Mark Nelson, executive director of the Heber Valley Railroad, likes to joke that his favorite part of the North Pole Express is “when it’s over.” The themed holiday train ride is a massive, complicated — and quite impressive — undertaking for the historic railroad. More than 150 employees and community members work to transport guests through Heber Valley to Santa’s house during the holidays. This year, the railroad will run some 68 trains and carry an expected 27,000 guests to the North Pole, all in search of a little Christmas spirit.
Joking aside, Nelson said there’s nothing like the magic of the North Pole Express. “The joy of Christmas, the joy of family, the special love everyone feels, and the great NPE ride and experience all combine for something that seems to reinforce all that Christmas means,” he said in a Heber Valley Tourism blog post.
The North Pole Express is a beloved family tradition for my own family. If you are planning to take your children on the 90-minute holiday train ride to see The Big Man himself, here are a few things I’ve learned after years of riding the rails.
1. Book this very minute
North Pole Express trains sell out quickly, so pause in your reading of this article and visit this calendar page of the Heber Valley Railroad to see what’s still available. And if you’ve got your heart set on a specific date for 2016, try to buy your tickets before Thanksgiving weekend.
Tickets are first class: $35 general admission, $25 children ages 3-12; coach: $25, general admission, $15 children ages 3-12. The cost includes hot chocolate, a chocolate chip cookie, a souvenir boarding ticket and a gift from Santa (typically a bell). No car seats or strollers are allowed on the train. Everyone occupying a seat must have a ticket, but children 2 and younger are free if they sit on someone’s lap.
2. Arrive early
Railroad officials recommend arriving at least a half hour before the train departs. The train only has “emergency” bathrooms, so you’ll want to have your kids use the restrooms in the depot before boarding.
3. Catch the spirit
Although not the same franchise, you can watch the 2004 movie “The Polar Express” beforehand to get into the Christmas-train spirit. Dress your kids in their favorite holiday pajamas, and look out the window for reindeer that are sometimes wandering the area near Deer Creek Reservoir. Occasionally the North Pole Express will have to stop for officials to clear the tracks of reindeer, said Nelson. Also, make sure to bring jackets. Although the trains are plenty warm, it’s chilly waiting to board.
4. Stash some toddler supplies
It’s hard to get merrier than a train ride. Employees dressed as elves and hosts lead guests in caroling, games and even dancing. (This year the festivities on our train included a wave contest and kisses under the mistletoe.) Still, 90 minutes can be a long time for young children. You might consider bringing a book or a small toy to entertain little ones if they get restless on the way back.
5. Get camera-ready
Santa makes an appearance on board after the train arrives at the North Pole, so have your phone or camera out for pictures. (He moves quickly!) In fact, I’d take as many pictures as you can of your kids riding the train. The so-called “Heber Creeper” may move slowly, but childhood definitely does not.