An experience mixing movie magic with real life celebrated another successful holiday season in Stettler.
The Polar Express, named after the 2004 Warner Brothers movie starring Tom Hanks, steamed into Stettler for its “sixth or seventh” season according to Bob Willis the executive director of Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions.
A popular event which draws people from all over North America, the Polar Express ran on 18 separate days for the fall 2021 season, some days running as many as three times.
In total, the Polar Express will have run 38 times by the time of its last performance.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions has capped the excursions at “slightly less than capacity,” according to Willis.
“We’re very conscious of problems that packing people (on board) can have. We can’t fill the train. We’re simply not going to do it.”
Tickets for the Polar Express have sold out for the remainder of the season, but with the ongoing success of the production it will be back in 2022.
One-part train ride, and another part theatrical reenactment, the production is done under license from the movie studio and in fact reenacts scenes of the movie.
“We do a pretty good job of it actually,” said Willis.
“The people who come up from Warner Brothers and Rail Events, who are the licensing and royalty people, say we are one of the finest of all the trains that do this. We’re kind of proud of that. This is no small potatoes stuff here.”
The magical journey begins with the participants waiting on the station platform for the train.
As the clock counts down to the appointed time of departure, a light is visible down the track, and in what Willis describes as a “grand entrance” the train pulls into the platform, building excitement.
“It’s been between 50 and 60 years since anyone has stood beside a moving passenger train,” said Willis.
Once the train is stopped at the platform, the movie reenactment starts.
When all the passengers are loaded, the train departs on a half-hour journey to the North Pole.
Along the way, the passengers are entertained by chefs, chefs’ helpers, and elves, all of whom are “singing and dancing their way through the entire event.”
On arrival at the North Pole, the train picks up Santa Claus who joins the passengers for the return journey and works his way through the train handing out the first Christmas presents of the season to the children.
“It’s a magical journey,” said Willis.
“The response has been very, very, good … we’re happy with the season.”
In total, the entire experience lasts around an hour.
With the Polar Express winding down for the season, Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions is preparing for the “The Night Before The Night Before Christmas Train,” a community event organized every Dec. 23.
“It is a free special event excursion,” said Willis.
“It is primarily for children and their guardians.”
The excursion is an hour long, and cookies and juice are provided for all passengers, as well as gifts for the kids.
Seating for the excursion will be first come, first serve, and for 2021 Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions is inviting people to line up at 8 a.m. to get their free tickets.
“No one lining up to ride will be missed out,” said Willis.
“It’s sort of an expandable thing.”
Currently, plans are in place to run the trip four time on Dec. 23.
The first trip will depart at 10 a.m., followed by another at noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m.
Alberta Prairie Railway is operating under the Province of Alberta’s Restriction Exemption Program, and all passengers 12 and older are required to present proof of double-vaccination or negative COVID test within the previous 72 hours.