This post can also be found on Kidding Around Greenville!
Bryson City is a gateway city to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but is it also home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depot, with scenic rail excursions through the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. Beginning November 11th a very special train has been departing from the historic Bryson City depot…. The Polar Express.
Based on the popular children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, this magical train ride recreates the journey to the North Pole complete with hot cocoa and a warm cookie. At the end of the train ride, Santa Claus himself will be waiting at Santa’s Village to board the train and present each child with their very own silver sleigh bell!
What you need to know
You’ll want to arrive in Bryson City at least an hour before your departure time. This will give you time to park, which is not an easy task in this little town that brought 70,000 passengers through for the Polar Express in 2015. There is a parking option that can be added when purchasing tickets, and parking attendants are on hand to direct traffic. Once you’ve walked to the depot you might want to explore the GSMR train museum, and you’ll find a dozen little souvenir and snack shops lining the street to explore while waiting for your train’s boarding time. Hint; the train museum is free with tickets, but you can purchase pictures with Santa if you arrive early!
When it is time to climb onboard, passengers join the queue at their assigned boarding station, which correlates to the train car in which you will be riding. The beautifully restored vintage coaches date from the 1920s to the 1940s, and the interior has been festively decorated in the holiday spirit. Friendly employees are on hand to help the boarding process and get everyone situated, and before you know it, the whistle blows and the Polar Express is off, headed for the North Pole!
While music plays in the background (from the motion picture The Polar Express), the conductor comes through to stamp the ‘golden train tickets.’ These tickets (based on the book) make a cherished souvenir for the children. Hint; make sure to bring your copy of The Polar Express on the trip so that you can read along while enjoying the hot chocolate brought to you by the singing and dancing chef. Like most parents, we had changed the kids into their pajamas so that they would be cozy and comfortable on the journey. And, the singing of Christmas carols and antics of the Polar Express characters kept them mesmerized the entire trip.
Tips to make the most of your trip
With three different ticket options (First, Crown and Coach), families have a variety of choices concerning seating, snacks and memorabilia – only reserve your tickets early, as the tickets for the weekends approaching Christmas tend to sell out by early to mid-November. We opted for Coach and were completely satisfied with the seating, the service and the benefits that came with our package.
We purchased tickets on the 5pm train, meaning it would still be light out for the first 1/2 hour of the journey (and we could watch the gorgeous mountain scenery roll by). The sun had set and darkness descended just before our arrival at the North Pole, and so the Christmas lights adorning ‘Santa’s Village’ twinkled in the darkness, helping convince reluctant believers... On our return trip lights from homes along the route sparkled in the distance, adding a magical dimension to the ride.
When selecting seats, you might want to choose to be on the left side of the train (that would be the opposite side of the train from where you boarded), as the river and the majority of North Pole lights will be on that side. Also, Santa boards on the front of the train, so be prepared for him to come through rather soon after stopping if you’re in Coach; have your copy of The Polar Express ready for him to sign, and the kids ready to tell him what they would like for Christmas. He even makes some time to ask some disbelieving adults about what they would like under the tree – so make that list and check it twice!
The first Polar Express departure is on November 11th, and the train operates through January 1, 2017 with the exception of certain weekdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Depending on the date, there are 2-5 departures a day to choose from.
For detailed information on the different seating available, visit the Polar Express website here.
Bryson City is about 2 ½ hours by car from both Greenville and Spartanburg, optimally a weekend destination, but do-able in a day (since the kids will sleep on the way home!).
Tickets start at $28/children 2-12 and $42/adult, and kids under 2 ride free.
For other Great Smoky Mountains Railroad family-friendly adventures, check out their website.
“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.” (From The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg)