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Want to meet Santa Claus? Take the train!

Years ago, the Christmas season started Thanksgiving Day. Families would gather ‘round their black-and-white TVs, or color TV if they could afford it, and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Christmas decorations didn’t go up in the stores as Halloween decorations came down. There was no Black Friday, no Black Monday and no Wal-Mart to spur shopper riots and worker turmoil late Thanksgiving Day.

Every family had their own Christmas traditions, some more religious; others not so much. But a visit with Santa Claus always was the “Big Moment” for the kiddies leading up to the “Big Night” before the “Big Morning.”

All that has changed now. Today’s Ralphie doesn’t want a Red Ryder BB gun; he wants an iPhone5 or an Xbox 720. But whatever the younger set wants in this more modern age, Santa Claus continues to be the main man. Although you can still drive to your nearest large shopping mall to find St. Nick sitting on his thrown, there’s other ways to visit Father Christmas these days.

You can take the train.

But first, you’ll have to drive to Boulder City. Beginning Dec. 8, the Nevada State Museum in Boulder City starts excursions of the Santa Train. Passengers can ride in either of the two Pullman coaches, which have plush seats. Or those with more stalwart bottoms can ride in the former dining car: there’re no tables and seating is on folding chairs. Folding chairs also greet the passengers in the lounge car, which is the only car that is handicap accessible, and the chairs can be removed to accommodate wheelchairs. Those four cars are all heated.

But you better dress warmly if you choose the open air car, which has bench seats.

Passengers can bring their cameras to get a shot of the children with Santa and Mrs. Claus during the half-hour ride down the historic tracks of the Boulder Branch Line.

And tickets cost only $5 for the half-hour trip. For more information call the museum at (702) 486-5006 or visit www.nevadaculture.org.

Boulder City isn’t really all that far, 107 miles southwest of here.

But when it comes to taking the train to visit Santa, I want to go north and ride The Polar Express. I admit to be prejudiced. The Polar Express is an annual feature at the Nevada Northern Railway (NNRy) Museum in Ely, where I lived for 25 years.

I’m sure the folks at the Nevada State Museum in Boulder City do a wonderful job, but the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., has dubbed the NNRy the best preserved shortline railroad in the United States. The museum features two operating steam engines and several historic diesel engines. But there’s not room here to describe all the features and activities throughout the year at the NNRy, but the Polar Express is worth telling you about.

Warner Bros. picked up the rights to the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg to produce the 2004 animated movie, starring Tom Hanks. The film studio has licensed the NNRy to operate a living version of “The Polar Express.”

And it does throughout the holiday season.

Passengers are encouraged to roll play on the trip, which runs from just over an hour to an hour and a half. Many wear pajamas in keeping with the theme of story.

The Polar Express story is about two children, a young boy and his sister. They’ve just been told by their friends that Santa Claus isn’t real. But on Christmas Eve, the boy hears a distant steam whistle and sees a locomotive magically appear in his front yard.

He boards the train and learns its destination is the North Pole.

When the train-full of children arrive, they learn it’s almost time for Santa to leave on his Christmas Eve trek around the world. But Santa has his own tradition. He will pick one child who rode the Polar Express to receive the very first Christmas present, which can be anything the child wants.

Santa selects the boy. He pounders what he’d like and then tells Santa, he wants one of the silver bells on the harness of Santa’s reindeer. He places the bell in his pocket, as the conductor announces it’s time to return home.

During the trip home, he discovers there was a hole in his pocket and he lost the bell. But on Christmas morning he finds an extra present from Santa Claus, another silver bell. But his parents can’t hear it jingle; only he and his sister can because of their belief in Santa and the spirit of Christmas. As the years pass, his sister can no longer hear the bell when it jingles. But the now-grown man always can, as he keeps his faith and belief in Santa and the magic of Christmas.

The full story gets read onboard the NNRy’s Polar Express, as the passengers drink hot cocoa and eat cookies. They arrive at the brightly decorated North Pole, which during other seasons is Ely’s Renaissance Village, site for many of the community’s various festivals and farmers market. Santa boards the train at the North Pole and greats each and every one of the children, pausing when families want to take photos.

After he has heard what every child has to say, Santa and his elves give each of them a small silver bell just like in the story.

The historic passenger cars are heated so pajamas usually are warm enough. Some years, there’s snow on the ground when the Polar Express leaves the station and that adds to the magic. But even when there’s no snow, it’s still an experience children, their parents or their grandparents will never forget.

It’s about 250 miles from Mesquite north on U.S. Highway 93 to Ely.

Mark Bassett, director of the NNRy Museum, told me he knows that’s a pretty long trip to make. But if any MLN readers make that northward trip and show the NNRy ticket office or gift shop their driver’s license with a Mesquite, Bunkerville or Beaver Dam, Ariz., address, they’ll get the same discount given to Ely residents.

There will be three Polar Express train rides each Saturday before Christmas and one on Fridays and Sundays up to the week before Christmas. The NNRy Museum is closed on Mondays, but from Tuesday, Dec. 18, through Friday, Dec. 21, there will be one 7 p.m. trip each day, followed by the three trips on Saturday, Dec. 22, and two on Sunday, Dec. 23. And on Thursday, Dec. 27; Friday, Dec. 28, and Saturday, Dec. 29, the Polar Express season will conclude with a 4:30 p.m. trip each day.

For more information, call 1-866-40STEAM or 1-866-407-8326 or email: info@nnry.com.

It’s a great trip for you to make with your children or grandchildren. And you don’t need to worry about anyone putting their eye out.

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