The magic of Chris Van Allsburg’s popular Christmas picture book, The Polar Express, comes to life again this winter with festive holiday trains within a whistle's blow of New York City. A huge hit with kids and parents alike, these trains spark the imagination and holiday spirit with seasonal snacks, stories, even token gifts—not to mention a visit from Santa himself.
These old-school cabooses (some harking back to the 1920s) offer a classic holiday ambience. Best of all, families can combine the annual Santa Claus photo op with a sweet adventure that is sure to create lasting memories. Remember: these train rides sell out quickly, often months in advance, so book now if you want to go (a popular train in New Jersey had already sold out by early October).
For more seasonal fun close to NYC, check out our Fall Fun Guide and 30 Fall Day Trip Ideas.
Polar Express – Whippany, New Jersey
November 25 – December 30 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (no trains on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day)
1 hour and 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan
A brand-new Polar Express train ride is running in New Jersey, just over an hour away from NYC. Replacing the Santa Claus Special run by the Whippany Railway Museum, this new experience is run by the Morristown Erie Railway. Drawing on the experience of the the children's book, the hourlong train ride includes a reading of the book, caroling, and hot chocolate and cookies served by dancing chefs. Santa Claus will board the train upon its arrival in "the North Pole," and he will give each child a silver sleigh bell, just like the one the boy receives in the book. Wear your PJs!
The Christmas Express with Santa Claus — Wall Township, New Jersey
November 25–27, December 3–4, 9-–11, 16–18
1 hour and 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan by car
Nestled in the wilds of Allaire State Park, the Pine Creek Railroad’s Christmas train has been running for more than 35 years, and it's got the Santa sprint down pat, offering a chat with Saint Nick on a 15-minute ride that is sure to put the whole family in the Christmas spirit. Daytime and nighttime rides are available. $6 (must be purchased in person; advance purchase recommended)
Santa Express — Thomaston, Connecticut
November 25–December 23
1 hour and 45 minutes from Midtown Manhattan by car
Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their merry elves welcome families to Thomaston Station for a ride along the scenic Naugatuck River in a vintage 1920s coach. Run by volunteers at the nonprofit Railroad Museum of New England, the one-hour ride offers a pair of daytime departures on Saturdays and Sundays. A sparkling evening ride, the Northern Lights Limited, is offered at 5pm and 7pm, Friday through Sunday, and makes a special stop at Santa’s Train Workshop to pick up Mrs. Claus. $30 ages 3 and up for daytime departures; $40 for evening departures
These trains require two hours or more in the car to get to, but if you're traveling for the holidays or looking for quick winter getaway, consider one of these Santa trains.
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The always popular North Pole Express in Connecticut often sells out the top days months in advance.
North Pole Express – Essex, Connecticut
November 10–December 29
2 hours and 30 minutes from Midtown Manhattan by car
Very limited tickets remain for the 2016 season of this super popular nighttime Connecticut train ride, which sells out months in advance. Board the steam-powered train at the Essex Railroad Station—kids are invited to wear pajamas—and sit back and relax en route to the North Pole. As you enjoy hot chocolate and sugar cookies, actors bring The Night Before Christmas to life in each car, accompanied by a sing-along. Topping it all off is a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, who send kids home with plenty of smiles and a small gift. For a daytime ride, consider booking the Santa Special, which still has plenty of tickets remaining. If you luck out on tickets this year, be sure to buy tickets for next year's train ride as soon as they are available. Coach: $34.50 ages 1 and up; first class: $66.50 ages 1 and up
Catskill Mountain Polar Express — Kingston, New York
November 18-December 26 (primarily Friday-Sunday)
2 hours-plus from Midtown Manhattan by car
This 90-minute Polar Express train winds its way through Hudson Valley. Expect a storytime with the book of the hour, hot cocoa, sing-alongs, and a visit with Santa whom greets the train when it hits the North Pole and will hand out silver bells to each child. Note: Seating is first come, first serve, and there are no bathrooms on board so plan accordingly. Also, many November dates are already booked up, so snag your tickets soon. Costs are $47 for adults; $37 for ages 2-11; and those under age 2 are free in laps. Read our full review of this Polar Express train.
The Polar Express Train Ride — Saratoga Springs, New York
3 hours from Midtown Manhattan by car; also accessible by Amtrak
Don't have a car? No problem. This trip, which Mommy Poppins reviewed, begins at the Amtrak-accessible Saratoga Springs station. Bundle up in your best pajamas and head upstate to board the Saratoga and North Creek Railway's Polar Express for a 30-minute North Pole–themed ride complete with dancing chefs, a reading and movie-viewing of The Polar Express. Santa and his elves greet the train at the North Pole village, bestowing the first gift of Christmas on each child. An upgrade to first or diamond class buys you the best views and a keepsake mug. End the adventure with a stop in town, where an indie bookstore, a chocolate shop, Mrs. London's bakery, or the not-to-be-missed cotton-candy dessert at the Circus Café await, along with the town's famous mineral springs. Standard class: $40 ages 2–12; $50 ages 13 and up
RELATED: 100 Must-See Things to Do with Kids in New York State
Board Santa's Paradise Express for a quick 45-minute ride filled with stories and treats.
Santa’s Paradise Express — Strasburg, Pennsylvania
November 25–27; December 3–4, 10–11, 17–18
2 hours and 40 minutes from Midtown Manhattan by car
Tucked into the cozy countryside of Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, the Strasburg Rail Road offers a 45-minute jaunt with Santa and his friends, featuring stories, delicious treats (for purchase), and the first gift of the season. Post-ride, kids can finalize their Christmas list with Mrs. Claus (who visits the station from noon to 4pm), check out the heated caboose, or nab a ride on the Tinsel Trolley, a self-propelled motorcar. The Strasburg Rail Road also offers a Christmas Tree Train, running only on December 3, which transports riders to the Leaman Place Grove, where they can pick out their own tree and have it delivered by flatcar to the station. Round out your trip with a visit to the historic town of Strasburg. Coach: $3 ages 0–1; $11 ages 2–11; $18 ages 13 and up; other cars: $27 all ages
Edaville Express: Where's Santa? — Hopedale, Massachusetts
Wednesdays and Thursdays, November 23–December 29
3 hours and 40 minutes from Midtown Manhattan by car
Headed to New England for the holidays? Pajama-partying families snack on egg nog, milk, and cookies while embarking on a search for Santa through Edaville and Thomas Land theme park. You'll see the park's Festival of Lights and receive a special gift from Old St. Nick himself. Plan to make a day of it because ticket prices include daytime in Edaville and Thomas Land, too. $18 ages 0-2; $47 ages 2 and up
Find more New England holiday trains from our Mommy Poppins Boston site.
Top photo: Santa's Paradise Express. All photos courtesy of the railways.