Polar Express 4-D: A Movie with Train Ride Thrills at the MOS

This Polar Express show has sounds, smells, and other sensory effects. Photo courtesy of Museum of Science
This Polar Express show has sounds, smells, and other sensory effects. Photo courtesy of Museum of Science

Each of the past five years, I've planned to bring my Polar Express-obsessed boys to a Christmas-themed train ride down the Cape or Rhode Island. But packed sports schedules and school calendars have caused me to lose steam on the idea of even a slightly far-flung locomotive journey. Luckily, I found out about a new, Polar Express-themed adventure that's right in Boston, lasts all of 20 minutes, costs just $6, and packs real charm and excitement into almost all of that time. New this year, the Museum of Science is running the Polar Express 4-D Experience in its specialty theater space through January 6, 2019. As a bonus: All Aboard! Trains at Science Park, featuring model trains and interactive train tables, is on exhibit, too. Do your kids have trains on the brain? Here's what to expect with a train-themed visit to MOS.

Brace yourself for a flurry of "snow"! Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki

Planning Your "Ride"

You can buy $6 tickets for the The Polar Express 4-D Experience when you arrive at the Museum of Science (note, you do need to pay general admission for access, since the theater is inside the museum). However, given that many shows, especially on the weekends, fill up, it's a good idea to reserve a seat in advance of your visit. With shows running every 40 minutes during museum hours, it's easy to pair a "ride" with some visits to exhibits, notably All Aboard! Trains at Science Park (see below). Note: If you live south of the city, you may consider the Polar Express 4D Ride at Jordan's Furniture, running through January 1, 2019.

My boys really "felt" the wild train ride across the ice to the North Pole. Photo courtesy of the author

How Do You "Experience" the Movie?

We arrived at the museum about a half-hour before our timed Polar Express tickets, so my 10-year-old and 6-year-old got their energy out in the movement-oriented Science in the Park permanent exhibit, conveniently located right next to the 4-D Theater in the museum's Blue Wing. A few minutes before showtime, the boys and I lined up with other eager "passengers" in front of the theater, and collected our 3-D glasses from a bin at the door.

Inside, the 4-D Theater looks like any other small theater, and kids and grown-ups settled into seats as familiar pictures from The Polar Express movie flashed on the screen. When the movie started, my guys were excited to report that the little boy in the film was the same one from the movie they know and love. The Polar Express 4-D Experience is, in fact, adpated directly from the Warner Brothers film, just cut down to about 20 minutes, with special effects. 

But a few minutes into the show, we found out that there are plenty of surprises built into this version of The Polar Express. 4-D movies are essentially 3-D movies with extra pizzaz, like smells, surrounding lights, weather elements, and even sensory effects built into the seats. When the little boy walked out of his house into the snow at the sound of the oncoming train, we felt a whoosh of cold, and faux snow swirled around our faces. A whiff of chocolate surrounded us as the dancing waiters in the train aisles brandished hot cocoa. As the train careened across the ice and then up and over the tippy top of the mountain leading to the North Pole, we were given the viewpoint of the train passengers, and with our 3-D glasses on, it really felt like we were on a runaway train. Pine scent wafted through the air as the giant tree was revealed in the middle of the town square. And most exciting—and surprising—of all was when Santa gave his reindeer a lashing en route to the sky. The backs of our seats reverberated with a sharp and very palpable (but not painful) jolt, that elicited squeals and giggles from my kids and others in the audience.

When the credits rolled, my boys had big grins on their faces; and aside from a toddler who was scooted out by a caregiver midway through—probably due to the loud surround sound more than anything–so did everyone else who watched the show. My 10-year-old's only complaint? "I wish it were longer," he said. It was an easy, enjoyable treat that was definitely worth $6: a cherry on top of a visit to our city's most popular museum.

At the museum's temporary exhibit, model trains chug through a snowy landscape mimicking the Boston area.

All Aboard the Model Train Exhibit

Visitors to The Polar Express 4-D Experience won't want to leave the MOS without making a stop at the museum's seasonally inspired model train exhibit. All Aboard! Trains at Science Park, included with regular museum admission, is a winter wonderland of locomotive craft and science. Situated in a special room lit with soft blue lights—I noticed several nursing moms taking advantage of the peaceful vibe here—the exhibit is highlighted by a high snow-capped landscape through which several trains chug in and out of forest, tunnels, and icy banks. Kids love to point out the Prudential Center and other Boston landmarks as they walk around the train route.

But this is the Mueum of Science, after all, so the exhibit encourages kids to think about more than just the pretty trains. A kitchen-like nook outfitted with special cameras demonstrates the perspective of coming and going trains, while multiple wooden train tables invite little ones to become track engineers.

If your train enthusiast is still looking for more, the film Rocky Mountain Express will be showing at the museum's IMAX theater through the holiday season. We didn't have time to add this stop to our route on the day we visited, but given how excited my kids were by other train-oriented features at the museum, we've already planned to come back to see it over holiday break.

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