The Polar Express is pulling into Golden, and it’s bringing holiday cheer — and a big train — with it

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Passengers pass Engine 74 on the way to the boarding platform for the Polar Express.

In Golden, a classic tale of a young boy’s Christmas Eve voyage is coming to life: It’s the Polar Express Train Ride’s journey to the North Pole.

On a recent journey, the sound of the steam engine and the music swelled as a young boy exclaimed: “It’s here! It’s the Polar Express!”  

That magical moment on the train platform of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden is only part of the experience. Like all of the Polar Express stations across North America, from Durango to Alberta, the evening in Golden is built around retelling the story. 

Museum Executive Director Paul Hammond said each iteration is different.

“There's a fair amount of leeway in how each heritage railroad that licenses into this can carry out the program,” he said. 

Hammond said other events keep the storytelling onboard the train, but that's where Golden’s Polar Express diverges. 

“We start out with a whole separate musical theater production in our pavilion where we have a pre-show and then we sing and dance to the hot chocolate song,” Hammond said. “Of course, [we have] the serving of cocoa and cookies and then the retelling of the story. All those happen before you even get aboard the train in our case.” 

For Sonsharae Tull, who is in the cast for the third season and is playing the conductor in part of the exhibition, the performance is a special way to be part of the holidays. 

“This production really brings the Polar Express to life,” Tull said. “And then you feel the magic when that train comes down the track. It's just wonderful. It gives me goosebumps even thinking about it.”

Eden Lane/CPR News
The Polar Express Steam Engine pulls into the Golden station.

The Wilbanks-Sass family really got into the Polar Express experience and wore their pajamas, as organizers suggested.  

“I loved that that made the whole experience for us to see [our son's] excitement wearing pajamas somewhere,” Carri Wilbanks said. “Because obviously, I don't know we've ever left the house in our pajamas for an event.”

Wilbanks’ son, Everett Sass, wore his red PJs. He was thrilled to see the real Polar Express.

“I read the book and watched the movie,” Everett said.

Scotty Schaffer, an actor who plays Smokey the Break Man in the production, is appearing in the show for the fourth time.  He described the Polar Express event as part of the fandom of Christmas. 

“I feel that it's more accessible because it's unlikely your grandmother's going to accept your invitation to go see the new Marvel movie, but she will definitely accept the invitation to come see the Polar Express, to see the magic of Christmas,” Schaffer said. “But there's a magic that happens and you can see, the proof of magic, I think, is when you can see it in other people's eyes and in particular the very young.”

Courtesy Carri Wilbanks
The Wilbanks-Sass family wears their pajamas for their trip on the Polar Express.

Visitors can even take a jingle bell home as a keepsake. Everett wanted an ornament to remember his favorite character.

“I wanted the conductor one,” he said. “Because I like the conductor saying, ‘All aboard!’”

“My favorite part was when the train was pulling up and the steam is coming up, and the music started to play and my husband and I both started to get emotional because it just felt really magical,” Wilbanks said. “And I loved [it] too because [Everett is] at the age where I know that this could be an experience that he'll remember and seeing his eyes light up … like, all of his enthusiasm was just pouring out of him and his eyes were so wide.”

During a time when happiness can be hard to focus on, Schaffer said he finds special comfort in the magic of the Polar Express.

“But to embrace the holiday, to embrace the mythology of Santa and the elves and the Polar Express — really, it sounds old fashioned — but it's warm and it works and it's magic,” he said. “And it continues to be magic by sharing with others. I can celebrate Christmas at home, I can decorate at home, but honestly, sharing it with strangers, sharing it with my family, sharing it with my neighbors, that's where the magic comes through.”

The Colorado Railroad Museum’s Polar Express was one of a handful of these events that kept running at reduced capacity during the height of the pandemic, which actually made it the largest employer for actors in Colorado for a while. 

“I think this museum's version of the Polar Express is so creative and so theatrical that I'm delighted it's part of our lineup,” Executive Director Hammond said. “Because it regularly challenges us to think about how to keep innovating and adding things that we didn't think were possible.” 

The Polar Express departs three times nightly from the Golden location through Dec. 23.