In Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 book, “The Polar Express” — and in the 2004 Robert Zemeckis film by the same name — a boy travels by train to meet Santa Claus.
Arizona children can do the same this holiday season, just two hours from the Valley.
The Verde Canyon Railroad offers an authentic train voyage called the Santa Claus Express each Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 21. The train leaves at 1 p.m. from the railroad’s depot in Clarkdale.
|VERDE CANYON RAILROAD PHOTO|
The rail journey takes passengers along an historic route deep into the Verde River Canyon, sometimes called Arizona’s “other” Grand Canyon. During the four-hour ride youngsters can visit with Santa, Mrs. Claus and an elf, who will read Christmas stories and lead carols. The trio will also hand out special paper so children can write letters to Santa while they’re on board. Hot chocolate, cookies and candy canes will be provided, and each train car has access to a snack bar that offers beverages, food and limited alcoholic drinks.
The voyage is a daytime alternative to Grand Canyon Railway’s popular seasonal ride, The Polar Express. That train departs after dark several evenings per week from the railway depot in Williams, about 180 miles from the Valley. Hot chocolate is served while Van Allsburg’s book is read aloud, and Santa boards the train at the halfway point (aka North Pole), giving each child a token gift.
Both trains typically sell out each year, but Teresa Propeck, spokeswoman for the Verde Canyon Railroad, says many passengers are waiting until the last minute to reserve their seats on the Santa Claus Express this year. The lag time is making it easier to book a seat than in previous years.
On the train, passengers can take in the view through large train car windows or on open-air gondola cars. Sights along the line include the Verde River, red-rock cliffs, Sinagua Indian ruins, a deserted ranch and a designated wilderness area, where guides often spy and point out bald eagles, Great Blue Herons, hawks, deer, javelina and elk. There’s also a 680-foot tunnel and several trestles bridging the river.
Built in 1911 and 1912, the approximately 40-mile rail line hauled smelted copper from area mines to the Santa Fe main line, where the copper could then be transported all over the United States.
Railroad personnel advise arriving 90 minutes prior to departure time, and reservations are required.
The Santa Claus Express
What: The Santa Claus Express is a four-hour rail journey.
When: The train departs 1 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 21
Where: The Verde Canyon Railroad Depot, 300 N. Broadway, Clarkdale
Cost: First-class tickets are $79.95; adult coach $54.95; senior (65 and older) coach $49.95; child (12 and younger) coach $34.95; free for children ages 2 and younger when they ride on an adult’s lap. Reservations are required.
Information: (800) 293-7245 or www.verdecanyonrr.com
The Polar Express
What: The Polar Express is a train voyage based on the classic children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. The story is read aloud on the nighttime train ride, and at the “North Pole” halfway point, Santa boards the train.
When: Trains depart 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays from Tuesday through Dec. 22; and select dates and times in early January.
Where: Grand Canyon Railway Depot, 233 N. Grand Canyon Blvd., Williams
Cost: Adults $26; children $14. Reservations are required.
Information: (800) 843-8724 or www.thetrain.com/polarexpress