Magical train ride

Carli Darden’s expression, framed by loose curls and highlighted by red cheeks, reflected back through the train car window as the 3 year old excitedly watched for Santa to appear.

“Dad, are we really going to the North Pole,” asked her brother Tyler, 6. “Well, just watch and see,” their father Gene replied.

Children just like the Dardens, who live in Helena, traveled from all over the county in their fleece and flannel pajamas to see jolly ole’ Saint Nick.

“We brought them on the train earlier this year to go to the Pumpkin Patch, and when we heard about this we just thought it would be a fun thing to do for Christmas,” said Christy Darden. “Plus, they love the book.”

Just then, the lights on the train dimmed and storyteller Jim Aycock began weaving the tale of the Polar Express and its magical journey to the North Pole.

The train wheels roared over the tracks and outside Christmas lights popped up on each side — elves packing presents and penguins waddling by. Kids and parents alike oohed and aaghed at the sights of sparkling lights and finally, Santa and Mrs. Claus waving hello.

“Look, it’s Santa!”

Conductor Bill Houston said his favorite part of the event is seeing the excitement of the kids during the train ride.

“The elves come through first and that gets them would up and then when Santa starts coming in their car, the kids eyes light up,” Houston said.

All the volunteers — the conductors, storytellers, elves and chefs — work throughout the day to bring the joy of the season to families. But Houston said it’s worth it.

While they wait to meet Santa himself, kids and their parents sing along to Christmas carols and jingle the bells the yreceived from the elves.

Each kid gets a personal ornament with a train on it and this year, chefs offered cookies and chocolate milk for aceh kid to enjoy.

Emily and Mike Natarella of Leeds brought their son Anthony for the second time.

“It’s just such a cozy atmosphere, and he’s 3, so he just gets so excited about seeing Santa,” Emily said. “He gets to sing jingle bells too, which is fun because it’s the one song he knows.”

The family visits the railroad museum for the event every year with friends from church. They aren’t the only ones: 11,000 other visitors make their way to the North Pole to see Santa by way of the Heart of Dixie Railroad each year.