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Polar Express travels to 'North Pole'

By John Gibb

ELKINS, W.Va. -- Frigid temperatures and snow-covered terrain didn't prevent Chris Van Allsburg's classic tale from coming alive Wednesday night in Elkins.

The Polar Express train excursion brought out young and old, the festive spirits and Santa Claus believers.

Decked out in pajamas, participants boarded the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad's train en route to the "North Pole."

The train ride event is based on the holiday feature film from Warner Bros. and Allsburg's beloved children's book about a doubting young boy who takes an extraordinary train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

The Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad partners with Rail Events Inc. to bring the officially licensed train ride event to Elkins. It's in its third year.

The 90-minute roundtrip excursion begins at the Elkins Depot and takes those aboard to Belington to pick up Santa. The special excursion began in 2011 and has welcomed thousands of visitors since its inception.

Fifty excursions have been scheduled this year, which began in early November. There are two trips per date -- one leaving the depot at 5 p.m. and the other at 7:15 p.m. The final trip will be Sunday.

Teresa and Jason Williams traveled from Virginia Beach with their daughters, Griffin, 8, and Clara, 4.

"We're big fans of 'The Polar Express,'" Teresa said. "We traveled six hours to be here. It's a lot of fun."

Just like the movie, the Williams family were in their pajamas.

"In the movie, the kids were wearing pajamas so we wanted to be just like those kids," Griffin said.

Before boarding the Polar Express, children can stay warm in the depot and stay occupied by writing cards to Santa or applying holiday-themed tattoos.

It's important to keep an eye out for the elves because they give out golden tickets prior to departure to those who believe.

Once aboard, passengers hear songs from the motion picture soundtrack, including "Believe" by Josh Groban. Passengers are seated at tables of four and are provided with a keepsake ceramic mug and sugar cookies.

The Conductor will make his way through the cabins to punch tickets.

"As you can see, the word 'believe' is written on the golden ticket. I always punch the top corner of the 'B,'" Conductor Lars said. "Each conductor does it differently but I have my own way."

Lars Byrne, the man who plays Conductor Lars on the Polar Express, is a real-life conductor for the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad. He has participated in all of the Polar Express excursions since it began three years ago.

Dancing Chefs serve hot chocolate and dance to the song of "Hot Chocolate" that was featured in the motion picture.

The chefs pour hot chocolate for all of the passengers. Their choreographed routine excites all the children.

Chef Spaghetti carries her jug of hot chocolate on her head. She says Mrs. Claus doesn't approve but she doesn't fret -- she's already on the naughty list.      

Missy McCollam, the woman who plays Chef Spaghetti, has been aboard the Polar Express for 3 years and says it's great to see the children have fun.

While waiting for Santa, an announcer reads Allsburg's classic on the intercom for all to hear.

The train, which has locomotives on both sides, stops to pick up Santa in Belington before returning to the Elkins Depot.

Santa makes his way through the train to hear what all the children want for Christmas. For those who truly believe, they will be given a silver sleigh bell.

"If it makes a noise when you shake it, then you're a believer," Santa told the children.

On the return trip, chefs entertain the children by making North Pole snow and having them touch a magic snowball to see if the color changes, which indicates they are believers.

Chef Yuletide, or Eddie Maurer, went through the cabin and placed a turkey hat on the heads of those with whom he wanted to share a turkey dance. The dance consisted of thrusting the hips and upper body.

Chef NuGet was a crowd favorite.

"I've been living at the North Pole for 465 years," he told the children. "I got in trouble by Santa one time and had to do workshop duty so I know what all of you are getting."

The Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad is one of more than 30 other licensed Polar Express train ride events nationwide this holiday season. Because of the popularity of the excursion, all 2013 tickets have been sold. However, it's not too early to start planning for next year.

For more information, visit or call 304-636-9477.

Contact writer John Gibb at or 304-348-1796.


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