The Blackstone Valley Polar Express Train Ride has the ticket to Christmas memories that will last a lifetime.
For nearly 20 years, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council has produced a family favorite holiday train excursion filled with Christmas experiences unlike any other. Their Blackstone Valley Polar Express attraction, based on the book The Polar Express written in 1985 by author Chris Van Allsburg, who lived in Rhode Island, has become a must-see tradition for families young and old.
A trip on the Express starts at the Woonsocket Train Depot, which was built in 1882 and looks as if it was pulled from a storybook. Clad in old-fashioned Christmas decorations, the depot has model trains for children to play with outside, a doorman dressed in top hat and tails to greet passengers, and immediately sets the stage for an imaginative ride.
Inside the depot is where the magic really begins. The warm and inviting station is decked out in all things Christmas, with scenes from The Polar Express movie recreated throughout. Kids and their traveling companions, who typically wear Christmas-themed pajamas, find dressed-up characters from the tale in the depot that are as inviting as their surroundings. The trip begins when red, white and green confetti burst from the ceiling to mark the start of the adventure.
Adding to the allure is the snow that falls as passengers exit to their awaiting train cars, which are named after Santa’s reindeer. The trip includes a 90-minute excursion to the North Pole on a Providence and Worcester Railroad train said to travel at “speeds upwards of 7,000 miles per hour.” The ride is filled with a reading of the classic children’s story, sing-a-longs, hot chocolate served in a souvenir mug, cookies and games.
The highlight of the trip includes a view of Santa’s workshop at the North Pole, where St. Nick boards the train to visit personally with each child. Santa then presents the first gift of Christmas to every child: a silver commemorative bell taken from his sleigh. He also stays in the depot when guests disembark to take pictures.
Robert Billington serves as the Conductor of the Polar Express. When he’s not checking passengers’ golden tickets during each ride, he serves as president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. Billington is charged with bringing communities together to create outstanding tourism in Blackstone Valley through education, development along the Blackstone River, community development, job creation, and pride in the area. Through the Polar Express, Billington and the council are helping to create long-lasting memories that also benefit the entire region.
“We started 19 years ago when I noticed that up in New Hampshire that the Conway Scenic Railroad was running the Polar Express as a literacy fundraiser,” said Billington. “My thought was that here we are as a Rhode Island organization, with a story by a Rhode Island resident, and we had about 10 years experience working with the Providence and Worcester Railroad on fall foliage tours and history tours, that maybe we could try a Polar Express.”
Billington and the council approached author Chris Van Allsburg and received his approval, along with the book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to proceed with the venture.
“We started out with two trips on one day,” said Billington. “We brought in a caterer and she’d make hot chocolate and she’d pour it into the cups. We went through lots of iterations on how to present the book, sometimes we would bring in celebrities to read, members of the community – even Governor Bruce Sundlun came on to read one year.”
The Express became a homegrown version created by the council and based on the book. The ride was headquartered out of the Woonsocket Depot, with the exception of seven years when the station was being remodeled and the ride moved to the Ann & Hope in Cumberland.
What started small ballooned when Warner Brothers created the computer animated movie version of the book starring Tom Hanks as the Conductor in 2004. In order to continue using the Polar Express theme and intellectual property, the council had to sign a contract with Warner Brothers. That contract was eventually handed off to a company called Rail Events Incorporated, a member of the American Heritage Railways family that coordinates licensed special events, promotions, merchandising and activities related to railroads and museum operators, and also produces Wizard of Oz and Peanuts train rides.
“It’s a great thing, because they own the property and now they have dozens and dozens of Polar Express products that were never available before, from Christmas bows to mugs and more,” said Billington. “The product, the name, the story, which is now over 30 years old, became incredibly popular not just here but worldwide. We were very fortunate.”
Billington said he enjoys producing the Polar Express, which takes about 14 months of planning each season, for several reasons. Approximately 22,000 people take a ride on the Polar Express from November 16 through December 23.
“To us, the Polar Express means bringing thousands of people to the Blackstone Valley, bringing thousands of people to Main Street in Woonsocket. It means driving business into the city for those two months that would not be there otherwise,” he said. “They’re enjoying the local attractions, whether it’s St. Ann’s Arts and Cultural Center, the Museum of Work and Culture, Stadium Theater, the hotels or restaurants. Those places know when the Polar Express is operating because they see parents and kids walking in with their pajamas on.”
Along with the surge in business, the work that the council does to promote the valley is supplemented by the Express. The council is a 501(c)3 educational, tax-exempt organization, supported in part by regional hotel room tax revenues via state law. The council takes thousands of people on a riverboat ride along the Blackstone in the spring and summer, which is very expensive, and the money earned through the Polar Express helps operate those tours. In addition, funds raised support two visitor centers in the area.
There are also upwards of 70 people employed to make the train ride magical. They are on duty ensuring that guests have a trip to remember. But in addition to the employees, there are contractors such as the cookie makers, the hot chocolate makers, the printers of the golden tickets and songbooks, decorators, and others.
“There’s a ripple effect. There’s probably close to 400 people that back us up to get one customer on that train, to get one child to smile while they’re on the Polar Express and to get them up to the North Pole,” said Billington.
The organization is constantly assessing its ride and making changes to enhance the journey for passengers each year.
“We love the Polar Express, visitors come from pretty much everywhere,” said Billington. “There’s a lot of people that come on the Polar Express because of the quality. I want it to be fun for everybody that comes through that station door, the experience has to be superior.”
The Blackstone Valley Polar Express trips are happening Friday, Saturday and Sunday until December 23. Tickets range from $48 to $101 and may be purchased by calling 401-495-1213 or visiting their website at blackstonevalleypolarexpress.com.“We love families; we love to hear the stories where someone says that their family has come back again. As the Conductor, I meet every single person on the train ride, and I want that experience to be superior. I want them to feel like we appreciate them coming with their families to enjoy a part of Christmas with us,” said Billington. “We want to help make memories. To us, it’s very rewarding because it reflects back on this piece of New England that is trying very hard to come back to a quality of living that’s deserved.”