I rode The Polar Express" last week and I must say, I believe.
Childhood Christmas memories are like no other memories, and we tend to get rather territorial about them. As one of
my generation who came to associate the onset of the holiday season with the TV set - the Grinch and Charlie Brown
and Claymation classics like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and Santa Claus is Coming to Town," I was even unmoved
and a bit resentful of A Christmas Story" when it came out in the early '80s.
So when I first started getting wind of The Polar Express" a few years ago, those same feelings arose anew. I
certainly didn't understand why so many people were so excited when the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
started a real-life version of the film five years ago on its own tracks; after all, Chris Van Allsburg's story was
only about 20 years old when Warner Bros. turned it into a feature-length movie.
I won't go into what I was doing in 1985 when the book came out, but it had nothing to do with keeping up with the
latest holiday traditions."
When I stepped onto the train Friday night, I had never heard, read or seen the story. (Truth be told, I gave the
book a quick read about 15 minutes prior to boarding, so I would at least have an idea what was happening.) But after
seeing a few hundred kids in their pajamas gathered at the D&SNG depot, wide-eyed with anticipation, it hit me:
For them, a generation as unconcerned with my cherished memories of the 1960s and '70s as I was with my predecessors
who looked forward to Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart and Perry Como every year, this was Christmas magic come to life.
And that's why The Polar Express" is so special for so many here.
I can only imagine what those children were thinking as the locomotive pulled up, steam billowing and bell ringing, as music played and voices from the film narrated the scene. It's authentic right down to the story's hero, the
pajama-clad boy who accepts the conductor's invitation to board (played last weekend by 14-year old Durango High
School freshman Austin Scalf, although the role rotates between several actors.) This year's Express is a marked
improvement from previous years, thanks to the efforts of one D&SNG employee with a sentimental streak.
It's cool for me to be doing this. My parents read the story to me every year since I could remember," said 26-year
old Mike May, who took The Polar Express" to a new theatrical level this year.
May, who works full-time as an engineer and conductor at the D&SNG, is a graduate of Columbia College in Chicago
with a background in theater and lighting design. Primarily because of his efforts, the 2009 version of The Polar
Express" is better than ever, an interactive experience where kids can live the story from the depot to the North
Pole and back. (Yes, the North Pole. Just head to north City Market and keep going north - you can't miss it.) It
used to be a train ride with a theme, but the design concept was to try to get away from just decorating for
Christmas and get the passengers into the world of the movie and bring it to life. It's been a big job," May said.
Once aboard, passengers enjoy the same trip, in spirit anyway, as the unnamed hero boy in the film. There's hot
chocolate served by singing and dancing chefs, a voice-over of the story from the film, a stop at the North Pole
where Santa gives each child a silver bell, and Christmas carols for the return voyage.
All trains run in the dark, adding to the suspension of disbelief (you really can see City Market if you look hard
enough) and once the snow falls it should be truly magical, indeed.
Last year, 17,000 passengers rode The Polar Express," and Marketing Manager Andrea Seid said early bookings indicate
that record will be broken this season. That's more people than live in the city of Durango, which means that riders
are coming from far and wide. D&SNG owner Al Harper licenses The Polar Express" to 32 railroads nationwide
through the D&SNG subsidiary Rail Events, and said he expects 350,000 people will experience it before Christmas.
But none do it as well as Durango.
Scott and Debbie Thomas of Amarillo, Texas, brought their daughter, Moriah, up for the weekend just to ride the
Express. The family rode The Polar Express" in Lubbock last year, but Debbie Thomas said something was lacking.
You just don't get into the Christmas spirit the same way looking out the window at the plains of Texas. It was
still fun, but this is way better than Lubbock," she said.