Polar Express success
When the nameless young narrator of Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express” awakens one Christmas Eve, he discovers a train in front of his home waiting to whisk him away to Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole.
More than 2,700 parents and children got a taste of that experience during eight weekend evenings this holiday season when “The Polar Express” steamed into Corydon.
“It was the most successful special event we’ve ever had,” said Richard Pearson, a spokesperson for the Corydon Scenic Railroad. “The last week we put ‘sold out’ on our phone recorder.”
Each trip began at the Corydon Depot on a Scenic Railroad passenger car decorated with white and blue lights for the holidays. As the train began rolling north toward Santa’s Workshop, Hayswood Theatre actors read from Allsburg’s book while passengers were treated to hot cocoa and Christmas sugar cookies – just as the narrator in the book did during his journey. When they weren’t reading, traditional Christmas music filled the cars.
Eventually, after much gleeful anticipation, the train arrived at “Santa’s Toy Factory Number One,” which bore an uncanny resemblance to Keller Manufacturing Co.’s New Salisbury plant.
Santa, played by either Otis Berry of Leavenworth or Dean Stout of Corydon (who also played Santa during Light Up Corydon), appeared, lit by spotlights, in a fine white carriage, decorated with flashing lights, pulled by one large horse, rather than eight tiny reindeer. Slowly, they made their way toward The Polar Express as children onboard squealed with delight and anticipation that Santa might actually get on their train car.
The sleigh and reindeer were not available, and, as the Hayswood readers explained, they weren’t possible due to the lack of snow at New Salisbury, er, the North Pole.
On trains carrying as many as 220 people, Santa spoke with every child and gave each a sleigh bell, just as he did in Allsburg’s tale.
Corydon’s Polar Express first pulled out of the station on Nov. 29 and made its last two runs Saturday night. Tickets were $15 for adults and $10 for children.
“I talked to probably 70 percent of the people who got off the train and not one person said it wasn’t worth it or ‘we didn’t have a good time,’ ” Pearson said.
One couple, Penny and Shannon Boren of Louisville, who like to take their two children, Sterling, 5, and Spencer, 3, on short line railroads in the region, said they would try to buy tickets Saturday night for next year.
“I took my little girl and a neighbor child, and that’s all they talked about all week long,” said Trish Greenleaf of Louisville. Greenleaf’s 4-year-old daughter, Kathryn, and a 7-year-old neighbor child were thoroughly convinced.
“They couldn’t get over the ‘fact’ that they went to the North Pole. My little girl wanted to go through the toy factory and see where her toy was,” Greenleaf said.
Corydon Scenic Railroad General Manager Charles Owen came across the idea of using the storybook theme, which has been popular elsewhere, only about a month before the event began. The railroad tried unsuccessfully to solicit significant media coverage.
“And what happened, it just caught on,” Pearson said. “The second week was better than we expected, and the third week was the best.”
Word of mouth and support by Corydon merchants and Harrison County Convention Visitors Bureau helped business snowball, Pearson said. In the end, railroad officials were glad the event hadn’t gotten more attention because they ran out of room.
Greenleaf found out about the event through another source: the Internet.
Luckily, the railroad had the foresight to take reservations. Nearly 90 percent of those who rode The Polar Express had reserved their seats, and nearly half of those individuals were from Kentucky.
“This is the type of project worth assisting because of its ability to draw people into this area,” said Sean Hawkins, community development manager of the CVB. Hawkins used $7,500 in promotional funds to place advertising for the holiday event.
“In a couple of years, they won’t need our help. They’ve totally exceeded what we anticipated in the first year,” Hawkins said.
Allsburg’s “The Polar Express” was published in 1985 by Houghton Mifflin Co. An illustrator as well as an author, Allsburg has written several other books including “Jumanji,” which was made into a major motion picture starring Robin Williams.