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What is THE POLAR EXPRESS?

Is reading THE POLAR EXPRESS one of your family’s holiday traditions? I vaguely remember a teacher reading it to my class in elementary school, but hadn’t given it a thought until last year. While looking up holiday events to do with my toddler, I discovered this POLAR EXPRESS experience in Squamish, British Columbia. We read the book and watched the movie before we went. My toddler was in heaven and I knew that I wanted to do it again this year. But, I like to change things up and make each of our holiday experiences unique. So this year, we headed to Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum for their version of THE POLAR EXPRESS™. We were there last year with a toddler and it was super fun.

The Polar Express in Elbe, WA is a fun Christmas activity for kids in the Seattle-area.
Our 14-month-old loved every moment of The Polar Express in Elbe, WA. Photo credit: Darren Cheung

For those unfamiliar with THE POLAR EXPRESS book (affiliate link,) it’s the story of a child’s Christmas Eve journey on board THE POLAR EXPRESS train ride heading to the North Pole. The movie version stars Tom Hanks. It helps if families have familiarized themselves with the book before embarking on this adventure.

What to Expect on the Train Ride

The Polar Express in Elbe, WA is a great family tradition for those who live near Seattle or Tacoma.
On the left is the souvenir mug for First Class tickets, on the right is the adorable disposable cup and in front is the iconic golden ticket! Photo credit: Darren Cheung

We opted for the First Class tickets because we thought the four-top table arrangement would be easier to chat around. Plus, First Class offered a table to set down the cocoa and cookies, which is a plus with little kids. We also received a collector’s edition THE POLAR EXPRESS souvenir mug. In Standard Class, the train coaches are Tacoma Rail cars representative of the 1950’s era Amtrak passengers cars with comfortable front-facing upholstered seats in paired rows.

The Polar Express at Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum is a magical train ride for Seattle-area families
Our family loved this oversized edition of The Polar Express because even our baby could see the pictures! Photo credit: Darren Cheung

When we boarded the train, the “chefs” double checked our tickets and made sure we were in the right seats. Then, they started singing and dancing! After kicking things off, the chefs came around and passed out Hot Hot Hot chocolate and sugar cookies. On the loudspeaker, someone read THE POLAR EXPRESS while the chefs walked around with oversized editions of the book. Both of my kids enjoyed the cookies and just looking around at the festivities.

We took the 5:30 p.m. train ride to ensure it would be dark, just like the book. It was perfect for us because we we got to “The North Pole,” we could enjoy all the colorful lights! Santa was there with his sleigh and several elves. Guests were encouraged to head to the window to wave at them. Then, Santa boarded the train!

We loved the Hot Hot Hot Chocolate on The Polar Express near Mt. Rainier, WA
We thought the Hot Hot Hot Chocolate was outstanding! Photo credit: Darren Cheung

The chefs passed out caroling books and we were all encouraged to sing Christmas carols. My 14-month-old kept clapping and trying to sing along. My almost-4-year-old kept saying, “Hey! We know this song!” It was such a smart way to warm up all the kids before the Big Man himself appeared! It was so cute to see the kids get so excited that Santa was on the train. He walked through the car and passed out silver bells to each child.

After he made his way through our car, the singing resumed! Plus, kids were invited to join the chefs in mini dance parties up and down the aisle. My preschooler told me that was his favorite part! Just moments after the last dance party, we arrived back in Elbe and disembarked the train. The whole experience was about 90 minutes and they flew by!

How it Compares to THE POLAR EXPRESS in Squamish, BC

So, the major difference between the two events is that THE POLAR EXPRESS in Squamish is based on the movie, while this one is based on the book. In Squamish, the characters from the movie are on board the train and involve the kids in helping look for lost tickets. In Elbe, the hobo was the only character to come on board. Both feature the conductor punching the golden ticket. And as trivial as this may sound, the cookies in Squamish may have been the tastiest cookies I’d ever eaten, while the cookies in Elbe were very cold and bland. But the Hot Hot Hot chocolate at both events was delicious!

Seattle families should head to Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum in Elbe, WA for The Polar Express train ride with Santa
The train conductor punched a “B” (for Believe) in every child’s ticket. Photo credit: Darren Cheung

Another major difference is Santa’s involvement. In Squamish, the train ride ends with everyone visiting the North Pole. There are tons and tons of activities for families. And, Santa and Mrs. Claus are available for traditional photos and they hand out bells. At the Mt. Rainier Railway and Logging Museum, the train picks up Santa at the North Pole and he walks through the train cars delivering bells to the children. He doesn’t really have time to chat with the kids or pose for photos.

I would recommend the West Coast Railway Heritage’s THE POLAR EXPRESS in Squamish, BC to anyone able to go. However, our kids had a blast at THE POLAR EXPRESS in Elbe. It’s definitely worth the drive. They are just two very different experiences.

What I Recommend

Northwest Trek

If your kids are older or are no longer napping, you might consider doing Northwest Trek before the train ride. It’s so close to the Mt. Rainier Railway and Logging Museum that it’s almost a shame not to stop.

Dining

There are a few restaurants located within walking distance of the train. Some are located inside train cars and might be fun for kids. We usually pick up burgers and fries from Scaleburgers across the street. You can eat them in your car. This is helpful if kids are napping. We also packed snacks for the car ride.

Restrooms

Once you get to the Mt. Rainier Railway and Logging Museum, there are lots of port-a-potties near the parking lot. But, if you head to the gift shop, they have large bathrooms. I know the Women’s bathrooms have a changing table. The train has limited restroom options.

What to wear

I’m really glad our kids wore fleece holiday jammies! I actually had my oldest wear another set of pajamas underneath just to make sure he’d be warm enough. The train car was nice and warm, but there was a lot of waiting outside before we got on the train. And if you want to do family Christmas pajamas, you won’t be alone! We saw so many cute families in matching jammies! It would make a super fun Christmas card!

Finally, if you’re on the fence about it, JUST DO IT! It only took us 90 minutes to drive there from Renton. Our kids napped the whole way there and back. They had the best time and I know my preschooler is going to talk about it for a long time!

The Polar Express near Mt. Rainier is the ultimate Seattle family holiday event