There is nothing quite like the twinkle in a child’s eyes at Christmastime. Magic radiates from them during the holiday season no matter where you are, but if you’re looking for a memorable family excursion this Christmas, board an authentic Polar Express Train Ride!
Start your journey to the North Pole from Owosso, Michigan. In Owosso, you will find the steam engine that inspired the Polar Express movie, the Pere Marquette No. 1225 (how aptly numbered, right?). In 2002, a team from Hollywood came to capture footage and sounds from this very train to create their 2004 animated movie, The Polar Express.
On top of all the Christmas spirit, prepare to be awe-struck by the Steam Engine itself. Marveling over the way this engineering masterpiece come to life is an experience I’ll not soon forget. A ride on it though, to the “North Pole” no less, is a one-of-a-kind experience that will thrill the whole family.
How to Book Tickets on Michigan’s Polar Express Train Ride
The Steam Railroading Institute calls their Christmas Experience the “North Pole Express.” If you want any chance at snagging a seat on one of their excursions offered throughout December, sign up for 2023 ticket sale alerts, here. As soon as you receive the email that tickets are available for purchase, jump on the site and book your seats. They WILL sell out.
Before you logon to purchase tickets, consider:
- Whether you want to go during daylight or in the evening. There is more to see out the train during the day and photos may turn out better, but the Christmas lights in the village are more beautiful at night.
- Choosing 2-3 dates/times that could work for your family so you have backup options. There is a good chance the website will freeze up while it is heavily trafficked. It took us 45 minutes before we were able to get the booking page to load and we got our 2nd choice date.
- That there’s no guarantee for snow, but you might have more of a chance the later in the month you visit.
- Which seat type you want. (See Pricing section below)
Book the moment ticket sales open! Don’t wait to make the booking or you may have trouble booking a seat together especially if you need more than 2 together. If you need overnight lodging, book it as soon as you know your dates for maximum availability.
Ticket Pricing on Michigan’s Polar Express Train Ride
Seat pricing is based on which train car you choose. The more expensive tickets come with extra hot chocolate and souvenirs, but I assure you the base fare ($65 per seat, ages 2 and up require a seat) came with more wonder than I imagined! MSTX 5447 Comet and MSTX 147 Cupid are the two cars at this price point.
If you have a party of 12, it may be fun to book the Caboose, a package offered at $1800.
The prices may seem steep, but consider it as an investment in not only a core memory but in preserving America’s Railroad history! It takes an army of people to keep engines like this alive and operational.
How Long is the “North Pole Express,” Michigan’s Polar Express Train Ride?
The entire excursion lasts about 4 hours. You should plan to arrive 30 minutes in advance to allow time to park and check in.
- A 1 hour 15 minute train ride to The North Pole (Ashley, MI)
- Two hours to enjoy The North Pole
- Return journey to Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute, 1 hour 15 minutes.
You’ll get plenty of opportunity for a family photo op in front of the Steam Engine while it is parked in Ashley, MI.
Practical Tips to Plan Ahead and Elevate Your Polar Express Train Ride Experience
- If you plan to bring a stroller, make sure it folds up and is under 25 pounds due to storage limitations on the train.
- Dress in waterproof layers. Bring extra socks to make your return train ride most enjoyable even if your shoes are soaked through while at the “North Pole”
- Pack snacks for the train ride to dole out during the long journey. Consider bringing cookies to go with the Hot Chocolate.
- Bring activities for the ride, especially if traveling at night and there’s not as much to see out the window.
- Consider bringing sippy cups to pour our little kids’ hot chocolates into to avoid spills. The Styrofoam cups come with lids, but one tight squeeze and the hot liquid may overflow!
- Make sure to have cash on you for the paid activities and food available at the North Pole.
- Use the restroom, do a diaper change, before boarding the train.
- Amp up the magic, read on…
Make Your Polar Express Train Ride Even More Magical
- Look the part. Don nostalgic 1940s clothing and dress the kids in festive jammies. Fam jams for extra credit.
- Read The Polar Express story as a family before your journey (Consider bringing the book with you for a sweet photo of the kids reading it on the train.)
- Watch The Polar Express Movie which uses the blueprints and actual sound clips from this very train, the Pere Marquette 1225.
- Have the kids write and bring their letters to personally deliver to Santa
- Leave the rest to the staff. They will astound you with their knowledge of the classic story and play their part wonderfully. You can tell they’ve all prepped for their roles by watching the movie so they can interact with the kids as naturally as the kids could dream of.
The staff and volunteers were truly incredible.
The conductor stoically passes through the train car, punching each child’s ticket and regularly checking his antique pocket watch.
The car host served hot chocolate, spread the Christmas Spirit with songs, Christmas trivia, and a dash of magic only the kids could see. It was the darndest thing, all the kids spotted birds resting on her head, but the adults saw nothing!
The hobo with his coal smeared face casually leaned against the train as we boarded.
What to Know about Ashley, Michigan, AKA the “North Pole”
Ashely’s locals are passionate about spreading both Christmas spirit and the beauty of their small town and each year they create an enchanting Christmas Village to appear to children as the North Pole. It is admirably uncommercialized, welcoming, and everyone we met was overjoyed to be part of our experience.
You’ll want to B line to the Santa building as soon as you get off the train. Santa and Mrs. Claus gave each and every kid their joyous and gentle attention so a lengthy line is to be expected.
I was overwhelmed with emotion and warmth as I watched my son sit and chat with Santa one on one. I had never seen his eyes light up with such awe.
The elves handed out candy and helped the kids with games and crafts at Santa’s Workshop. You can purchase wooden train cars to build with one of Santa’s Helpers.
Your two hours in the North Pole will pass quickly as you shop the Christmas stalls, grab a bite to eat from Hobo Kitchen, and take in a magic show.
Before leaving for the return train journey, Santa will draw a name from this “Believe” box and give out the first gift of Christmas. Then, everyone will gather to see the engine road to life one last time to pull into its boarding position.
Carols will be sung while passengers return to their respective cars for the Polar Express train ride return trip.
As we boarded back onto the train, my son was delighted to find a silver bell on each of our seats, just like Billy received in the movie as a reminder to always “Believe.”
The whole experience is engrained in my memory and I can’t wait to return with my kids’ cousins for another year of magic.
Related Post: Magical USA Christmas Destinations for Kids in the USA
Steam Railroading Institute
405 South Washington Street, Owosso, Michigan
Can’t get enough of Michigan? Find more family fun here.