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Final Weekend For Railtown’s ‘Polar Success’

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Jamestown, CA – Creating holiday magic for riders, Railtown 1897 Historic State Park’s new Polar Express attraction is also turning out to be the stuff that sugar plum dreams are made of for Mother Lode tourism-fueled businesses.

Based on author Chris Van Allsburg’s hugely popular Christmas story that was later adapted into a holiday favorite movie by producer-director Robert Zemeckis, the Polar Express rail experience came to Railtown for the first time this year through the support of the Sacramento Railroad Museum Foundation, which hosts a similar experience that sells out well in advance every year.

Effectively brought to life through the concerted efforts of Railtown workers and scores of volunteers from within and outside of Tuolumne County, the attraction will steam through its final leg of a three-weekend run on Sunday. A huge undertaking that required extensive civic support, drawing heavily from local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, the Polar Express is proving to be a boon for the park, becoming a guaranteed major fundraiser that will help it steer clear of future state park closure lists.

According to Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Ayala, for ticket-holders, the Polar Express hour-long experience recreates the festive storyline train journey to the North Pole. He says that many of the riders are choosing to board as the children in the story do, clad in pajamas. While aboard, guests get to hear a narrator live-read the story, interact with Santa and story characters the Hobo and Train Conductor, all while enjoying hot cocoa and holiday cookies.

Drawing Visitors From As Far As Japan

Ayala says at almost 6,500 tickets, the ride effectively sold out for this year with many of the sales coming from out of the area. Still a bit dazed by the ride’s impressive drawing effect, he enthusiastically notes, “People are coming from Eugene, Oregon, San Diego, Brentwood, California, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe. We’ve even heard stories of a few Japanese, flying in from Japan, to drive up here to ride the Polar Express. It’s just amazing.”

He adds, with more than a bit of excitement in his voice, “And many of them are staying overnight, either in Tuolumne County, sometimes hotels, sometimes bed-and-breakfasts…we’ve heard cabins…Arnold, Murphys, Angels Camp! Of course, if they’re from Oakdale, sometimes they drive back home.” Along with their dollars, Ayala says that it is gratifying to see that these visitors are arriving with their holiday spirit and a sense of joy and family togetherness in tow.

Railtown Superintendent Kim Baker chimes in, “People have generally been very happy with [Railtown’s Polar Express] and having a great time, and so they are going to come back again next year. The foundation, our nonprofit partner, says that there is a 120% chance we will do it again next year.”

After overhead and other fees, including licensing from Warner Brothers, a large portion of the funds being raised will come back to Railtown, according to Ayala. Creating yet another win, the Kiwanis and Rotarian groups that help staff the attraction, through the Railroad Foundation and Railtown, are at the same time raising funds for additional community service projects.

A ‘Big Shot In The Arm’

For the park, and for state parks that Baker says, as a whole, have been challenged to come up with innovative and unique ways to make revenue to better support their operations, Polar Express provides a “great” example. “Because it has been so successful, it is going to allow us to better preserve the park and continue our regular train operations during the rest of the year. We’ll be able to stay open seven days a week…fund repairs to equipment, and things like that…it is going to be a big shot in the arm for the park — and the community,” she enthuses.

“And, like I said, even though maybe [visitors] are coming for the Polar Express [experience]…I’ve heard a lot of people saying…‘we should come back and ride the train so we can see what it looks like in the daylight’…things like that, so we are hoping that they will come back again,” Baker adds.

In looking ahead, Baker notes, “Columbia State Historic Park also does a number of really great holiday events. We’ve got snow and skiing and the downtown Christmas parade, and a whole bunch of other holiday events here. I’d love it if we could be part of making the Sonora area be a Christmas and holiday destination for the region, because it really has all the ingredients. We just need more people to know about it.”

Next year, Baker hopes to increase seating to make it possible for more park visitors to participate. “We’re looking at adding an extra car…adding some extra capacity,” she confides, adding that tickets will go on sale on October 6, 2015 for members to the general public two days later, all through the park’s web site. The dates will again run the first three weekends in December, with three runs daily Friday through Sunday at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Tickets, priced at $40 and $55 per person, allow up to one child age 2 and under to ride for free on the lap of an adult ticket holder.

For locals who might still hope to nab a stray ticket this weekend, Ayala confides, “There are always those instances where people can’t make it or maybe a group of six buy tickets but only four can make it…we send [them] to Will Call and have them ask…we never say ‘never’ and for one or two, [tickets] are possible.”

Baker encourages folks to visit the park between 3 and 8 p.m. this Friday, Saturday or Sunday and see what all the hoopla is about, even if they don’t have Polar Express tickets. “Anyone can come on down to the park for free and visit with Santa in the roundhouse, climb up in the cab of Sierra Number Three, or see the train…get their picture with Santa…bring your own camera. We hope people will come and at least look at the train because it’s awfully nice with all the lights on it and everything.”