Kentucky Polar Express Train Rides (2024): A Complete Guide

Last revised: December 31, 2023

By: Adam Burns

Officially licensed "The Polar Express" train rides are not as common as general Christmas-themed trips hosted at many heritage railroads and museums around the country.  Kentucky is home to such event at the Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Stearns.  More information about the experience may be found further below.

The train rides are inspired by the classic children's book "The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg, which was first published in 1985.

The Polar Express trips typically take place during the holiday season, starting in late November or early December and running through Christmas Eve. They are often operated by scenic railways and tourist train companies in various locations, such as in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The train rides typically follow a route that is decorated with holiday lights and decorations, and passengers are encouraged to wear their pajamas, just like in the book.

During the ride, passengers are served hot cocoa and cookies by uniformed attendants, just like in the story.

There are also special appearances by characters from the book, such as the conductor and Santa Claus, who interact with the passengers and create a magical holiday experience. In some locations, there may be additional activities, such as singing carols, reading the story aloud, or even meeting live reindeer.

One of the most memorable moments aboard the Polar Express is when the train arrives at the "North Pole," which is typically a special station or location along the route. Here, passengers witness a festive light display and see Santa Claus himself, who boards the train and greets each child by name, handing out a special gift to each one. This moment is often the highlight of the experience for many children, as it feels like a magical and personal encounter with Santa Claus.

Other FamilyActivities

The holiday season is a time for family, friends, and making memories that last a lifetime. In Kentucky, there are many family-friendly Christmas activities available that will bring joy and cheer to all. From dazzling light displays to festive events, there is something for everyone to enjoy during the most wonderful time of the year.

One of the most popular Christmas attractions in Kentucky is Lights Under Louisville. Located in Louisville's Mega Cavern, this drive-through light show features over 3 million lights along a 30-minute route. Families can enjoy the festive decorations while staying cozy in their cars. This is a great way to get into the holiday spirit and enjoy the beauty of the season.

The Kentucky Horse Park Southern Lights is another must-see attraction during the holidays. This driving tour of lighted displays takes place at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The event includes a petting zoo, pony rides, and visits with Santa Claus. Families can enjoy the magic of the season while spending time with the animals and taking in the lights.

For those looking for an indoor holiday event, the Newport Aquarium's Water Wonderland is a great choice. This event features Scuba Santa, a penguin parade, and a shark tunnel decorated with holiday lights. Families can learn about marine life and enjoy the festive decorations all in one place.

The Kentucky Science Center's Holiday Train Display is another popular indoor attraction. This event features a display of model trains winding their way through a miniature winter wonderland. Kids can interact with the displays and learn about the science behind the trains. There are also hands-on activities available for kids of all ages.

Christmas at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville is a one-of-a-kind holiday experience. This hotel transforms into a winter wonderland during the holiday season, with a Christmas Village, a Dancing Bellman show, and a nightly light show synchronized to holiday music. Families can enjoy a variety of activities and decorations all in one location.

For those looking for a festive parade, the Christmas Parade of Lights in Lexington is a must-see. This parade features floats, marching bands, and Santa Claus himself as they wind through downtown Lexington in a festive holiday celebration. Families can watch the parade and take in the sights and sounds of the season.

Finally, for a live performance, families can enjoy A Charlie Brown Christmas Live on Stage. This is a live stage adaptation of the beloved TV special, featuring the Peanuts gang as they discover the true meaning of Christmas. The show is performed at various theaters throughout Kentucky during the holiday season.

2024 Dates Will Be Included As They Become Available!

Overview

Big South Fork Scenic Railway

(Stearns): One of Kentucky's best kept secrets is the Big South Fork Scenic Railway located in Stearns, Kentucky.

It operates a 16-mile round-trip excursion through the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. For train enthusiasts, this line is of particular note.

It had previously belonged to the historic short line Kentucky & Tennessee Railway. It was opened in 1902 by Michigan industrialists Justus S. Stearns who wanted a railroad to serve his timberland at the head of Kentucky's Rock Creek.

Along the way the 25-mile line passed through the small community of Happy Hollow, which he renamed Stearns (where it connected with the much larger Southern Railway). In later years coal became the K&T's primary commodity.

It attracted railfans for its propensity to use steam locomotives well after most other railroads had retired theirs. Its final three 2-8-2's were not retired until February, 1964.


Freight operations survived until Blue Diamond Coal closed the last mine in October, 1987. By then, only 10.5 miles remained and excursions had been operated since 1982 when the Big South Fork Scenic Railway launched on July 1st that year.

Its current operation is collection of open-air and enclosed cars pulled by historic diesel locomotives.

Big South's version of The Polar Express departs from the Stearns Depot for the North Pole; during the trip kids can enjoy hot chocolate and cocoa, meet Santa, partake in caroling, and receive a small gift.

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SteamLocomotive.com

Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!