Phillipsburg's Polar Express Christmas Train Is a Charming Holiday Outing

Twinkling lights, jolly old St. Nick, and plenty of sweet treats await during a ride on The Polar Express Christmas train.
Twinkling lights, jolly old St. Nick, and plenty of sweet treats await during a ride on The Polar Express Christmas train.

Tickets, please! It’s time for a Christmas train ride to the North Pole on The Polar Express, departing from Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Enjoy a magical journey based on the beloved holiday story, featuring familiar characters, including the conductor, pastry chefs serving hot chocolate, elves, a singing hobo, and the big man himself—Santa Claus!

If you’re looking for a Christmas train experience, this 1 hour, 45-minute tour along the Delaware River overflows with holiday spirit, and it's worthy of becoming an annual family tradition. Read on for our full review, and find more seasonal outings in our Guide to Holiday and Christmas Events in New Jersey.

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Christmas lights abound during your Polar Express journey. Even the ticket booth is decorated.
Christmas lights abound during your Polar Express journey. Even the ticket booth is decorated. 

Setting the Scene for The Polar Express

The town of Phillipsburg is full of charm during the holiday season. As you drive into town, the light poles are festively decorated and window and light displays proudly promote one of the town’s top attractions—vintage train excursions produced by Delaware River Railroad Excursions. Operating under the guidance of the New York Susquehanna & Western Technical & Historical Society, these themed train rides support the restoration and maintenance of vintage train cars and other enhancements to the railroad.

Three parking lots are available for Polar Express guests. The first lot is at the train depot, but it’s small and fills up quickly. During our trip, we continued past the depot to the second parking lot, located at Blessed Hope Church. Parking is free but donations for the church are greatly appreciated. A complimentary shuttle stops by the parking lots, and we were glad we parked further away because the shuttle is an experience in itself. It was fun to board the school bus and giggle as the ornaments adorning the rooftop bounced around during the short drive.

Once we departed the shuttle, it was a short walk to the train depot’s ticket booth to pick up oue tickets. Modeled after the golden tickets in the film, they are a beautiful keepsake of your trip. Portable bathrooms are available near the booth, though rrestrooms are also available on the train.

RELATED: 11 New Jersey Christmas Towns That Go All-Out for the Holidays

Guests take their seats aboard vintage train cars for The Polar Express ride.
Guests take their seats aboard vintage train cars for The Polar Express ride.

All Aboard The Polar Express

The whistle of the train means it’s time to head down to the boarding area, a short, downhill walk from the ticket booth. For those who arrive early, there are carnival-type food concessions (Italian sausage, fries, funnel cakes, and fried Oreos) and vendors selling holiday trinkets along with a large enclosed tent with tables and seating. Concessions close after the last train departs.

As guests from the previous trip depart, it’s time to head to your designated platform. Line up early for the best seats as they are not assigned in advance. When the train is ready to board, the conductor calls each family forward to board the train. Everyone is escorted to their seats by one of the pastry chefs. While the first seats offer the best view of certain portions of the entertainment, each family has a chance to engage with the performers.

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The Polar Express train cars are all dressed up for the Christmas season.
The Polar Express train cars are all dressed up for the Christmas season. 

There are two types of train cars—single level and double decker. The double-decker cars include a lower level with seating similar to the single-level cars and an upper level with a single row of seats. As the website cautions, the performers are unable to go to the upper level. We opted for seats in a single-level car, and the seats were comfortable and roomy with a vintage look. We were able to walk through the other cars to take a look. The double decker cars had more lights and were slightly more festive, but the single-level cars had better lighting for taking photos.

Tip: Before the train departs, take a moment to visit the gift shop on board. It carries a great selection of reasonably priced merchandise. Some items for sale include Polar Express puzzles, mugs, robes, pillows, artwork, ornaments, magnets, snow globes, stuffed animals, and train sets. We had the entire shop to ourselves at the beginning of the trip, but when we stopped back later, there was a line from the entrance to the cash register.

RELATED: 35+ Christmas and Holiday Events for NJ Toddlers and Preschoolers

Pastry chefs dole out hot chocolate and cookies just like in the classic Polar Express story.
Pastry chefs dole out hot chocolate and cookies just like in the classic Polar Express story. 

The Polar Express Experience

The train whistle blows again and it’s time to start the journey. To where? Why, the North Pole, of course!

As the train departs the station, the Polar Express theme starts playing. The conductor sings along as dancers pass through the cars (and back again) juggling neon balls and carrying trays of glowing cups. Shortly after, the pastry chefs stop by to offer each family hot chocolate and cookies. We have a little guy with a gluten allergy, so we brought our own cookies to make sure he got the full experience.

In between music performances and other activities, the Polar Express story is broadcast through the speakers. The conductor stops by to talk to each child, taking their ticket to punch a letter into it just like the movie. Other performers also visit with each family throughout the trip, ensuring a unique, personal experience for everyone. The juggler spent time with our family, asking each child about their favorite color and giving a short lesson on how to juggle. Hobos also stroll through, stopping to sing popular holiday songs with everyone.

The highlight of the trip—and the moment that everyone waits for—is the arrival of Santa. Once the big man arrives, kids of all ages (adults, too) start buzzing with excitement. Santa responds with a greeting then pauses to spend time with each child, doling out silver bells as the first gift of Christmas. The bells are beautifully crafted, and as each child receives their gift, the chorus of bells grows louder.

The entertainment continues with more music as the train returns back to the station. We exited the train filled with Christmas spirit, and just like Christmas Eve, the kids had a hard time falling asleep because they were so excited. It’s definitely an experience worth repeating as a holiday tradition. We can’t wait to return next year!

RELATED: Top Holiday and Christmas Events in NJ for Kids in 2021

Performers personalize The Polar Express journey, taking time to stop and visit with children and ensuring everyone has a good time.
Performers personalize The Polar Express journey, taking time to stop and visit with children and ensuring everyone has a good time. 

Know Before You Go To The Polar Express

  • Plan ahead to ensure availability for your preferred date. Tickets for this train went on sale in July on the website. Fortunately, we were able to find tickets at the beginning of November, but many trips were already sold out.
  • Arrive early to enjoy the local area and take a look at the vendors on-site.
  • Wearing pajamas is part of the fun, not just for kids but for adults, too.
  • Bring extra cash for tipping anyone who made the experience special (from shuttle drivers to the conductor and performers on the train).
  • This trip is ideal for young kids who still believe in Santa, kids and adults who love vintage trains, and anyone who is a fan of The Polar Express.
  • If you can't get enough of the Delaware River Excursions, take note: It operates a variety of other experiences throughout the year, from scenic tours along the Delaware River and themed events such as Dino Days, the Corn Maze Train, the Great Pumpkin Train, Day Out With Thomas, the Mine Train, and even winery tours for adults.

All photos by author

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