Children wearing pajamas let out screams of joy the moment they spot Santa through the foggy windows as the Polar Express arrives at the North Pole. Soon the jolly old man in the red suit and white beard will board the festively decorated train, bringing the magical holiday story to life for young believers.
Many passenger railroads offer Polar Express rides, but the child-size scale of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad in Portland seems to have a particularly strong appeal to both kids and adults.
“Our trains are small and friendly and a little less intimidating than standard gauge,” said Brian Durham, the railroad’s education expert.
The nonprofit Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad has been in existence on the city’s waterfront since 1993. All its equipment was originally used by the five narrow-gauge railroads that operated in Maine between 1880 and 1940.
The roundtrip ride from the Ocean Gateway depot to the North Pole takes about 90 minutes. At a stop along the way, “chef elves” board the train to deliver hot chocolate and cookies. Kids are also receive a sleigh bell, the traditional first gift of Christmas.
On a ride last Sunday conductor Jeff Ferland entertained riders by dancing in the narrow aisle. He also created instant keepsakes by punching rider’s names into their golden tickets, just like in the movie based on the book.
The Polar Express is the railroad’s biggest fundraising event of the year. The train makes four runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 23. For information, visit www.mainenarrowgauge.org.