Image: Santa on Grand Canyon Railway
Grand Canyon Railway
The vintage Grand Canyon Railway offers one of the best “Polar Express” opportunities in the nation. Aboard the historic train (in service since 1901), you’ll enjoy hot chocolate and listen to the classic story of “The Polar Express.” The highlight, of course, is when you arrive at the “North Pole” where Santa and his reindeer are waiting.
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updated 12/9/2008 12:27:46 PM ET 2008-12-09T17:27:46

Sure, you can catch Santa at the mall again this year. Or, on second thought, you could skip the long lines and start a new Christmas tradition. Every year, railways around the country get decked out for the season and offer families a great way to combine a visit with Santa and a fun family outing. Conductors don their Christmas caps and dream up unique ways to make the trip magical. Here’s a sampling of scenic railways that transform the classic journey into a memorable family experience, complete with milk and cookies and a hug from the big guy himself. But hurry, these tickets are disappearing quickly.

Grand Canyon Railway
Where: Williams, Ariz.

Why: Because this vintage train offers one of the best “Polar Express” opportunities in the nation. Aboard the historic train (in service since 1901), you’ll enjoy hot chocolate and listen to the classic story of “The Polar Express.” The highlight, of course, is when you arrive at the “North Pole” where Santa and his reindeer are waiting. Tickets are only available by phone (call 800/THE-TRAIN; 800/843-8724) and cost $26 for adults and $14 for kids.

Grapevine Vintage Railroad
Where: Grapevine, Texas

Why: Because the “North Pole Express” is sponsored by the folks at Great Wolf Lodge, who know a thing or two about creating family fun. The fun starts at the railroad station decked out with thousands of lights and a stage for a live sing-a-long show, a bounce house, and an ornament-making factory. Once aboard the train, get ready for more singing, storytelling and visits from Santa. In addition, the town of Grapevine has enough Christmas spirit to warm the heart of even a Grinch. Tickets for the “North Pole Express” cost $16.

Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad
Where: Spooner, Wis.

Why: Because it’s not every day you get to see Santa eating pizza. Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad serves up a pizza party with Santa during the two and a half-hour train ride, followed by hot chocolate and holiday cookies on the journey home. This train departs each Saturday at noon through December 20. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $18 for kids. The family package costs $86 for two adults and three to five children and includes two pizzas and beverages. There’s also a three-hour “Breakfast with Santa” package on Saturdays at 9 a.m., with morning goodies like French toast sticks, scrambled eggs, pancakes, cereal, fruit salad, and juice. Both train trips include a visit with Santa in his private car and a gift for each child. “Breakfast with Santa” tickets cost $30 for adults, $22 for kids, and $104 for the family package—a great value for families with more than two children.

Byesville Scenic Railway
Where: Byesville, Ohio

Why: Because the Byesville Scenic Railway incorporates a bit of the area’s coal-mining history and culture in each train ride. The “Spirit of Christmas” excursions on board a decorated locomotive feature local coal miners entertaining riders by telling stories of Christmases past in southern Ohio. Santa will also be on board for kids to share their Christmas wishes. As the train passes by incredible scenery and sites where old coal mines once flourished, families can join in singing Christmas carols and listen to familiar stories being read aloud. The 75-minute ride runs Saturdays and Sundays, December 6 through 14. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $7 for kids. Little ones 3 and under ride free.

Fillmore & Western Railway Company
Where: Fillmore, Calif.

Why: Because this railway company offers three types of Christmas train rides. Kids can have dinner with Santa, pick the perfect Christmas tree, or visit the “North Pole.” Families who haven’t gotten their tree yet can ride the “Christmas Tree Train” to the private farm and pick out the perfect tree. Tickets cost $22 for adults, $12 for kids 4 to 12, and $8 for 2- and 3-year-olds. Christmas trees are an additional cost. “Dinner with Santa” is a 75-minute ride that offers menu selections for children and adults, and kids have an opportunity to give Santa their holiday wish lists.

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Tickets cost $45 for adults and $24 for kids. On the “North Pole Express,” elves read a Christmas story to passengers before the train arrives at the “North Pole” to pick up Santa. The train then returns to Santa’s Village where there will be craft vendors, food booths, and carousel rides. Tickets for this train ride cost $24 for adults and $15 for kids.

Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad
Where: Mineral, Wash.

Why: Because this area is usually snow-covered in December, so families can experience a true winter wonderland on board the “Snowball Express.” Carolers join kids in singing classic holiday tunes on the 20-minute ride to “Santa’s Train Village” on Mineral Lake, where Santa and his following of elves will be waiting to give each child a gift. Free hot apple cider, cookies, and hot chocolate will be available on the return trip.

The December 13 train arrives just in time for the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony around Mineral Lake, to which Santa arrives in style on a pontoon boat. The lake will be lit up with campfires and Christmas lights, and activities abound such as a house decorating contest and bake sale. The “Snowball Express” runs Saturdays and Sundays through December 21. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $20 for kids 4 to 12.

Strasburg Railroad
Where: Strasburg, Pa.

Why: Because “Santa’s Paradise Express” has been chugging along in Pennsylvania Dutch country for 50 years now, and there’s plenty to do on board the vintage train and back at the station. If the weather outside is frightful, old-fashioned potbelly stoves keep little passengers warm as carolers and musicians visit each car singing the joys of Christmas. After the 45-minute train ride, kids can listen to storybook readings of holiday favorites, and children ages 3 to 11 will receive a gift from Santa and his helper. They will also love riding on the miniature train, and propelling themselves down the tracks on the pump-and-crank cars. Trains leave the station on weekends throughout December, with a night train on Fridays at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $16 for adults and $10 for kids.

The Polar Express
Where: 26 railroad locations nationwide

Why: Because “Polar Express” experiences produced by smaller railroads across the country offer dozens more chances to jump inside the classic book and movie of the same name. Now a real life Christmas adventure, “The Polar Express” departs from train stations all over the country and follows the plot of the heart-warming film about a boy finding the magic of Christmas on a train bound for the North Pole.

Kids can wear their pajamas on board and enjoy hot cocoa and cookies as they listen to the story being read. Once they reach the “North Pole,” kids get to meet Santa and will receive a Christmas jingle bell. Don’t forget to read the book or see the movie before your trip. (Ticket prices vary at each location; typical fares are $20 for adults and $15 for children.)

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