Past the majestic scenery of the Smokies, a hush falls over the crowd of pajama-clad kids as a very special train pulls into the station—at the North Pole—and the children (and adults too!) are all vying for a glimpse of the man in red.
That’s Sarah Conley Pressley’s favorite part of the yearly ride on the Polar Express. As the marketing manager for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, she provides a glimpse of the whimsical adventure that’s been thrilling kids from 1 to 99 years old for the last 11 years.
In the heart of Bryson City is the historic Depot—that’s where the journey begins, and the whole town has welcomed this event with open arms. “They decorate their store fronts, extend their hours and really embrace the holiday spirit,” says Sarah. And the visitors really make the city electric, “folks are dressed in their pajamas grabbing a quick bite or purchasing a last minute gift to take home and you know they are on the Polar Express,” she adds. “You can really feel the buzz of their excitement.”
Growing every year, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad expects to see an upwards of 78,000 riders this season—this event is #2 in the nation behind The Grand Canyon Railway. And it’s no wonder, as revelers have made this a yearly tradition, “some say you just can’t begin the holiday season without riding the Polar Express,” says Sarah. And who wouldn’t want to enjoy the sights and sounds of North Carolina while experiencing this classic story in a whole new way.
Full Steam Ahead
After picking up their tickets, guests have the opportunity to snap some fun photos, grab last minute goodies and even write a letter to Santa. Once the train arrives in the station, the beloved Polar Express Chefs help you find your seat, then it’s off to the North Pole to see Santa! “On your way you’ll be entertained with songs from the movie and a reading of the Polar Express book,” says Sarah. Plus, you’ll enjoy a sweet treat as you’re served hot chocolate with a freshly baked cookie by one of the dancing chefs.
Then, as the train finally rolls into the North Pole, it gets very quiet. The chefs announce that you are nearing the North Pole and all the lights are dimmed inside the car so that you can see clearly outside. “As soon as we roll up on the first set of lights, that’s when you can really see the wheels of these children’s minds begin to turn. Some are extremely vocal with their excitement and others just sit in awe of what they are viewing outside their window,” says Sarah. “It reminds me again of just how monumental this experience is for children who have read the book, watched the movie, used their imagination to visualize the North Pole, and then finally they get to see it tangibly in front of them.”
Beyond the distinctive southern hospitality and gorgeous scenery, it’s the North Pole that truly sets the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s event apart from others. “With over thousands of twinkling lights, our elves work very hard to bring this life-size North Pole to Western North Carolina,” says Sarah. Plus, she claims they even have the real Santa!
Once in the station, Santa himself boards the train and greets each passenger in the cars. But before the return trip back to the Depot, which is full of singing Christmas Carols as the chefs continue to dance and entertain travelers, Santa has one more item to cross off his list. He presents every passenger with the first gift of Christmas, the Silver Bell. Sarah says, “remember if you still hear it ringing, then you still believe.”
Visit the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad website or check them out on Facebook to book your winter ride—tickets are selling fast, so if you want a seat you might have to act fast.
If you looking for other locomotive adventures, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad really delivers. They have something for everyone, from First Class dining service, to moonshine and wine tasting events, they provide unique ways to incorporate historic railroading for all to enjoy! In 2016, a variety of special events will be taking place, including a brand new event, The Wizard of Oz. Plus, their historic #1702 Steam Engine will be returning to the railroad line.
A full schedule and list of events will be available at GSMR.com at the start of the new year, so get ready to enjoy the ride!
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