It's a festive, decorated train with a merry conductor on which kids drink hot chocolate and eat cookies as they head in a northerly direction. There's singing, and it's all part of a magical holiday story.
But it's not the Polar Express, the fictional train found in the film and book of the same name. Because, as much as the child in all of us might like to believe, acrobatic waiters serving piping hot cocoa inside a train motoring along at high speeds undoubtedly would cause some second-degree burns.
But this is still a lot of fun -- in real life.
The Christmas Train is back on the tracks in Yolo County -- one of many such holiday trains offering rides in Northern California this season.
The Sacramento RiverTrain excursions are gracing the rails between Woodland and West Sacramento nearly every day between now and Dec. 30. And kids absolutely love it.
The 90-minute, slow-speed journey is "powered by joy," says the conductor, aptly named The Conductor. Riders become part of the story, the plot of which is played out on a small stage in a tent set up outside the train about 20 minutes before passengers board. That's the new twist. In the past, the story was merely told to the passengers. This year, the tale is acted out, giving children a chance to be more involved in the production.
According to the story, a little girl named Morgan just moved to sunny California and away from all her friends in blustery Minnesota, where the snowy weather makes Christmas look more like the North Pole.
Naturally, Morgan has lost her Christmas spirit, along with her teddy bear (as in, bear with us, adults; this ride is for kids). Mr. Teddy was a present from Morgan's grandmother and helped her get through a similar situation when she was a girl. The bear wore a locket with a poem from Santa Claus. Morgan can't find it, and passengers are tasked with getting onboard with the search.
There's a print version of the story -- "Morgan and the Magical Christmas Train" -- written by the train's excitable head elf, Shelle Hart, that's available for purchase.
Cookies and cocoa
Riders are assigned tables, where cookies and cups full of marshmallows await. The hot chocolate is only minutes away. Kids are encouraged to wear pajamas on the trip (which carries over to some of the adult riders, who are clearly return customers). The train goes 10 to 20 miles an hour, which keeps beverages from spilling and the actors from tumbling.
Over the course of 90 minutes, children are invited to help Morgan (a rotating cast of young-adult actresses) find her bear (played by another actor who, for some reason, keeps missing Morgan as they go back and forth up the aisles of the multicar train). The production isn't constant, leaving time for live Christmas singalongs, interactive skits for the kids, and a wait staff to bring nonchocolate refreshments (which cost extra, including beverages geared toward adults). The train runs through rural areas, with scenic views of creeks, ponds and grasslands (watch for the jackrabbits).
Finally, about the time the train needs to head back to Woodland, old Mr. Christmas himself shows up to assist in the search. That's right, it's a very convincing Santa Claus, who gets the rock-star treatment from the children. Once the bear (spoiler alert!) is reunited with Morgan, more singing ensues, as Santa poses for pictures with the kids (not part of the package; parents need their own cameras).
Visit Old Sacramento
If you have the time, it's a great idea to do The Christmas Train on a day Sacramento does its Theatre of Lights show in Old Sacramento, which is about 20 minutes from Woodland.
Old Sacramento is a great destination during the holidays, but at 6:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. every Thursday through Sunday until New Year's Eve, it trots out an outdoor, combination light-history show that may rival any regular civic holiday presentation in Northern California -- especially since it's free.
Volunteer actors from the Old Sacramento Living History Program play the roles of Mark Twain, Santa Claus and the man roused from his sleep during "The Night Before Christmas." After getting a brief history of the area, the Twain character narrates from a balcony above lit-up, historic K Street, while the story plays out on balconies across the street. The light show would be an attraction by itself (search for it on YouTube). For more information, go to http://sacramentokids.net.
Contact Tony Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: The Christmas Train
When: Various times, most days between now and Dec. 31. Go to www.sacramentorivertrain.com
Where: 341 Industrial Way, Woodland
Cost: $30 for regular seating; $40 for booth seating with table. Infants are free if they don't need a seat. Online discounted price for book is $12.