One of the things I’m loving about Arizona, besides the mild winter weather (no freezing temps, unless you drive 90 minutes north — then you’ll get snow), is the amount of holiday festivities available for families! From zoo light shows to nights of luminaria at the Desert Botanical Garden to visits to Santa’s workshop and rides on The Polar Express Train AZ, which we took our 10-month-old to this past weekend. It was such a fun experience — complete with cookies and hot chocolate, reading of The Polar Express, Christmas carol sing-along, and of course, a visit from Santa!
There’s a large “Welcome to The Polar Express” sign when you first arrive in Williams, AZ where the train station is located. You’ll also find a selection of restaurants within walking distance, literally a few feet away, which is super convenient. We ended up stopping at Beaver Street Brewery in Flagstaff (30 minutes from Williams) beforehand for a bite with some friends, so were too full to check out any of the eateries there, but next time.
Families should plan to arrive at least 60 minutes or so before your departure time, to take advantage of all the cute photo-ops. Side note: if coming from Phoenix, which is about 2 1/2 hours away, you’ll definitely want to factor in another hour or so to grab some food beforehand.
As the Polar Express pulled into the station, the conductor, chefs, and elves on board waved to passengers — building the excitement and anticipation of what was to come. Once everyone was seated, the chefs brought around delicious hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies, then the fun began. Well, I would say the fun for our son started once we got on board the train. There was so much for him to take in, from the Christmas lights to the wrapped gift boxes on the luggage racks. And don’t get me started on his first taste of a chocolate chip cookie — to say he loved it would be an understatement.
There was also a read-along of The Polar Express, with author Chris Van Allsburg narrating over the speaker system, coupled with the chefs/elves walking through the car holding the physical book so as to display the pictures. The story finished just before we pulled into the North Pole, where kids were able to see Santa’s village and the man himself!
Everyone got an extra special surprise when Santa came aboard. The chefs and elves helped to build the excitement about jolly old St. Nick’s visit and helped to keep the kids entertained as we waited by kicking off a round of caroling — dancing in the aisles was encouraged! Our son was in awe and loved the little gift that Santa gave him. To say we all had a blast would be an understatement. The cherry err holly on top of a perfect day was the sweet snuggles from my son who fell asleep shortly after Santa’s visit.
You most definitely need to buy your tickets (well) in advance, and just note that they tend to sell out fast, especially for the evening hours. We went at the earliest time slot, which was 3:30pm. Seeing how it was 2+ hours away from our home, this gave us enough time to drive up there, get lunch, and take pictures beforehand. There’s also a 5:30pm and 7:30pm departure. The nighttime Polar Express rides are even more magical I would imagine, as you can really get the full effects of the lights on the train and at the North Pole. We still were able to experience some of those effects though, especially when we went through this great tunnel completely lit up with blue lights.
While you make your reservations ahead of time, you do have to pick up your physical tickets the day of your ride at the Depot. I would recommend doing that 30-45 minutes before your departure time because there is a line of people. The good news is it moves fast! There is a bathroom inside the Depot, but expect lines for that as well. And of course, there are bathrooms on the train.
The Williams Depot has a gift shop filled with all things Polar Expressrelated, and in the back you can take a photo with Mrs. Clause and Santa’s Helper. There are also multiple train cars outside that make for a great photo backdrop.
Kids (and adults too!) are encouraged to wear their pajamas for the trip to the North Pole. And if you have the book, The Polar Express, you should bring it for the read-along. No big deal if you don’t though, because the elves and chefs walk through the car with their copies displaying the images.
Seats are sold in pairs and are assigned, although if you’re going with a big group you can call ahead to request to sit in the same section that way everyone is together. There’s also plenty of space in the luggage rack above your seats for coats and diaper bags, which is nice because it leaves the floor space free for your feet.
There’s plenty of free parking in the lot across from Williams Depot. And there’s even a fun-looking zipline (you’re in a ski lift-type chair) attraction in the lot as well. On the other side of the street are a few restaurants — the Pine Country Restaurant, with a variety of favorite comfort foods and homemade pies, looked especially yummy. I’m kind of sad we didn’t have time to go eat there after (a worn out 10-month-old was in no mood to sit through dinner at a restaurant, ha). But, there’s always next time!
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