Bryson City, a small town in western North Carolina, is home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s train service for 10 months of the year.
But every November and December it’s the host of something more magical.
Based on the classic children’s book and follow-up film, the Polar Express arrives to ferry passengers – many in their finest pajamas – from the mountains of North Carolina to the North Pole and back.
Along with a dancing crew serving warm cocoa and a visit from Santa Claus handing over a silver bell from his sleigh, the Polar Express celebrates the wonder of Christmas.
There are several considerations to weigh before traveling to Bryson City to ride the Polar Express, not the least of which is where your child sits on the relative scale of exposure to disbelief.
Here are a few tips and things to consider before your magical journey on the Polar Express in North Carolina:
How much does it cost to ride the Polar Express?
Ticket prices vary depending on selection. At the time of writing, tickets range from $29-$69 for children and $44-$94 for adults.
First Class, Premium Crown Class, Crown Class and Coach Class are available, with Coach Class being at the more affordable end of the spectrum.
First class receives a special treat, a cookie, warm cocoa and a souvenir mug. The trainer class also gets a cookie and warm cocoa.
Considering the journey time of 1.25 hours, the Polar Express is not exactly a cheap family adventure.
Steam trains are also generally more expensive.
Still, the Polar Express train ride is very popular in North Carolina, so we recommend booking ahead if you plan to ride this season.
The experience features Christmas carols and sounds from the movie soundtrack.
Also Read: Is Christmas Worth It in Biltmore? An honest review
How long is the Polar Express train ride in Bryson City?
The train journey takes 1 hour and 15 minutes round trip. There’s a reason the scenic drives are considerably longer. First of all, it takes so much more time to get to the truly stunning scenery.
The fictional Polar Express isn’t hampered by things like logistics.
It goes where it needs to go. The trail magically appears in the right place to get to each child’s house and take them to the North Pole.
In real life and in Bryson City, the railroad tracks don’t always run through the prettiest part of town. When you’re rolling out and looking forward to a magical journey, it can be harrowing to see so much reality out the window.
Still, there are some beautiful views as the routes meander along the river. Across open fields we saw some moose (which we managed to pass off as reindeer) and mountains.
Is the train ride on the Polar Express worth it?
For us, the price was worth it.
Our middle child is absolutely in love with trains. Driving a real train, any train, was an exciting prospect. Really, the Polar Express Hoopla was the icing on the cake most of the time.
However, to get the full experience, you have to come in with a child’s eyes, or at least a child’s heart.
The train staff is at play, playing with the children, dancing and singing. It mostly falls on their shoulders to bring the merriment to this Christmas journey. It does a pretty good job of capturing the magic of the season.
Arriving at the North Pole is about what you would expect. Production values for a small-town tourist train ride aren’t exactly Hollywood-worthy.
Despite this, Santa Claus was cheerful and patient with the children and made sure that everyone got a special present, which was their own silver sleigh bell.
Some of that, I think, speaks to the validity of the experience, but also some to the fact that the boy in the book temporarily loses his.
Like many things in life, the Polar Express is a question of perspective.
My kids are still talking about their train ride to the North Pole, drinking hot chocolate, seeing St. Nick and ringing their bells.
I’m the only one who remembers mistakes.
“The magic of Christmas is in your heart,” Santa Claus tells the doubting boy. Maybe I have to take the train again.
Also Read: Is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Worth It?
Is the Polar Express running this year? (2022)
The Polar Express now runs until December 31, 2022. No trips are scheduled on Christmas Day, but some steam options are available on Christmas Eve.
At the time of this writing, select days have already sold out. Remember to book as early as possible.
Rides aren’t always scheduled daily, so it’s important to plan ahead. Visit the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad page to learn more.
Where is the Polar Express train located?
The Polar Express North Carolina Christmas train ride departs from Bryson City Depot.
The entrance to the parking lot is at 45 Mitchell Street, Bryson City, NC.
It is recommended to arrive one hour before departure. More information is available online at gsmr.com.
Have you ever ridden the Polar Express in North Carolina? Do you think it was worth it? Let us know in the comments below.
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