It’s the time of year for the smiles of children, their laughter, their hopes and their dreams.
It’s the time of year for the Polar Express. This year the Polar Express rides from the Dennison Railroad Depot are on December 7-9 and 14-16.
The annual holiday train trips from the Depot in Dennison to the North Pole (Newcomerstown) provide the stuff of Christmas dreams for hundreds of children each year and provide memories of a lifetime for both the children and the adults who take the ride.
The Polar Express is a children's book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985. A classic Christmas story for young children, it became another classic when it was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 2004, featuring the voice of Tom Hanks. Van Allsburg won the annual Caldecott Medal for illustration of an American children's picture book in 1986.
Wendy Zucal, director of the Dennison Depot, noted this is the 19th year for the Polar Express in Tuscarawas County, so it predates the movie by five years.
The Polar Express starts at the Depot, with adventurers boarding the specially decorated train, with each train car featuring different decorations. Storytellers on each car read "The Polar Express" as it speeds towards the North Pole and a rendezvous with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus. Elves entertain children (and adults) with songs, games and activities. Hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies (specially made by Mrs. Claus) are served on board.
When the train arrives at the North Pole, children will see Santa and his workshop out train window. While passengers do not get off the train, the train stops long enough to pick up Santa Claus, who will visit with children on the way back.
Zucal said it takes 150 volunteers per trip to run the Polar Express, from a pool of about 600 volunteers.
"Hundreds of additional hours are put into preparation, including setting up the North Pole, decorating cars, training Storytellers and elves and more," Zucal said.
Zucal said the trips not only support the museum's programs and operations, but are a great economic boost to the local economy. She said the Polar Express is estimated to bring in over a million dollars per weekend in local spending. Funding also helps support many local community organizations and businesses as well.
"For example, we pay a local church to make all the hot chocolate," Zucal said. "We rent the Masonic Temple to house vendors and staff. We support local EMTs, police and firefighters with free tickets or funding for services. We fill local restaurants and help fill area hotels."
Zucal also emphasized that these trips only exist through the generosity of the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, and their crews that work long extra hours to run The Polar Express.
"The Polar Express provides a wonderful opportunity for families to create magical holiday memories," Zucal said. "Passengers come in pajamas, hear the award winning story written by Chris Von Allsburg read by a Storyteller, are served hot chocolate and cookies by elves, sing carols, play songs, get their ticket punched by the Conductor, visit with the story characters (hero girl, hero boy, know it all kid). They see the North Pole, then pick up Santa who visits them on the way back and gives them a special jingle bell from the reindeer's harness - just like the book. And of course - only those that believe can hear it ring!"
Zucal also offered up a lIttle known fact that some of the "elves" who volunteer to help are all over 100 years old.
How does that happen?
"Over 300 kids from fourth grade up from multiple school districts in Tuscarawas County," Zucal said. "These kids go through elf training, railroad safety training, they make their own costumes and work 4-5 hours shifts.
"They are amazing! Each kids starts out 100 years old as an elf and their age goes up 100 years each year. We now have elves who are 700, 800 years old!"
Tickets are $42 for Balcony seating, $50 for coach seating and $72 for First Class seating. Private compartments (seats up to five) are $395. Private compartments (seats up to 6) are $450.
New this year was an opportunity to rent an entire private First Class Car for a group of up to 28 people for a cost of $3,000. First Class seating includes a separate First Class waiting room so riders do not have to wait outside in the cold. The conductor personally comes and leads riders from waiting room in the Museum’s Panhandle Theater to the train. During the wait to board the Polar Express, children will be able to watch Christmas movies. Each first class child 1-12 will also receive an engineer’s hat, wooden train whistle and another special treat on board the train.
In addition to the train ride, visitors are invited to enjoy holiday decorations in the 1873 Dennison Depot, now a National Historic Landmark for its important role during WWII. For more information, call 740-922-6776.