It’s a Christmas miracle! A new post! Everyone reading this has heard of the book The Polar Express. It came out 30+ years ago and tells the story of a boy on a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole, where he receives, then loses, then re-receives a bell from "Mr. C" that only rings for those who truly believe in Santa.
Like many popular books The Polar Express was made into a movie. But the residual money-making did not stop there; enterprising railroad companies now offer their own versions of The Polar Express (all licensed by Warner Brothers of course) so that your children can supposedly have an experience like the boy in the book by riding on an actual train. The closest of these to Greenville is in Bryson City, North Carolina on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and over 88,000 people took this train ride over about 7 weeks in 2017 so it is hugely popular. Many of you have done it before, so feel free to nod in your heads in agreement with this post as we break it down. And for those who have not, prepare yourselves.
What They Say:
“The 1¼ hour round-trip excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness for a special visit at the North Pole. Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the magical story. Children’s faces show the magic of the season when the train arrives at the North Pole to find Santa Claus waiting. Santa will board THE POLAR EXPRESS™, greeting each child and presenting them with a special gift as in the story, their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung as they return back to the Bryson City Depot.”
What This Means:
The word excursion is accurate. You will drive a little over 2 hours to Bryson City, a town of 1,500 people that was originally known as Charleston but changed its name to avoid confusion with the Charleston. After all, the North is not big enough for two Charlestons.
When you arrive you will pay $5 to park in a gravel lot a couple of blocks away from the depot. If it has recently rained, this parking lot is like a minefield of child-magnet puddles just waiting to ruin some clean Christmas pajamas.
You will arrive an hour early because that is what the website said you needed to do. Note that you do not actually need to be there an hour early unless you enjoy standing in slightly higher than freezing temperatures with children in now muddy Christmas pajamas while they repeatedly ask to get on a train they are not allowed to board for another 40 minutes.
Your family will then stand in a slow line to board a normal-looking diesel-powered passenger train a quarter mile walk from the depot and depart for the “North Pole”. Almost all children are in Christmas pajamas, and many adults are too. Some families have created themed pajamas for all of their multi-generations, such as words on the shirt reading “The bell still rings for Paw Paw.” There is a visible police presence at the station, possibly solely to protect these people.
In your car will be about 80 passengers packed to travel to the actual North Pole (blankets, bags, etc.) rather than a 6 mile train ride to the next town over. A conductor will come through and punch your child’s ticket about 20 times directly over her head so that the little punched out bits fall deep into her curly hair - this is how you will know the conductor does not have children. A few people sing and dance and serve hot chocolate (out of a beat up cambro) and a cookie (in mass packaging). Calling the ground the trip covers “quiet wilderness” is absurd - more on that below. The audio book is played over speakers during the trip. In our case the story shut off just as the child realizes he lost the bell Santa gave him, and never restarted - not exactly the expected climax.
Santa then gets on the train at the “North Pole”, asks each child what she wants for Christmas, then gives her a mass-produced metal (silver in color) bell. At some point a lady with a camera takes a picture of your family, which at this point consists of parents giving each other the side eye and children whipped into a double-barreled sugar/Christmas frenzy, then the photographer will later bring the printed photo to you. You will think she is giving it to you since you paid $192 (not including 13.75% tax) for this not even 1.25 hour experience and the photo must be included, and you will be wrong. She will say you can keep it for the small fee of $29.95.
As you pull back into the depot as a couple of carols are sung, you will realize this is an exceptionally well designed business focused on extracting a maximum amount of cash - their favorite carol is Silver and Gold.
Do: Consider, carefully, whether you need to do this. If you decide you have to (you don’t), buy early, and splurge for either Crown or First Class - Coach Class does not have assigned seating . . . and you want assigned seating.
Maybe Don’t Do: Two points here. First, I am putting the top end age for a child to do this at 4 or 5. I actually think it made my older child question Santa (“where are the reindeer at the North Pole”? “why are there people in cars at the North Pole?” “why is there no snow at the North Pole?” “why does Santa live in that house?” etc. etc. etc.).
Second, if possible avoid a daytime trip (and maybe this would help or even solve the first point). Look, I know that nobody wants to be driving home from Bryson City at 9 p.m. And I know that daytime might be the only thing that works for a younger child’s nap schedule (and it is marginally cheaper). But this is what you “get” to “see” out of your train car window on the way to the North Pole, which makes for quiet a juxtaposition with children drinking hot chocolate in Christmas pajamas.
Confederate Battle Flag Hanging On An Out Building Elf’s House:
Some old truck trailers in a field:
Pontoon boat, known to be a very effective ice breaker for traversing the pole:
One of several RV parks:
The original Polar Express train?
A couple of code violations and some water pollution:
Above ground pool with definitely not manufacturer-recommended tarp-based winterizing in effect:
Abandoned Waverunner right beside the tracks, exactly what you would expect beside a mountain river:
A roached Pontiac:
When we got to the “North Pole”, one of the employees announced to all of the children in our car that this was Santa’s house - I mean, what? Santa drives a Sonata with rims and has a Nissan truck with a roof rack "for the weekends"?
Landscaper Elf, cutting the grass that grows at the North Pole:
Given its close access to Russian natural gas fields it is no surprise the North Pole runs on propane:
A 30 yard dumpster and port-a-john in the front yard, just like every third house in your neighborhood! Low interest rates are universal. The North Pole - they're just like us!
They take the hobo part of the story very seriously:
A true hellscape:
Seriously, it’s more Jesco White than Kris Kringle, more St. Elsewhere than St. Nicholas. Calling it a journey through “quiet wilderness” is laughable.
Pro Tip: The highlight of this trip may well be your meal at the High Test Deli, about a block away from the depot. The price is right, the menu of quality sandwiches is on time, and the staff are very friendly and accommodating. Get there quick after your ride if you don’t want to wait.
I Don’t Believe I’d Told That: There is simply no justification for a grown man to wear pajamas in public. If that means the bell does not ring for me, so be it.