Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Polar Express at the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, AZ

*Originally contributed in 2010

I thought I'd share some on our recent trip to Williams, Arizona to ride The Polar Express, a special train ride available only during the Holidays at the Grand Canyon Railway.  I came upon a brochure of this on a stop-over at Kingman, AZ on the way to Chicago with my sisters last September.  After some research online, I decided to take the boys on it this year.

I went ahead and purchased the package deal, which includes 1 night stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, dinner buffet, ticket to train ride and breakfast buffet for the next morning.  You save about 20% by getting the package, plus any discounts you can apply from Triple AAA.

We arrived in Williams very early on the day of the ride, so we made a quick trip up to the South Rim.  We were able to drive up, take pictures, shop a little and visit the Yavapai Grand Canyon Museum to soak in some Geologic History.  We got back into Williams just after check-in at 4pm and had just enough time to throw on our PJ's and get to the dinner buffet at 5:00.

The dinner selection is a little weak for discerning adult diners, but extremely kid friendly.  Tons of mac-n-cheese, fries, chicken strips, etc.  You can have wine and beer, but it's not included in the regular buffet menu price of $25 per person.  We decided that next year, we would skip this dinner buffet and patronize one of the local steakhouses instead.  The famous one in Williams is Rod's Steakhouse.  I guess we've been spoiled by buffets in Vegas as we did not feel the buffet was worth the hefty price tag.  Don't eat too much dessert at dinner, because you get hot chocolate and cookies on the train.

After dinner, we got to the platform at the Depot at 6:00 and they boarded us at 6:15.  The seating is all assigned and you can make special requests to sit on a particular rail car (A thru O) or sit next to friends/family members.  The railcars were built in the 1920's, and have been beautifully restored, but not modernized.  So the seats are a bit narrow and the windows are heavy wood frames.

The train ride is just magical.  The atmosphere is positively charged with the excited squeals and laughter of children.  I think even the scroogiest heart will be melted by the wide-eyed anticipation on every child's face.  I myself could not help but get all caught up in it!  It really starts when you step out on the platform and take in the scenery.  Everything is lit up.  There are carols played over speakers that add to the atmosphere and everyone is dressed in cozy flannel pajamas.

Then, you hear the train whistle from the distance and look up to see the bright single headlight approach.  In years past, they used a gigantic steam engine that filled the platform with mist as it came in.  These days, it is the eco-friendly, vegetable oil powered engine that pulls the train.  Still, it does not fail to impress.  As the engine rolls past, the railcars appear and from the windows wave men and women dressed in white chefs coats and hats.  Everyone on the platform just cheers and cheers at the sight!

After the train comes to a stop, a dozen or so conductors come off the train onto the platform.  They are dressed in the exact same costume as the conductor on The Polar Express movie, complete with hand held lamp.  They greet the riders on the platform and manage to wrangle everyone into the right lines while taking pictures with children.

On the train, it is toasty, so we shed all our coats and get settled for the ride.  Once the train leaves the depot and the town, it is pitch black out the windows.  This adds to the mystery and magic of the ride.  The train rattles and sways to curves on the track and we all try to guess how fast we are moving.  Every so often, the darkness is interrupted by homes along the countryside that are lit up with Christmas lights.

On the ride, the chefs entertain the children and sing carols.  We also get chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate to wash it all down.  If your child does not like chocolate (like my son, Harpo), you may want to pack a juice box and a snack.  I brought a small backpack with diapers, wipes, juice boxes and crackers, and of course the necessary motion sickness gear that always accompanies my children. There's no room for a stroller and you really won't need one.  Thankfully, no one threw up on this ride!

I won't give away too much of the rest of the ride, as I believe you need to experience it for yourself and I could not begin to capture it here in this written note.  I hope you have the opportunity to take this train some time.  Even if you don't have kids to take, it's a wonderfully romantic trip for a couple.  Dress up in cozy pajamas and join in on the fun.

We spent that night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.  The hotel is only 2 stories and gets sold out quickly, especially on weekends.  Although a beautiful hotel and located conveniently in the same courtyard as the train depot, it is old and smells a bit musty.  They use sheet layers on the beds instead of bed spreads, so they're just as modern as regular hotels, but the bathrooms and carpets are really dated and tend to give off that musty smell.

I think next time, we'll stay at the nearby Marriott Fairfield.  It's only a category 2 for hotel points and was just built in 2006.  It's close enough to the train depot (less than a mile).  I recommend the breakfast buffet at the Grand Canyon Cafe (also located in the same courtyard as the hotel and train depot).  However, it is pricey at $25 per person (kids and adults, under 2 eats free).  Next time, we'll opt for dinner at the local hot spots, one of them being, Rod's Steakhouse in the town proper.

Here is the link to the site:

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

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