One of the most memorable holiday traditions families can start is hopping on board one of several themed train trips that come alive this time of year. As children visit with Santa Claus or take part in a Polar Express experience, they will make memories that last a lifetime.
Holiday trains run in several regions in Ohio, making them easy options for day trips no matter where you live. Each offers a different experience and amenities.
Many of the trips fill quickly, so it's advisable to buy tickets in advance. Wheelchair accessibility varies; check details with each organization.
Hocking Valley Scenic Railway
33 W. Canal St., Nelsonville 45764; 740-249-1452;hvsry.org
One of the longest-running and most popular holiday trains in Ohio is on board the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway in Nelsonville. For more than 40 years, the Santa Train has helped make Christmas memories for families as they roll down the tracks along the Hocking River Valley.
Children are encouraged to bring their Christmas lists for Santa, who makes his way through the cars to visit with each family. The 20-mile round trip is a two-hour ride.
Kids get candy during their visit with St. Nick, but if you need additional snacks, outside food and drinks are permitted. There are no restrooms on the train, so be sure to make that stop in the depot.
All train cars are heated. Seating is first come, first served, so it's wise to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to boarding. One parent can go first and save seats while the other parent takes his or her time with the children.
Santa Train departure times are 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 26 to Dec. 18. There are evening trains at 6 p.m. Dec. 3 and 10. Admission is $17 adults, $15 seniors and $13 ages 3-12. Trips typically sell out.
THE POLAR EXPRESS
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
Rockside Station, 7900 Old Rockside Road, Independence 44131
Akron Northside Station, 27 Ridge St., Akron 44308
Children-and parents-who fell in love with the holiday book (and movie) The Polar Express will love the re-creation of the experience on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway. Throughout the two-hour ride, which is a 30-mile round trip, passengers will see elaborate lights and holiday scenes out the windows. Inside the train, it's nonstop action as Santa visits with children and elves lead families in sing-alongs of favorite carols. Just like the movie, children are encouraged to wear their pajamas, and most do.
No outside food or drinks are allowed, but there is a concession car with snacks that can be purchased at the beginning and end of the trip. Parents will like the heated cars and onboard restrooms, which make it a more comfortable ride for families.
Polar Express departure times are 7 p.m. Nov. 12-22, 25-30 and Dec. 1-20, and 3 p.m. Dec. 10 and 17. Admission for ages 2 and older is $45-$47 for coach, $65-$69 for deluxe and $85-$89 for executive class. Trips typically sell out well in advance.
Dennison Railroad Depot Museum
400 Center St., Dennison 44621; 740-922-6776;dennisondepot.org
Hop on board the Polar Express at the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, where the decorated train transports guests to the North Pole with games, hot chocolate, cookies, songs and visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
The 40-mile, 90-minute trip is a re-enactment of The Polar Express book by Chris Van Allsburg. Storytellers begin the journey reading aloud to get passengers into the holiday mindset. Riders are encouraged to wear their pajamas (no slippers) to become part of the story.
All children get a bell as they visit with Santa. To add to the experience, when buying tickets guests can purchase a copy of The Polar Express, which will be signed by the conductor.
There are restrooms on the train and at the depot. Plan to arrive an hour before departure time and explore the 1873 Pennsylvania Railroad station. Outside food and beverages are not permitted, but those on a gluten-free diet can bring their own cookies. Train cars are heated.
Note that the museum is located in the village of Dennison (about two hours northeast of Columbus), not at Denison University in Granville. Lodging packages are available.
The Polar Express operates Dec. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11. Departure times are 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Fridays and 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission for ages 1 and older is $70 for first class, $48 for coach and $41 for balcony seating.
NORTH POLE EXPRESS
127 S. Mechanic St., Lebanon 45036; 513-933-8022;lebanonrr.com
The LM&M Railroad's North Pole Express is a fun family outing that is not a significant time commitment, but will get riders into the holiday spirit. During the one-hour ride, Santa and his elves stroll the aisles and spend time with each family. Cameras and photos with Santa are encouraged, and each child receives a bell from his sleigh.
Passengers have a choice of either first-class or coach seating for the 9-mile ride. First-class, which is $10 more, offers assigned seats and reclining chairs in the heated Milwaukee Road 3200 car. Coach class is general admission, so families are advised to arrive early to get seats together. These seats are in the restored 1930s Lackawanna cars. Heaters have been added this year.
Before the train departs, enjoy the decorated depot and Christmas carolers while hot chocolate and cookies are served on the platform (treats are included in the ticket price). Children's activities help keep little ones occupied before boarding.
There are no restrooms on the train. Collapsible strollers are allowed, and food and drinks can be brought on board (no glass).
The North Pole Express operates on select dates from Nov. 26 through Dec. 24. Departure times are 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays and noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. weekends. On Dec. 3, which is the date of the Lebanon Christmas Parade, departures are scheduled at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Trains will run at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 24. Admission is $22-$34 adults and $18-$30 seniors and ages 2-16.
Northwest Ohio Railroad Preservation Inc.
12505 County Road 99, Findlay 45840; 419-423-2995;nworrp.org
For those not ready to commit to a one- or two-hour locomotive experience, the North Pole Express in Findlay is a quarter-scale train that still will get passengers into the holiday spirit. The 10- to 15-minute ride runs on a half-mile track through a Christmas wonderland of outdoor displays. Santa and Mrs. Claus are on-site various nights.
Visitors can check out the indoor holiday display of themed Christmas trees, the model train room and gift shop. There are no indoor restrooms, but there are portable toilets. Food is available on-site as well. The open-air train cars are not heated.
The North Pole Express operates Nov. 25 through Jan. 1, except for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Departure times are 5-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5-8 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $3 adults, $2 ages 12 and younger.