In 2022, my wife Mary decided to make her 80-year-old dad’s longtime dream of spending Christmas in Asheville NC come true.
She planned a terrific trip that included two “bucket list” items– the Biltmore Estate Christmas Candlelight Tour and the Polar Express Christmas Train Ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City.
Her dad (whose great-grandfather was President of the Western Railroad of Alabama) was especially excited about riding the Polar Express Xmas Train, and even bought some new red pajamas for the trip!
Sadly, he passed away in his driveway the morning he was supposed to fly out to meet us in Asheville. We were both totally devastated, but ultimately we decided to take the Bryson City train ride in his honor.
One of several officially licensed Polar Express train rides in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Polar Express in Bryson City NC is easily the most popular.
Departing from the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depot in the heart of the tiny North Carolina mountain town, the Polar Express train ride is a beloved Christmas tradition that often sells out months in advance.
Read on for our very personal take on 10 reasons to ride the Bryson City Polar Express train, including photos of all the highlights from our deeply emotional holiday experience.
Bryson City Polar Express Train Ride Info
ADDRESS: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot, 45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC, 28713
PHONE NUMBER: (800) 872-4681
DATES: November 9 through December 31, 2023 (Closed Nov 13, 14, 23 & 27, and Christmas Day)
HOURS: Varies, but most days include 5PM, 6:40PM, and 8:20PM Departures
Polar Express Train Tickets
FIRST CLASS- Includes carpets, plush furniture, fine detailing, large windows, and climate control. Table tops of 4 and 2 are available. All guests receive a specialty treat, cookie, warm cocoa served in a Polar Express souvenir mug, plus one souvenir tote bag per reservation. Ticket prices start at $67/adult, $47/children ages 2-12, $19/children under age 2.
PREMIUM CROWN CLASS- Includes windows that open, ceiling fans, and heat for cool nights. Classic train cars feel just like the movie, with restored wooden interiors and booths. All guests receive a specialty treat, cookie, and warm cocoa served in a souvenir tumbler. Ticket prices start at $62/adult, $44/children ages 2-12, $16/children under age 2.
CROWN CLASS- Includes climate control, large picture windows, and easily accessible restrooms. Seats are arranged in sets of four, with two facing each other. All guests receive a cookie and warm cocoa served in a souvenir tumbler. Ticket prices start at $53/adult, $39/children ages 2-12, $11/children under age 2.
COACH CLASS- This budget-friendly option includes windows that open for fresh air, ceiling fans, and heat for cool nights. Seats are arranged in sets of four, with two facing each other. All guests receive a cookie and warm cocoa. Ticket prices starts at $43/adults, $29/children ages 2-12, and children under age 2 are free.
10 Reasons to Ride the Bryson City Polar Express Train
1. The Anticipation
Remember that sense of anxious anticipation you had as a kid on Christmas morning, waiting for your parents to wake up so you could see what Santa brought you?
That’s the feeling we had while waiting to ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s Polar Express Train, which is easily the most popular of the Christmas train rides in North Carolina.
There’s a lot to do near the Bryson City railroad depot while you wait, including sweet selfie spots, shopping, and visiting the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum (admission is free with Polar Express tickets).
As your departure time approaches, festive music from the Polar Express movie gradually gets louder. You’ll feel a sense of electric excitement in the air long before the train conductor yells, “All aboard!”
2. Christmas Shopping
Speaking of shopping, we highly recommend spending some time browsing the cluttered aisles of Uncle Bunky’s Christmas Cottage, which is located right next to the Bryson City NC train depot.
Surrounded by Christmas lights outside, the inside is stuffed to the gills with some of the most unique Christmas decor we’ve ever seen, including lots of vintage-inspired ornaments, tree-toppers, advent calendars, Santas, and more.
Families seeking souvenirs of their Polar Express train ride should visit the Smoky Mountains Train Museum, which is right next to Uncle Bunky’s.
They’ve got every Polar Express memento you could possibly want, from blankets and plush Polar Bears to hardback copies of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic Polar Express Christmas book.
3. The Actors
One of our favorite things about this Smoky Mountain train ride (and what separates it from other Christmas train rides in North Carolina) is the actors. They really help to bring the classic story to life.
Despite our grief, the Bryson City NC Polar Express cast created an immersive experience that lifted our spirits before we set foot on the train.
From the ticket-punching conductor and “Hot Chocolate”-serving chef to the cynical hobo (all of whom were voiced by Tom Hanks in the 2004 film), the performers truly imbued the Polar Express train ride with Christmas magic.
With their passion for making the Polar Express in Bryson City as true to the story as possible (not to mention the immaculate detail of our Premium Crown Class Car), we found ourselves smiling through our tears.
READ MORE: The 30 Best North Carolina Christmas Events
4. Hot Chocolate (& Treats)
One of our favorite moments on the Polar Express train ride was when the performers playing the kitchen staff came dancing down the aisles singing the film’s most exuberant song, “Hot Chocolate.
The North Carolina train’s Premium Crown Class Cars have been completely remodeled to look like the ones in the film, and all passengers– children AND adults– are encouraged to dress in their most festive Christmas pajamas.
So when the actors sang along with the music playing over the loudspeakers, and began passing out fresh-baked cookies and hot cocoa (served in souvenir Polar Express tumblers, we couldn’t help but smile as the film scene came to life.
Their joyful enthusiasm and meticulous attention to detail truly made this one of the most memorable North Carolina train rides we’ve ever taken. We toasted to Mary’s dad’s memory as we sipped our delicious drinks.
5. Interactive Play
Another thing we loved about these Polar Express-inspired NC train rides was the near-constant level of interactivity between the actors and the passengers.
At one point the Hobo asked me if I was Santa Claus (I said “I’ll never tell,” with a wink). Later our hostess pointed out adults who she suspected might have been on Santa’s Naughty List, suggesting I might be one of them!
To clear my good name, I had to stand up in the aisle, spin while repeatedly chanting “I’m a ballerina,” hop up and down on one leg, then do the Sprinkler dance. Needless to say, there was a LOT of laughter had by all…
6. Santa Claus
As much fun as we were having riding the Polar Express train, it was impossible to forget that Mary’s dad was supposed to be there. After all, she’d really planned this trip for him, and they’d been looking forward to it for months.
So smiles and tears were had in equal measure, and there were moments where I could tell that she was just barely holding it all together emotionally.
One of the most special moments on these NC train rides is when Santa Claus makes an appearance. He takes time to visit with each child, and gives them a souvenir “Believe” Christmas bell (just like the ones in the film).
As he came down the aisle, I whispered to Santa what had happened to Mary’s dad, and asked if he could just give her a hug. Santa delivered in spades, and the magical moment between them is a memory we will cherish forever.
7. Selfie Spots
Before and/or after you ride the Polar Express Christmas train, it’s fun to explore the myriad selfie spots that have been set up all around Downtown Bryson City.
Head across the street to take a photo next to an Elf on the bench in front of Nate & Nick’s Pizza, then head one block south to pose in front of the Bryson City Railroad car.
But the best selfie spots are right next to the depot, including alongside the Polar Express Christmas train, the illuminated Polar Express Train ticket, and the massive Christmas tree in front of the museum.
READ MORE: The 25 Best NC Christmas Tree Farms
There’s no denying the fact that Bryson City’s Polar Express train ride is primarily geared towards children. But the fact that Mary’s 80-year-old dad was excited about it shows that it appeals to the kid inside all of us.
As someone who’s well into middle age, I cannot describe how much joy there is to be had in watching little ones practically jumping out of their skin with excitement to see their Christmas dreams come true.
The cast proved to be masterful at getting children involved in the action, channeling their boundless energy into unscripted moments that left the entire car laughing hysterically.
My favorite moment (pictured above) was when our car’s hostess got a group of particularly rambunctious young boys to do an impromptu dance-off. It was truly a Christmas wonder to behold!
READ MORE: The 10 Best Boone NC Christmas Tree Farms
Thankfully their energy level wasn’t quite so high for the entire duration of the 75-minute Polar Express Train ride.
At one point the cast brought out massive versions of The Polar Express picture book, slowly taking them up and down the aisles of the car so that everyone could get a look at the colorful illustrations.
As we listened to the narration of the book over the loudspeakers, describing the anticipation of the train ride to the North Pole, we watched out the large windows to see Christmas lights in the distance.
The festive music and classic story gradually built to a dynamic crescendo, and we could feel that the main attraction of our NC train ride was just around the bend…
10. Visiting the North Pole
Our hostess announced that we had finally reached the North Pole, and as we got closer we could see children dressed as Elves dancing and waving less than 20 feet from the train tracks.
There were smiles all around as everyone sang Christmas carols like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” only to realize that Santa himself had magically transported his massive sleigh into the center of the action!
It was a wonderful way to end our Bryson City Polar Express Train ride, not to mention a joyous way to celebrate the life of a man who loved Christmas just as much as we do.
Rest in Peace Keith Gabbett, July 3, 1942-December 19, 2022. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett