A generation of children has dreamed of a magical train ride to visit Santa Claus at the North Pole thanks to the 1985 book “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg, who makes his home in Providence, R.I. The tale begins in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Van Allsburg grew up, and follows the adventures of a nameless boy who takes the ride of his life on the most important night of the year and receives a special gift from Santa himself.
The book’s dreamlike illustrations and evocative story were plucked from the author’s childhood memories of the enchanting hours leading up to Christmas morning. The spirit of Christmas is symbolized by the ringing of a bell that can be heard only by those who believe in Santa.
The heartwarming tale earned the author and illustrator the 1986 Caldecott Medal, honoring “The Polar Express” as the year’s most distinguished American picture book for children. In 2003, Warner Bros. Entertainment turned the story into a computer-animated film featuring actor Tom Hanks.
For thousands of lucky children each year, the story comes to life aboard Polar Express train excursions across the nation, including one in Bryson City, North Carolina, offered by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which operates on tracks built in 1890 to move freight and passengers through the Appalachian Mountains. While passenger service ended in 1948, much of the original track was saved from demolition by the state of North Carolina. Today, a private company offers sightseeing excursions along the route, including the Polar Express trip, which began in 2004 and quickly became the company’s most popular event. This year, more than 40,000 passengers are expected to hop aboard between Nov. 6 and Christmas Eve.
“The children make this ride 10 times as much fun as any other,” says conductor John McLean, 53.
As with all 29 official Polar Express train excursions across the United States and Canada—licensed through an agreement with Warner Brothers—the Bryson City ride features snacks and hot chocolate, song and dance, readings of Van Allsburg’s story, and visits with the jolly old elf.
But each re-enactment provides an experience all its own. In Williams, Arizona, the train passes through a “magic tunnel” to enter the North Pole, while Bryson City riders search for “reindeer” along the banks of the Tuckaseegee River, which parallels the tracks.
The first Polar Express train excursion departed in 1995 in New Hampshire, where passengers who board at depots in Lincoln and North Conway continue to disembark at the “North Pole” to meet dozens of volunteer elves and enter a theater where an actor reads the story. Operated each year to benefit the Believe in Books Literacy Foundation, the trip adheres closely to the book, offering riders “hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars” and nougat-centered candies custom-made for the train’s passengers.
The Bryson City Depot welcomes more than 300 children and adults for each 1-2-hour ride.
“All aboard!” bellows McLean as passengers find their seats in one of 10 cars pulled by a diesel locomotive bedecked in tinsel and lights. The train chugs forward, then reaches a steady speed as the fun begins.
In each car, a trio wearing white jackets and chef hats serves Rice Krispies Treats and hot chocolate, and leads passengers in singing songs from the movie soundtrack as children dance and clap in the aisles. After sing-along renditions of “Jingle Bells” and other carols, the festive passengers become more excited as the train rumbles toward the North Pole. Soon nearly a dozen buildings come into view, most illuminated in multicolored lights.
Chef Moselle McCall, 51, points out a home decorated in blue lights where Jack Frost lives, followed by a towering water tank outlined in white lights.
“There’s the tank that keeps the chocolate hot,” McCall says with excitement. “And there’s Mr. and Mrs. Claus’ house,” she adds, eliciting “oohs” and “aahs” as she points to a brightly lit two-story home.
As the train wheels grind to a stop, a red-suited gentleman with a snow-white beard waits beside the track with his sleigh. The children clap and wave from their windows as the jolly man smiles and waves back. Moments later, the passenger-car door swings open to receive the honored guest.
“Ho, ho, ho! Welcome to the North Pole!” says Santa, accompanied by an elf in green attire. Walking down the aisle, Santa hands a souvenir silver sleigh bell to each child and poses for photographs along the way.
With the story’s crescendo reached, tired but happy children settle back into their seats for the return ride to Bryson City, where the atmosphere becomes increasingly quiet, except for the sound of jingling bells that carry the message of Christmas.
This article was originally published Dec. 9, 201o in the print edition of American Profile.