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Friday, November 19, 2004 - Page updated at 02:34 P.M.
A storybook train ride all while in your pj's
By Keira Nothaftyline
WILLIAMS, Ariz. Santa arrives like a rock star.
Cameras flash, the crowd stomps and claps in unison and chants "San-ta, San-ta!"
Hundreds of kids hopped up on hot cocoa and cookies can barely contain themselves as Mr. Claus passes through the rail cars. They wiggle, they squirm, they jump and they dance, but they somehow manage to wait for Santa to reach them. When he does, he wishes them a "Merry Christmas" and gives each one a hug and a special gift.
The children and their families are riding the Polar Express train from Williams, Ariz., to the "North Pole" at the Grand Canyon. Most of them know by heart the Chris Van Allsburg book the trip re-creates, and now the Christmas children's classic is a major movie, starring Tom Hanks.
Since its publication in 1985, "The Polar Express" (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95), has become a Christmas tradition, selling more than 5 million copies. The story recounts a magical adventure in which one little boy's faith in Santa is affirmed through a train ride to the North Pole and a magic sleigh bell that rings for only those who believe.
This is the fourth year Arizona's Grand Canyon Railway has brought the book to life aboard its vintage train. The adventure begins in Williams, about 30 miles west of Flagstaff. The train's depot is attached to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, a restaurant and two gift shops that have been transformed into Santa's workshops.
Braving the freezing night air, eager passengers board the refurbished 1923 Harriman-Pullman coach cars. Santa's helpers dressed like the attendants in the book greet you, help you find your seat and serve hot chocolate and cookies to the pajama-clad crowd. Everyone settles in to hear one of Santa's helpers read the book, while another shows the pictures.
Through the big windows, passengers gaze out on snow and trees and darkness. About 25 minutes into the one-hour trip, the train slows as it approaches the "North Pole," a life-size, two-dimensional town aglow in Christmas lights.
Then, there he is. On his sleigh. With a reindeer. Waving as the train passes by.
The train slowly comes to a stop. "Will he get on board?" "Will he come to our car?" "Will he talk to me?" "Will he bring me a bell?"
What do you think?
While Santa makes his way through each car, his helpers lead passengers in singing Christmas carols. As if the kids aren't excited enough, the helpers form teams and lead them in a dueling version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," in which the loudest team wins.
Finally, Santa approaches. The chanting, clapping and squealing begin.
He makes time for each child. Along with a hug, a ho-ho-ho and a "Merry Christmas!" he gives each a bell. Which they ring. A lot. Loudly. All the way back to the station.
Parents Pamela and Chris Thurin from Laguna Beach, Calif., dutifully shake their heads and deny hearing anything, although they have to shout so their kids, Julien, 4, and Sarah, 2, can hear them over the din.
"It's amazing to experience the magic of Christmas all over again through the eyes of your child," says Pamela, who took the train last year with her children.
Trains fill up quickly, and reservations are required. In anticipation of high demand stemming from the Hollywood animated feature, the trips begin earlier this year and the railway has added cars.
The Polar Express trip is magic for those who believe, and even for those who might not. Especially when you see the conviction on the face of a child who believes that a jolly, fat elf on a flying sleigh will sneak into his or her home and bring gifts in the night.
Can you hear the bells?
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