One of America's most scenic rail excursions rolls through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, tracing a historic route between suburban Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. Trains Magazine
visits the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic in its May 2010 issue
, and looks at the employees and volunteers who continue to innovate and find new ways to draw people on board. The railroad's most popular themed excursion is the Polar Express trains that run every Christmas. What keeps the crowds coming back?
Liz the elf had everyone in tears - children and adults alike - as she told how the boy in "The Polar Express" had lost the silver bell Santa Claus gave him on Christmas Eve. But the smiles returned as Liz, who had the story memorized, described how the boy found his lost sleigh bell under the Christmas tree the next morning.
Minutes later, in a former Pennsylvania Railroad sleeper turned coach, the car filled with laughter when Liz's assistant elves - four teenage girls - began dancing in the aisle to a song about hot chocolate, which the elves then proceeded to serve with cookies.
Liz teased that Santa was on a health food diet, and they would be serving broccoli cookies, but they turned out to be good old-fashioned chocolate chip.
Smiles are infectious aboard The Polar Express, the most popular themed train run by northern Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Begun in 1994, the Polar Express trains draw 35,000 passengers, 23 percent of the railroad's annual ridership. Polar Express trains operate from late November until a few days before Christmas. Many trips sell out shortly after tickets go on sale in the fall.
Three different Polar Express trains leave at 7 p.m. from Canton, Akron, and Independence (suburban Cleveland) for a journey to the "North Pole," an elaborate display of lights and holiday decorations, populated by volunteers dressed as elves, Santa's helpers, and even the Grinch. The trains require 1,500 volunteers and three sets of equipment, and are the most demanding trips the railroad sponsors.
Cuyahoga Valley dispatcher Chad Crim says getting the Polar Express trains ready is an all-day process that includes stocking the cars and fueling the locomotives. Crews report for duty an hour and a half before the trains depart.
Although the Polar Express trains are oriented toward younger children, most of whom climb aboard in their pajamas just like the boy in the story by Chris Van Allsburg, some parents come clad in PJs, too. Each child receives a small sleigh bell to take home.
The Independence Polar Express train on a Friday night in early December 2009 carried 600 aboard its 11 cars, which included nine coaches, a concession car, and the St. Lucie Sound, a former Florida East Coast observation-lounge that had been chartered for a private party of 29.
Each car has an elf who reads "The Polar Express" story over the public address system. In the St. Lucie Sound, though, the children cluster around the elf in the rounded observation end of the car to hear the story.
After reaching the North Pole, Santa Claus came in from the vestibule amid much screaming and yelling. He posed for pictures and autographed copies of "The Polar Express." Then everyone sang Christmas carols.
Trainman Duane Severt, a Cuyahoga Valley volunteer for seven years, says the Polar Express trains are his favorite to work. He signed up for 13 Polar Express runs in 2009. Asked why the trains are so beloved, Severt responds, "Santa Claus, I think. When he comes in the door after we leave the North Pole, the kids just light up."
Learn the secrets to Cuyahoga Valley Scenic's success in the May 2010 issue of Trains
.CRAIG SANDERS, a journalism instructor at Cleveland State University, lives in University Heights, Ohio.