More magic for 2013 Polar Express

More magic for 2013 Polar Express

WOONSOCKET - It's always a magical trip for both the young and the young at heart, but somehow, this year, organizers hope to make the Blackstone Valley Polar Express, a 90 minute train ride inspired by Chris Van Allsburg's classic holiday tale, even more special.

The train set off for its first journey to the North Pole on Nov. 24 this year, and guests to the Woonsocket Train Depot at One Depot Square were treated to a few new surprises.

"Bob Billington's idea is to make it better every year," said Donna Houle of the director, project coordinator for Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, the organization that runs the Polar Express. The excursion has become a popular holiday tradition for families across Rhode Island and beyond.

This year's improvements begin at the Depot itself. The station first served as a stop on the Providence Worcester lines in 1882 and was completely restored five years ago. In 2013, the staff has outlined the elaborate brick building in white lights.

New decorations include a sleigh for pictures with Santa, and a small coffee shop inside the depot.

"It looks like a cottage," said Houle of the new shop, where guests can purchase beverages including hot cocoa.

But it's after the train takes off that the real fun begins.

The crew aboard the 1960s era diesel freight train dress as the characters depicted in the famed children's book, and passengers are invited to play along.

From the conductor to the doorman, workers stay in character, recreating the enchanted experience depicted in the story, and later brought to life in a 2004 Oscar-nominated film staring Tom Hanks. Some guests come in their own costumes, including kids in cozy pajamas like the children in Van Allsburg's tale.

The train travels to the "North Pole," - 45 minutes north on the P & W line to Millbury, and then back again. As the locomotive chugs along, passengers take part in a sing along and receive complimentary cookies and hot chocolate in souvenir mugs.

A decorating contest for the homes along the route in 2013 will visually enhance the journey. Homeowners who have property along or near the route have been asked to participate by lighting their homes for the holiday season, and the owner of the best lighted home along the train trip will win four tickets to next year's Polar Express tours.

To enter a house into the contest, just send an email to with a name, phone number, and house address. A winner will be chosen on Dec. 23.

Santa Claus himself appears along the ride and presents each rider with a special gift: a silver bell with a red ribbon, a replica of the "first gift of Christmas" as depicted in the story. This year, the complimentary bells have been engraved with the words "Blackstone Valley Polar Express."

Santa also hands out crayons and a coloring book to every youngster, but it's not just any coloring book: Houle helped to design the new gift, which tells Van Allsburg's story, with the help of a computer program that converts photos into the pages. All of the photographs were taken on the P & W train in past years, so they resemble the cast on the ride. Kids can get conductor Billington, or doorman Russell Taub to sign the pages.

"I thought it was a very clever process," said Houle.

The Polar Express has become a popular tourist attraction in 35 locations across the country, but Rhode Island was one of the first states to offer the magical ride. The treasured northern Rhode Island tradition is now in its 15th year.

Van Allsburg lived in Rhode Island until recently and taught at Rhode Island School of Design for 12 years, so organizers have also been able to obtain signed copies of the book each year to use for fundraisers.

"From the beginning, he's been very generous," Houle said.

Tickets went on sale last February for the 2013 ride, and have been purchased by visitors from all six New England states, but there are still some seats left for this year's journey.

Spots remain on the 4 p.m. trip on Friday Dec. 13 and 20 and on the 7 p.m. journey on Dec. 20 as well.

Guests can also jump on board the train at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec 21 or Sunday Dec. 22.

Tickets can be purchased by visiting or calling 401-475-1213.