Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Behind the scenes of Polar Express

Behind the scenes of Polar Express

By Nastassia Putz | December 20, 2022

| Last updated on July 17, 2023

Just a golden ticket away from an unforgettable experience

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Polar Express Train Ride

Wearing pajamas and big, bright smiles, more than 12,000 people shuffled through the door to see the National Railroad Museum’s Polar Express (PEX) Train Ride in Green Bay, Wis., this holiday season. Each show accommodates roughly 300 people because of the capacity of the museum’s Lenfestey Center. When the event was announced on July 25, 2022, it sold out within 24 hours. That’s a record for the museum, who has hosted PEX since 2006.

child dressed as conductor
Polar Express Train Ride volunteers range in age from young to young at heart, as seen in this young conductor taking a break before the next departure to the “North Pole.” Nastassia Putz

How it works

This popular holiday performance is based on the classic children’s book The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, and includes scenes and references from The Polar Express movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rail Events Inc., based in Colorado, holds “The Polar Express” licensing through Warner Bros. In turn, they contract the event to dozens of railroad and museum sites throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The contract requires a certain level of quality per show.

Most people know the story and its premise of taking children on a magical journey to the North Pole via train where they get to meet … um, guess who? … Santa. But what ticket holders may not realize — and is quite astonishing about this reenactment —is it’s highly orchestrated to create a “magical” event right in front of you.

The “behind the scenes” is really “out in the open,” according to Benjamin Wideman, director of marketing and communications for the museum. It’s also performed by mostly volunteers. Each show has 15 staff members and 80 volunteers filling a variety of roles. Then, once all these people are in place, the show begins — like magic.

The Hot Chocolate Dance with a side of story time

As you enter the museum with your golden ticket in hand, you’ll soon be aboard a real train set up to resemble the one in the 2004 motion picture. Picture taking, storytelling, and clever acting fill this 90-minute experience. For the first half hour, guests are welcome to explore the center, walk through the gift shop, and take pictures with cast members before settling into their seats.

Once seated, the show begins with a whimsical rendition of the Hot Chocolate Dance performed by the dance troupe from Green Bay’s NEW Fusion Dance and Performing Arts.

Notice that the dancers sit quietly off to one side, in plain sight of guests, yet blend seamlessly into the holiday decor becoming almost invisible. They are dressed in festive robes or chef’s garb, some holding props — a silver tray with a “mug of hot chocolate” attached — waiting anxiously to be cued by the music and lights to begin their routine and engage with the audience. The theatrical lighting and audio are controlled by museum volunteers and staff surrounded by computers like those in any theater setting. And while all these moving parts and controls are in the same room as the 300 passengers for each ride, they are hardly noticed for the magical show going on in front of the crowd. Meanwhile, volunteers are in the nearby kitchen — just behind the seating area — preparing carts filled with hot chocolate and cookies — one for each guest. The treats roll out as the Hot Chocolate Dance concludes.

two girls with hot chocolate
Two Hot Chocolate Dancers pose with props at event. Benjamin Wideman, National Railroad Museum

After the dance, images from the original Van Allsburg book begin to play on an over-sized movie screen above the audience. There is a Pullman sleeping car behind the screen that’s lit up and made to look like it’s moving during the beginning of the story. The conductor alights from the train — like in the story — and calls, “All Aboard!” A snow machine, attached to the lighting rig above, creates a delightful indoor snowstorm, which complements the book’s wintery setting. During the entire performance, parents are happily struggling to get their excited children to sit quietly and listen to the story. There is, however, no restraining their holiday spirit.

Hero Boy, the young boy who is the main character, is performed by Justin Lambrecht, the museum’s education director. His role is to tell the story in dramatic form, while the book’s images play out on the screen above him.

All aboard (one of four) Polar Express-themed historic trains

As the reading ends, patrons are invited outside to board one of the full-size vintage passenger cars that make up the museum’s Polar Express train. Which car a passenger boards is determined by which of the four ticket levels they purchased. Each train car is named according to the story and has its own conductor to help seat passengers. The train is pulled by a Canadian National EMD SW1500 diesel locomotive that was donated to the museum by the railroad in 2019. No. 1563 was built in 1968 and was once part of the Wisconsin Central fleet.

The Polar Express (PEX) consist at the NRM looks like this:

  • Josephine, so named by the museum to honor the wife of a founding member, is a 1920s Reading commuter coach. Its PEX name is Glacier Gulch.
  • Next is the Northern Lights by its PEX name. The car is one of the first bi-level, gallery commuter coaches built in 1956 for the Chicago & North Western’s Chicago-area service.
  • Dothan, a 36-seat dining car, running as the Arctic Circle during the Polar Express season, was built in 1923 for the Atlantic Coast Line.
  • Carrying the holiday markers is Silver Spirit, a Chicago, Burlington & Quincy observation-lounge built in 1939. Its PEX name is Spirit of the Season. Half of the car is a 24-seat dinette, and the other half is round-end, observation lounge with stuffed armchair seating.

With tummies full of sugary goodies, hands juggling hats and mittens, excited families board their specific car. The conductor for each car bellows “All Aboard,” while wide-eyed children make their way onto the train that will transport them to the “North Pole.” Now this is where the magic really happens!

Squeezing through tight train hallways and going in and out of heavy metal doors to move from one car to the next, museum staff and volunteers swiftly move around to create the perfect storybook experience for patrons during the train ride. It’s intimidating to watch, but also amazing. The rhythmic flow they must conduct, not only with their scripted lines, but the way they dance around each other makes one realize there is a magical show both on stage and behind the scenes.

santa in train car
Behind the scenes of a Polar Express Train Ride: Santa, aboard the National Railroad Museum’s “Pole Ex,” greets passengers and prepares to present “the first gift of Christmas” to each child. Nastassia Putz

Children and parents take their seats while the story unfolds before their eyes. As one car is being greeted by the conductor and steward punching tickets, so is the next and the next. Then when Santa makes a surprise entrance from the kitchen area of the train handing out his first bell of the night, all becomes calm. Along with Santa’s appearances in the train, visitors can see many things going on outside like the lights that make up the northern lights or aurora borealis show on the train car’s ceiling. This part during the ride creates a magical awe moment of “now you see it, now you don’t” for already enamored children. Outside references are made to polar bears, wolves, and caribou on the track. Patrons are also encouraged to participate in helping a girl find her lost ticket — a scene from the movie.

It takes a village full of holiday spirit

Certainly, this experience will be remembered by young believers for years to come. Even the adults are sure to have a nostalgic take away from such a joyous and spirited event. The staff and volunteers enjoy it as well with many of them returning year after year.

“We are grateful for all of the volunteers who help the museum plan and execute the event each year. This year a committee of 10 individuals planned the event over 8 months, and more than 500 volunteers and staff members have been part of creating the magic over 40 shows,” says museum CEO Jacqueline Frank. “Volunteers do everything from make the hot chocolate to giving bells to the children. It truly takes a community to give our community such an amazing event.”

The behind the scenes of the Polar Express involves:
(Numbers may vary per show)

  • Dancers and volunteers handing out hot chocolate.
  • Cast members such as the Hero Boy reading and acting out the story.
  • Train engineers and technical services where applicable.
  • Five conductors, four stewards, two Hobos, four Lost Ticket Girls, two Santas, and plenty of other staff and volunteers moving back and forth among train cars.
  • And don’t forget the crew of volunteers handling parking, Wideman and other museum staff covering photography, and Frank managing the whole event.

“So many of the people who visit yearly see this as a time to be with family and experience the joy and magic found in the season,” says Frank. “Many of them also have their favorite conductors or engineers and over time have formed bonds with those individuals as well. Coming back year after year can be like coming home for the holidays.”

Note: Remember to purchase tickets in July for the Polar Express Train Ride.

outside view of Polar Express train
Young boy looks out window of “The Spirit of the Season” Polar Express Train Ride car ready for his journey to the “North Pole.” Benjamin Wideman, National Railroad Museum.
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