By Emily Harrington
For two consecutive years I set my alarm before the sale of The Polar Express experience in Monticello. And each year I had promptly manned my computer for the 8 a.m. sale — IN THE SUMMER! And each year they sold out before my purchase went through.
Luckily, I have a very generous friend. She had been the past four holiday seasons, and she graciously gifted her seats to our forlorn family with the slow typing mother.
The big question: Is it worth all the hype?
We arrived at the quaint Wabash Depot in downtown Monticello for the 8 p.m. showing on Dec. 2. They run three trains every Friday and Saturday with two on Sunday during the weekend before Thanksgiving, the weekend after Thanksgiving and the first two weekends in December.
Mark your calendar. Tickets go on sale the first Saturday in June. They expect to sell more than 10,000 tickets in 30 minutes! Make sure your internet connection is working properly, and you have set your alarm. Tickets will go on sale at 8 a.m. promptly, and they are sold exclusively online. Take a look at the countdown online!
I inputted American Express credit card numbers before the failure occurred the first time. This caused an error message as no AMEX allowed. By the time I inputted different numbers, they were sold out. In minutes!
This year’s ticket prices:
- Coach $38
- Deluxe coach $50 (everybody gets a commemorative mug that changes every year, and more attention)
- Dining car in a restored Illinois Central dining car $300 (sold as tables of four; it is fancier and everybody gets a commemorative mug and more attention)
- Private party up to a dozen passengers in a restored Illinois Central business car $1,200 (Santa boards here, gifts to keep)
Note: Children younger than 2 must ride on an adult’s lap or have their own ticket.
On the day of your trip, your tickets will be ready to pick up at the Wabash Depot after 3:30 p.m. You should arrive at least 30 minutes before your departure to give yourself time to park, pick up tickets and board the train. Not to mention, there are activities available prior to boarding.
Make sure you are in your pajamas. I thought dressing my boys in holiday jammies would be enough. No. It’s not. There were families in full-on matching onesies. Butt flaps and all. There is no shame here. No judgement. Feel free to go alllllll out. Plus, everyone is ready for bed when you get home. Wear coats, though, as you’ll need to go outside when going from the car to the tickets to the activities to boarding.
There are a few rooms to visit after you get your tickets. In the neighboring Wabash Center, there is a craft/game room and a gift shop. It’s pretty much chaos everywhere. The gift shop was kind of a nightmare for me.
“I want this.”
“I want this then.”
There are lot of breakables at eye level, and there is one bathroom (with changing table) and a long line.
The gift shop does, however, have the Instagram famous Polar Express backdrop. There are also snacks here.
So, once you get past that the magic really starts. Your train is called for boarding. Depending on your tickets, you typically sit on a bench seat, two on one side, facing another bench seat. The conductor punches your authentic ticket with your initial! Like the movie! Then area dance troops put on a choreographed dance while a SUPER catchy tune plays about hot chocolate. Year round we sing this song. The dancers pass out legit hot chocolate, and you each get a cookie. The young dancers were so warm and welcoming. They make a point to personally talk to each kid.
A reading of the popular book by Chris Van Allsburg comes over the loudspeakers while you snack. During your trip, you can look out the windows at different scenes created outside. You’ll see wolves in the woods, and you finally come to Santa waving at the North Pole. (This is actually the Monticello Railway Museum, a Chambanamoms C-U Essential.)
There are visitors during the ride, too! Frosty the Snowman and the “hobo” characters from the book come through. And the big man himself, of course! Each performer sits and talks to each passenger. They also make sure you get pictures with each of them, and they ask what each kid wants for Christmas. The entire ride is about an hour. Any kid who still thinks the big guy comes down the chimney will enjoy this experience. My toddler and little boy loved it! So did we!
When you depart you get a special gift — only for those who believe!
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.