All Aboard! It’s that magical time of year again – it’s time for the Polar Express Train Ride. Put on your matching family Christmas PJs, bundle up (it’s cold up in northern Arizona), and get ready for some holiday magic. If you’re on the fence about taking the family up to Williams for the Polar Express Train Ride, here’s what you can expect from the experience.
The Polar Express Train Ride is a reproduction of the train ride from the book and the movie, The Polar Express. It gives you the experience of what the characters went through – from the minute you buy your Golden Ticket. If you’re not familiar with either the book or the movie, I highly suggest reading or watching it first to get the full experience.
The Polar Express Train Ride starts in Williams, Arizona, at the Grand Canyon Railway Station. The Grand Canyon Railway (which takes passengers to the Grand Canyon) is transformed into a journey to the North Pole during the holiday season. Located just west of Flagstaff, it’s about a 2 ½ hour drive from Phoenix.
The Polar Express runs during the months of November and December, beginning the second week of November. There are two nightly train rides – 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Rides sell out extremely quickly – especially on weekends and the weeks before Christmas, so make sure you book well in advance. Tickets for 2023 are already on sale!
If you want to combine your magical Polar Express train ride with an overnight stay, you can book a combination package to stay right at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. There are also a variety of hotels in Williams or nearby Flagstaff. We stayed at the Comfort Inn in Williams, which had a really nice complimentary breakfast, a heated pool, and a jacuzzi. So bring your bathing suit even though it’s super cold outside.
There are different ticket packages you can buy, depending on the time of week or month. Weekend tickets are considered Standard Rates ($69/adult and $52/child) compared to the weekday Value Rates ($57/adult and $38/child). The two weeks leading to Christmas and after are also Standard Rates and the days directly surrounding Christmas are Holiday Rates ($95/adult and $64/child). Children under two years old are free.
With your Golden ticket, you get the train ride to and from the North Pole (around 90 minutes total), which includes hot chocolate and a chocolate chip cookie during the ride. There is entertainment, singing, the reading of the Polar Express story, and even a visit from Santa.
You can also visit Santa’s workshop at the train station where you’ll meet Santa and Mrs. Claus, with some fun activities for children such as writing a letter to Santa, coloring, and the naughty/nice meter. The gift shop inside the train station also has lots of Polar Express memorabilia to purchase to remember your special day.
Right before you board the train, the conductor puts on a cute show to get everyone hyped up for the ride. From there, you’ll board the train and begin your journey. And don’t forget to get your family picture next to the decorated train before or after your ride!
SOUVENIR TIP: Do NOT buy a commemorative bell in the gift shop before the ride. We were about to, not knowing that Santa actually gives everyone on the train a bell before leaving. Thanks to the kind worker that tipped us off before we spent money on something we would be receiving.
Yes! Families do wear matching family Christmas pajamas on the Polar Express train ride (including us). It’s not a requirement for the ride, but it really does add to the magic. We loved seeing other families add to the excitement of the journey in their PJs. But just remember that it’s really cold outside while you wait for the train, so make sure you bring layers or winter coats and hats. We wore a layer of clothes under our pajamas and our winter coats/hats and were still a bit cold!
If you want to spend a day or two in Williams during your Polar Express train ride, there are some fun activities you can add to your trip. We drove up the day before and stayed overnight so we could avoid driving the day of our train ride. Since our Polar Express ride wasn’t until 7:30 pm, we basically had the entire day for activities. Here are a few family activities to add to your itinerary.
We began our day by visiting Bearizona Wildlife Park. First, we started in the driving section of the park where we were able to get up close and personal with the animals (from the safety of our car). We saw bears, wolves, bison, reindeer, bighorn sheep, and more. We then headed into the walking area of the park where we got to have some hands-on experiences like feeding the otters and grizzly bears. There were a lot of educational moments, and we were really impressed with the work they do with rescued animals there. Highly recommended!
If you have a full day to fill, heading up to the Grand Canyon is feasible. It’s about an hour’s drive from Williams to the South Rim. Spending the day at the Grand Canyon is always extraordinary, especially when you’re combining it with the Polar Express. You can also camp at the Grand Canyon if you want to stay for more than just a day. We camped at Trailer Village RV Park inside the Grand Canyon, and always recommend it to anyone wanting to experience all of the South Rim!
If you’re ready for some winter fun in Williams, head to Canyon Coaster. During the colder months, you can snow tube down the mountain. We were planning on hitting the slopes while we were there, but unfortunately, they were closed for the day while they prepared for the snow tubing. And if you go in the summer, they have summer mountain tubing and their famous Canyon Coaster.
And don’t forget to take some time to walk around the downtown streets of Williams – it’s an experience in and of itself. Because it’s a part of the historic Route 66, there are some really cool shops and restaurants dating back to the early 1900s. And during the holidays, it’s all decorated and lit up for Christmas – a fun way to see the city.
Asking if an experience is worth it is always subjective, but if you love Christmas activities – and specifically the Polar Express movie or book – then the answer is definitely, YES! This was our first year riding the Polar Express, and for us, it was totally worth it! We loved the entire experience and the joy that it brought, not only our daughter but us too.
Many people who were on the train with us make it an annual Christmas activity, and I can completely see why. It’s not only for young children, but all of the adults on the train were having just as much fun. From the moment we boarded the train, it was filled with entertainment and magical moments. I’m so pleased that we made the trip up to Williams, AZ, to experience the Polar Express for ourselves.
And yes, we do BELIEVE!