Van Allsburg to visit Woonsocket Depot for national anniversary of Polar Express movie

Van Allsburg to visit Woonsocket Depot for national anniversary of Polar Express movie

Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, was the conductor aboard the Blackstone Valley Polar Express on Saturday. The experience was a 90-minute train excursion to the North Pole with Santa and Mrs. Claus. (Valley Breeze Photo By Bill Murphy)

WOONSOCKET - An event on Saturday, Dec. 6, will showcase the top-notch holiday entertainment operated at One Depot Square to guests from across the country, when The Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg visits the city to celebrate the anniversary of a movie inspired by his classic Christmas picture book.

The Polar Express 10th anniversary celebration will include a book signing by Van Allsburg, a festive model train display, and a speaking program with executives from Warner Bros., the production company that created the film, and Rail Events Inc., the business that runs Polar Express operations nationally.

"It's a big thing for us," said Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, the organization that has run the popular holiday event locally on select weekends in November and December for the past 15 years. "It will be exciting for Chris and all the people that have been involved with the Polar Express for years."

The Blackstone Valley Polar Express Train Ride, which is operated from the historic Woonsocket Train Depot, One Depot Square, whisks guests away on a journey to the "North Pole" to meet Santa on the Providence & Worcester Railroad line. Along the 90-minute train ride, which travels through the towns of Blackstone, Millville, Uxbridge, Whitinsville and Northbridge, Mass., guests enjoy hot cocoa and a sing-along, and visit with the characters from Allsburg's holiday tale.

According to Billington, there are around 30 similar productions, licensed by Rail Events Inc. on behalf of Warner Bros. Consumer Products Inc., on train lines in other locations, but Woonsocket's replication is the oldest, even preceding the film.

Van Allsburg, a Rhode Island-based author, published the illustrated children's novel in 1985. It tells the story of a boy who takes a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa. The book became a family favorite and has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. In 1986, it won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for Illustration.

"There's something about the artistry that Chris laid out on paper that is magical," said Billington of the author.

BVTC began recreating the story for guests in 1999. Now, some 13,000 guests enjoy 200 productions by the organization - when the shows in each individual rail car are counted - over a 14-day span. Between train crew, production crew, and other staff, some 75 workers and volunteers take part.

"We've developed a pretty sophisticated, entertaining show," said Billington. "The characters actually come alive."

The depot itself is worth a visit, decked for the holidays in classic, quaint New England style with a store full of Polar Express memorabilia that you can't buy elsewhere.

"The idea of the Polar Express is the train ride and the experience inside the station," Billington said.

Train ride tickets typically sell out well in advance every year, but the general public is invited to take part in the special event on Saturday, Dec. 6, celebrating the anniversary of the film, produced in 2004 starring Tom Hanks.

"It's a great chance to come in and enjoy the exhibits," Billington said.

The event will begin with book signing by Van Allsburg from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Representatives from Lionel Train, the company that produces replicas of the Polar Express, will host a festive model railroad display to entertain children inside the depot.

At 6 p.m., Patrick Kinkade, the son of artist Thomas Kinkade, will present a new painting from the Thomas Kinkade Company inspired by the book to Van Allsburg in front of the station. Managers from replica train rides across the country, local officials, and Van Allsburg himself will be part of the speaking program to follow.

At 7 p.m., the author will board the train with 90 children from The Tomorrow Fund charity for a special voyage along the magical trip.

"It is so exciting to be in the company of friends and families who make 'The Polar Express' a part of their holiday celebration each winter, and listen for the sound of the bell I first heard so many years ago," Van Allsburg said of the event. "I am looking forward to sitting with the children from The Tomorrow Fund while we take our trip to the North Pole." Rail Events held a national contest in which the grand prize winner received a trip for four to Rhode Island to meet the author and board the train with him. The sweepstakes received 40,000 entries.

"For us to be part of such a contest ... that's a lot of people that have now heard of Woonsocket," said Billington.

For a organization whose main mission is to promote tourism in the Blackstone Valley, the annual holiday event is a huge success story.

"We always drew from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and then the Connecticut market started to come in," said Billington. Now, he says, the event is also pulling in many guests from New York.

"The further away they come from, the greater the impact," said Billington. "We want them to come the night before, hopefully eat somewhere. Our hope is always to generate economic impact. That's our job."

The event has been gradually expanding each year and will bring in some 1,200 more visitors in 2014 than it did in 2013, and even more next year.

"It positions us to be a place of visitation," Billington said. "They're going to have a fabulous time. We know that."

More information on tickets and schedule for the Polar Express Train Ride are available online at www.blackstonevalleypolarexpress.com .

The Blackstone Valley Polar Express takes its winding journey to the "North Pole" on a wintry day.
The Polar Express Train Station awaits passengers headed for the North Pole. Hop aboard for a 90-minute train excursion with Santa and Mrs. Claus that includes a reading of "The Polar Express," sing-alongs, cookies and hot cocoa, and a special souvenir gift.
Conductor Bob Billington and Santa wave from the train aboard the Blackstone Valley Polar Express.