Sure, you can catch Santa at the mall again this year. Or, on second thought, you could skip the long lines and start a new Christmas tradition. Every year, railways around the country get decked out for the season and offer families a great way to combine a visit with Santa and a fun family outing.
Here's a sampling of scenic railways that transform the classic journey into a memorable family experience, complete with milk and cookies and a hug from the big guy himself. Better hurry: Tickets are already disappearing, and main trains often sell out for the season.
1. Grand Canyon Railway (www.thetrain.com)
Where: Williams, AZ
Why: Because this vintage train offers one of the best Polar Express opportunities in the nation. Aboard the historic train (in service since 1901), you'll enjoy hot chocolate and listen to the classic story of The Polar Express. The highlight, of course, is when you arrive at the "North Pole," where Santa and his reindeer are waiting. Tickets cost $29 for adults and $19 for kids. Polar Express train and lodging combos are also available at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel starting from $338 a night for a family of four.
2. Grapevine Vintage Railroad (www.grapevinetexasusa.com)
Where: Grapevine, TX
Why: Prior to this railway's 30-minute ride, the fun starts at the station decked out with thousands of lights, a bounce house, and an ornament-making factory. Once aboard the train, get ready for more singing, storytelling, and visits from Santa as the train travels through a Christmas tree maze. In addition, the town of Grapevine has enough Christmas spirit to warm the heart of even a Grinch. Tickets for the North Pole Express cost $18 and are available on weekends.
3. Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad (www.spoonertrainride.com)
Where: Spooner, WI
Why: Because it's not every day you get to see Santa eating pizza. Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad serves up a pizza party with Santa during the two-hour train ride, followed by hot chocolate and holiday cookies on the journey home. This train departs each Saturday at noon through Dec. 19. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $20 for kids. The family package costs $100 for two adults and three to five children and includes two pizzas and beverages.
4. Byesville Scenic Railway (www.bsrw.org)
Where: Byesville, OH
Why: Because the Byesville Scenic Railway incorporates a bit of the area's coal-mining history and culture in each train ride. The Spirit of Christmas excursions on board a decorated locomotive feature local coal miners entertaining riders by telling stories of Christmases past in southern Ohio. Santa will also be on board for kids to share their Christmas wishes. As the train passes by incredible scenery and sites where old coal mines once flourished, families can join in singing Christmas carols and listen to familiar stories being read aloud. The 75-minute ride runs Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 4 through 12. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $9 for kids. Little ones 3 and under ride free.
5. Fillmore & Western Railway Company (www.fwry.com)
Where: Fillmore, CA
Why: Because this railway company offers three types of Christmas train rides. Kids can have dinner with Santa, pick the perfect Christmas tree, or visit the North Pole. On weekends, families who haven't gotten their tree yet can ride the Christmas Tree Train to the private farm and pick out the perfect tree. Tickets cost $24 for adults, $14 for kids 4 to 12, and $10 for 2- and 3-year-olds. Christmas trees are an additional cost. Dinner with Santa is a 75-minute ride that offers menu selections for children and adults, and kids have an opportunity to give Santa their holiday wish lists. Tickets cost $47 for adults and $26 for kids. On the North Pole Express, elves read a Christmas story to passengers before the train arrives at the North Pole to pick up Santa. Tickets for this train ride cost $29 for adults and $19 for kids.
6. Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad (www.mrsr.com)
Where: Elbe, WA
Why: Because this area is usually snow-covered in December, so families can experience a true winter wonderland on board the Santa Express. On this 90-minute train ride, kids will receive a toy from Santa, and enjoy free hot apple cider, cookies, and hot chocolate. The Santa Express runs Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 19. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $20 for kids 2 to 12.
7. Strasburg Railroad (www.strasburgrailroad.com)
Where: Strasburg, PA
Why: Because Santa's Paradise Express has been chugging along in Pennsylvania Dutch country for 50 years now. There's plenty to do on board the vintage train and back at the station. If the weather outside is frightful, old-fashioned potbelly stoves keep little passengers warm as carolers and musicians visit each car singing the joys of Christmas. After the 45-minute train ride, kids can listen to storybook readings of holiday favorites, and children ages 3 to 11 will receive a gift from Santa and his helper. They will also love riding on the miniature train, and propelling themselves down the tracks on the pump-and-crank cars. Trains leave the station on weekends in late November and throughout December. Tickets cost $19 for adults and $12 for kids ages 3 to 11 and $5 for toddlers.
8. The Polar Express (www.polarexpressride.com)
Where: 29 railroad locations nationwide
Why: Because Polar Express experiences produced by smaller railroads across the country offer dozens more chances to jump inside the classic book and movie of the same name. Now a real-life Christmas adventure, The Polar Express departs from train stations all over the country and follows the plot of the heart-warming film about a boy finding the magic of Christmas on a train bound for the North Pole. Kids can wear their pajamas on board and enjoy hot cocoa and cookies as they listen to the story being read. Once they reach the "North Pole," kids get to meet Santa and will receive a Christmas jingle bell. Don't forget to read the book or see the movie before your trip. (Ticket prices vary at each location; typical fares are $20 for adults and $15 for children.)
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