Around this time of year, it’s not too hard to find a holiday train ride in the Mountain West, from the North Pole Express in Heber City, Utah to the Santa Express in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho.
To get a sense of how it all works, I visit Carson City, Nev. to take a look at the different options.
On any other day, this stretch of dirt east of Nevada’s capital city might feel unremarkable. Luckily, this isn’t a normal day.
I’m here to ride the Polar Express, a themed train ride based on the popular kids’ book and movie. There are more than 50 of these theme rides around the world. This one takes riders along the historic Virginia & Truckee Railroad from Carson City to Virginia City, or, the North Pole.
“We really watch how we decorate, how we’re dressed,” said Elaine Barkdull-Spencer, the general manager of the V&T Railway Commission, a state-funded entity that operates the Polar Express. She’s running around the train depot making sure lights are on, hot chocolate is being made and people are having fun.
“The experience as a whole has to be that makes the individuals or our passengers feel like they’re in the movie, 'The Polar Express,'” she said.
Barkdull-Spencer says it costs more than $500,000 to operate the event every year, and it requires twice the staff as summer train rides. That’s on top of the $32 million it cost the state to get the historic train line back in operation. The train cars alone are more than 100 years old.
“We get to show off a piece of history,” says Adam Michalski, the curator of education at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. The museum runs its own holiday train, a historic steam engine called the Santa Train.
But does it really make sense for a city with a population of just 55,000 people to have multiple holiday trains? When you look at the history, it kind of does.
“We’re the state that had the most track for the Transcontinental Railroad,” Michalski said.
Before the Transcontinental Railroad connected the coasts 150 years ago, travel to our region was pretty treacherous, and took six months or more by ship or on foot.
“It’s just like Oregon Trail, the game.” Michalski says. “You’d have all these different issues and you carried all of your belongings in a wagon.”
He says back then, trains captivated the imagination of people. And back at the Polar Express, that's still true.
Nichole Woodward works outside, greeting riders as they enter. The cold and the rain doesn’t seem to bother her much.
“The whole experience is magical. Everything that’s put into this whole thing makes you believe at the end of it,” she said.
For Woodward, the holidays offer a chance to connect without distractions from technology.
“I just love the spirit of the holidays. It brings people together and we need more of that.”
She’s not alone. Christina Bourne has been coming to the Polar Express since it first came to Carson City in 2010.
“It’s a family tradition for us to come every year,” Bourne said. “It’s just part of something we do as a family, and to get our Christmas season started and just enjoy our time together.”
Before we can all get on the train, we first are introduced to the story of the Polar Express. It’s about a boy who is starting to question his belief in Santa Claus, when a mysterious train appears and a conductor invites him, and all of us, along for the ride.
The whole program takes about an hour round trip. Along the way, there are songs and dances, and Santa’s elves bring cookies and share stories. When we get to the North Pole, Santa Claus comes aboard and hands everyone a silver bell to commemorate the ride. Because as the story goes, you can only hear the ringing if you believe.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.