where families disembark for a meet and greet with Santa and his elves. They’ll find cookies and cocoa there, as well as treats to help pass the time as they wait for the all-important photo op.
Insider Tip: Enjoy a different kind of train when the Victorian Santa Train makes its annual run on Dec. 20th. Save the date!
Find out more: trainmuseum.org/index.php/programs-events/santa-train
Polar Express on the Mountain Rail – Cass, WV
It’s all about believing on this year’s official Polar Express journey that starts at the Elkins Depot in West Virginia. Then it’s on to meet Santa, as you ride by dazzling winter scenes before pulling in at the North Pole. Expect a 90-minute ride on a traditional diesel train, made all the better by donning Christmas jammies. When Santa hops on, he’ll be passing out season’s greetings, alongside a special keepsake bell. Be sure to check your pockets for holes before you board!
Tip: Fill up at the Railyard Restaurant with their Traditional Holiday Buffet before you head out to meet Santa.
Find out more: mountainrailwv.com/tour/polar-express/
Train to Christmas Town – OR 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. 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/events/polar-express/
New Hope Railroad Santa's Steam Spectacular – New Hope, PA
A leisurely journey through beautiful Bucks County is what you’ll find on Santa’s Steam Spectacular adventure aboard the historic #40 steam locomotive. On board, your kids will be among many others sporting their red and green pajama best, each one clamoring to get a glimpse of Santa and Mrs. Claus. Not to worry, the famous couple has plenty of time on the 60-minute round trip to visit with each family and give out a simple gift of the season before the ride is over. While they’re eagerly waiting, kids and their parents can sip hot cocoa, nosh on cookies and sing Christmas tunes.
Tip: Be sure so order your commemorative Santa photo to remember this special holiday trip.
Find out more: newhoperailroad.com/santas-steam-spectacular/
Train of Lights - Fremont, CA
Board the Niles Canyon Railway's antique coaches for the most joyful ride of the season. You'll wind through the Niles Canyon in the cover of night, where your spirit and the colorful lights on the coaches produce all the light you need. Expect plenty of holiday music, noshable snacks and drinks on this hour-long excursion that'll keep your kids entertained well beyond bed time.
Find out more: ncry.org/ride/train-of-lights/
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. 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 90,000 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. 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
Holiday Trains on the Strasburg Rail Road – Ronks, PA
The Strasburg Rail Road Christmas trains are a bonanza of holiday goodness because they don’t offer just one train. No, they’ve got three festive rides for families! Santa’s Paradise Express runs from just after Thanksgiving through Dec. 22nd, and it’s a great way to take the family on the oldest operating train in the U.S. for a meet-and-greet with Santa. You can also book passage on the Night Before Christmas Train, where a stocking-capped reader will recite the classic Christmas poem to jammie-clad kids as they click-clack along the track. Then there’s Santa’s Christmas Trolley, especially for kids 11 and younger. It’s a chance to sit on Santa’s lap during a 45 minute out-and-back trip to Paradise.
Find out more: strasburgrailroad.com/christmas-trains/
—Allison Sutcliffe & Shelley Massey