Every year, New Jersey's railroads get decked out in their holiday best to offer special Christmas-themed rides for the whole family. Though these trains don't go all the way to the North Pole, most include a visit with Mr. and Mrs. Claus, along with treats, caroling, and stories. One storybook Santa train invites kids to wear their pajamas and hear a classic Christmas story read aloud on the rails, while another ferries passengers to a Christmas tree farm. Check out these holiday train rides with Santa Claus and book your tickets as soon as possible – they sell out fast!
The Christmas Express – Allaire State Park, Wall Township
The Christmas Express has been a family tradition for 35 years. Sponsored by the New Jersey Museum of Transportation and run by Pine Creek Railroad, this popular holiday train ride is about 15 minutes long and includes a visit with Santa Claus. In the daytime, trains leave every half hour from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. on November 25, 26 & 27 and December 4, 11 & 18. Nighttime rides are scheduled between 5:30–8:30 p.m. on December 3, 10 & 17, and between 6–8:30 p.m. on December 9 & 16. Tickets cannot be purchased online; they must be purchased on the day of departure at the ticket office, located at the far corner of the parking lot. We recommend getting there early, as the rides sell out fast. Fares are $6; cash, check or Visa/Mastercard only.
The Polar Express – Whippany
Brand-new this year is a magical one-hour Polar Express train ride inspired by the children's holiday classic by Chris Van Allsburg. Santa greets each child as the story is read aloud, music from the Warner Bros. movie soundtrack is played, and cookies and hot chocolate are served. Young passengers dressed in pajamas will be dazzled by the juggling chef and roaming hobos. Tickets online. (This train, operated by the Morristown & Erie Railway, will replace the Whippany Railway Museum's Santa Claus Special, which will not run this year. The museum is closed for the season and will reopen in Spring 2017.)
NOTE: The Polar Express train operated by the Delaware River Railroad in Phillipsburg is SOLD OUT FOR 2016
Tri-State Santa Train – Wayne
The Tri-State Railway Historical Society presents its 24th annual Santa Train, featuring a visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus, along with some elves and cartoon characters. Each child will receive an activity book and a toy on the ride, which lasts about an hour. Departs December 11 at 8:45 a.m., 10:45 a.m., 12:45 p.m. & 2:45 p.m. Tickets are $17 for adults, $11 for children under 12, and free for babies under 2.
Candy Cane Limited – Flemington
A great option for young riders eager to greet Santa and Mrs. Claus, the Candy Cane train is one of three steam-powered Christmas trains operated by the Black River & Western Railroad, all departing from Flemington. The ride features elves and a reading of a Christmas story, and each child receives a candy cane, of course. Departs on November 19-20 at 11:30 a.m.; November 25-26 at 9:30 & 11:30 a.m.; November 27 at 11:30 a.m.; December 3-4 at 11:30 a.m.; December 10, 11, 17-18 at 9:30 & 11:30 a.m.; and December 23 at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. & 1:30 p.m. This ride is 90 minutes; tickets are $20 for ages 3 and up.
North Pole Express – Flemington
Serving hot chocolate and cookies, plus extra face-time with Santa and Mrs. Claus, the North Pole Express is a two-hour ride that also includes holiday face painting. Rides are scheduled for November 19, 20, & 25-27, and for December 3-4, 10-11, & 17-18 at 1:30 & 4:30 p.m. Tickets are $27 for ages 3 and up.
Victorian Christmas Special – Flemington
You'll find old-fashioned carolers and a classic nativity scene on the Victorian Christmas Special, a two-hour ride showcasing the biblical story of Christmas. Departs December 9 & 16 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 for ages 3 and up.
For large groups, or a holiday train–themed birthday party, the Black River and Western Railroad also rents out the entire caboose for groups of up to 16 people, or the club car for groups up to 35. Rental prices range from $425 to $1,100.
Pennsylvania Holiday Trains
Santa's Paradise Express – Strasburg, PA
All aboard for a classic holiday ride with Santa to Paradise, PA, and back. Santa's Paradise Express, one of three holiday trains operated by Strasburg Rail Road, departs on November 25-27 and December 3-4, 10-11, & 17-18. Multiple departures each day, beginning at 11 a.m. Each ride is approximately 45 minutes; boarding time is 15 minutes prior to departure. Tickets online; prices vary.
Night Before Christmas Train – Strasburg, PA
Channeling the excitement and anticipation of Christmas Eve, this after-dark train ride includes a reading of the classic poem, The Night Before Christmas, and other holiday favorites. Children are invited to wear pajamas and are served milk and cookies on board. Trains depart at 7 p.m. on November 25, December 2, 9 & 16, and at 6:30 p.m. on December 1, 8 & 15. Ticket price varies; purchase online.
Take the train to choose a tree on the Christmas Tree Train.
Christmas Tree Train – Strasburg, PA
Ride this historic train to Leaman Place Grove to select a pre-cut Frasier or Douglas Fir tree. Trees will be delivered back to the station by flatcar. The Christmas Tree Train departs on December 3 at 9 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. Adults $18, children $1; tree cost is additional, approximately $40. Tickets online.
On all Strasburg departure days, Mrs. Claus will be at the station from 12–4 p.m. to help children finalize their letters to Santa. Children can also enjoy the Tinsel Trolley, a self-propelled motor car, and story time inside the heated, stationary caboose. Purchase tickets online or by phone at 866-725-9666.
Top image: Black River and Western Railroad's North Pole Express. All photos courtesy of the railways.
Updated: October 18, 2016