Illinois Christmas Train Rides (2023): A Complete Guide

Published: April 13, 2023

By: Adam Burns

While officially licensed "The Polar Express" train rides are very popular and sell out quickly wherever they are hosted, some heritage railroads and museums have elected to offer their own version of Christmas train rides.  Such is the case at the well-known Illinois Railway Museum in Union, which hosts holiday themed rides during the Christmas season.  More information about their event, and the museum, can be found further below.

Other Christmas Activities

Illinois is a state known for its vibrant cultural scene, and Christmas is no exception. From holiday markets to light displays, there's always something to get you in the holiday spirit. If you are interested in some other enjoyable Christmas activities for the entire family, besides just a train ride, here are some popular events happening throughout Illinois.

Christkindlmarket Chicago

One of the most popular holiday markets in the country, Christkindlmarket Chicago is a German-style market that takes place in the heart of the Windy City. Here you can find unique gifts, delicious food, and festive drinks. The market also features live entertainment, including music and dance performances. This annual event is a favorite among locals and tourists alike and has been a holiday tradition in Chicago for over 20 years.

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

Each year, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago transforms into a winter wonderland for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. This two-day event includes a tree-lighting parade, live music, and a fireworks display. The festival draws large crowds and is a favorite among families. You can also find plenty of shopping opportunities along the Magnificent Mile, making it the perfect place to get some holiday shopping done.

Gingerbread House Walk

The Gingerbread House Walk is an annual event that takes place in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. During the event, local businesses and organizations create gingerbread houses that are displayed throughout the downtown area. Visitors can walk through the town and view the houses while enjoying hot cocoa and other holiday treats. The event is a fun and festive way to get into the holiday spirit and support local businesses.

Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago hosts an annual holiday exhibit called Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light. The exhibit features over 50 Christmas trees decorated by volunteers from different ethnic communities. Each tree represents a different country or culture, and visitors can learn about the various holiday traditions from around the world. The exhibit also includes live performances and holiday activities for the whole family.

Aurora Festival of Lights

The Aurora Festival of Lights is a holiday light display that takes place in Phillips Park in Aurora, Illinois. The display includes over one million lights and features a variety of holiday-themed displays, including Santa's workshop and a giant Christmas tree. Visitors can drive through the display or walk through on designated nights. The event also includes holiday activities, food vendors, and live entertainment.

The Santa Hustle (Chicago)

If you're looking for a unique way to get into the holiday spirit, consider participating in the Santa Hustle. This annual 5k race takes place in various locations throughout the United States and encourages runners to dress up as Santa Claus or other holiday characters. The race features holiday music, decorations, and plenty of photo opportunities. Participants receive a Santa hat, beard, and a festive finisher's medal.

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago hosts an annual holiday light display called ZooLights. The display features over 2.5 million lights and includes light-up animal displays, musical light shows, and holiday activities. Visitors can also enjoy ice skating, carousel rides, and food and drink vendors. ZooLights is a favorite among families and is free to attend.

Mannheim Steamroller Christmas

Mannheim Steamroller is a musical group known for their modern take on traditional Christmas music. Each year, they perform a Christmas concert at different locations in Illinois. The concert features holiday classics as well as original music by the group. The show is accompanied by a light display and is a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

"The Magnificent Mile" Lights Festival

The parade of lights takes place in downtown Chicago each year and features floats, marching bands, and holiday characters. The parade is a favorite among locals and is a great way to kick off the holiday season. After the parade, visitors can enjoy ice skating in Millennium Park or take a stroll through the Magnificent Mile.

In conclusion, Illinois is home to a variety of festive and fun Christmas events. Whether you're looking for holiday shopping, light displays, or cultural experiences, there's something for everyone in Illinois during the holiday season. These events are a great way to get into the holiday spirit and make lasting memories with friends and family.

Guide Information

Illinois Railway Museum

(Union):  IRM is the nation's largest such museum and a must-see if you enjoy trains. It began as a grassroots organization started by a group of ten railroad enthusiasts who launched the Illinois Electric Railway Museum in 1953. 

Their goal at that time was to preserve the dying interurban industry.  To begin this endeavor they acquired former Indiana Railroad car #65 by pitching in $100 each. 

Next, property was needed to showcase not only the car but also any future pieces they might acquire.  At first they found a patch of ground in North Chicago but when this became too cramped moved to empty farmland in Union in 1964. 

By then the group's collection had amassed 40 pieces, which now included both general railroad equipment and interurban cars.  As a result, the titled was shortened to the Illinois Railway Museum. 

By 1966 it had fully restored its first interurban car and showed off a rebuilt steam locomotive two years later.  Wishing to host excursions it next built a 1 mile loop for its operational streetcars/interurbans, completed in 1981. 

Today, IRM has expanded its track to 4.6 miles (all built from scratch, no former right-of-way was utilized) and owns a total of 80 acres.  Its list of buildings and equipment is extremely impressive. 

During the holiday season IRM hosts the Happy Holiday Railway during late November and December allowing kids to experience a 40-minute train ride while enjoying treats on-board and meeting St. Nick himself.

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