The Polar Express in Durango Colorado, Pandemic Edition
A long time ago the hubs had a work trip to Durango, Colorado and he came back raving about 2 things. Number one, the sushi. I am still very confused about how a mountain town could have the best sushi he’s ever had, but you know, whatever man. Number two, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He didn’t actually ride the train back then but for years afterward he talked about how amazing it must be to do a Polar Express ride in a mountain town and he vowed to take us one day.
Then, just when we decided it was the perfect year for us to go, Covid happened. We had assumed the trip was out and were about to add our Durango trip to the tally of Covid-ruined things, when tickets went on sale. We have never booked a trip so fast.
Though we haven’t been on any other Polar Express rides, I’ve done enough research on the various railways to get the gist of how they generally run. Now that we’ve taken a trip in the days of Covid, I feel like I have a decent ability to provide some info to help make the most of your trip to the North Pole.
Making the most of your trip
- Pajamas. This is a given and has nothing to do with Covid, but if you don’t wear them you’ll wish you did. I got my family all new button-down flannel PJs with matching masks (thank you Old Navy!), but we also saw plenty of adults in Grinch onesies and everything in between. My own insider tip: We put our pajamas on over our clothes (that’s right, flannel pants right over our jeans) so that we were comfortable without our coats. We still brought them, but none of us wore coats until we were walking back to the car. No coats makes for better PJ pictures and meant we were perfectly comfortable with the train windows open (see #6).
- Booking. First of all, book as soon as possible. Any Polar Express ride sells out quickly, especially in the more highly-desired cars. Most of the time, when Covid isn’t an issue, tickets go on sale late summer or early fall. With fewer people wanting to book, Covid may actually work to your advantage as seats may still be available! CLICK HERE for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad!
- Selecting a car. They have several different classes of car to choose from and we chose the Alamosa Parlor car. The main reason we chose this particular one was that it was heated. I can’t confirm that other classes of cars are not, but it wasn’t clearly stated either way. I also wanted to be able to face each other and some cars have seating arrangements more like a bus where each seat faces forward. I didn’t want to have to keep turning around to see each other. Plus, I thought having a table would be easier for the kids with hot chocolate. As it turns out, the cookie and hot chocolate are served after you get off the train at the North Pole and the windows have to be open (as with everything, due to Covid). I still would have chosen this car because I liked the seating arrangement even without the need for a table, but if facing each other isn’t a big deal for you, you could save a lot of money on a cheaper car.
- Selecting a time. An earlier ride, before sunset, would be best for pictures (please excuse the quality of these pictures. You know this kills me!), but I just felt like it would be a little more magical after dark. So it’s really a give-and-take situation no matter what time you choose. Just don’t forget to factor in your kids’ bedtime!
- Arrive early. Due to Covid, they ask that guests only arrive up to 45 minutes prior to departure and no more. But you still don’t want to arrive too late. The pre-ride show starts 15 minutes prior to departure and with littles you’ll want to get a good spot for them to see (even with fewer crowds due to lower capacity). Before the show starts you have to pick up tickets at the ticket window (even if you printed them from home) and you also have to walk from the parking lot. Plus you have to get a few good pictures in with the backdrops before the ride (these are in the same building as the ticket window). We got there exactly 45 minutes prior to departure and it was perfect. Another insider tip: Most people also visited the gift shop prior to riding, but we went after our ride and we were the only ones in the shop.
- Be aware of Covid changes and restrictions.
- First of those, not surprisingly, is the mask requirement. Sadly, this is just life now.
- Our car was heated, but when I got an email that due to Covid they would have to leave windows open I was pretty concerned about the cold. But when we arrived and realized the windows only open about 8 inches from the bottom, it really wasn’t a big deal. In fact, Hudson LOVED being able to see out the window easily and to hang his arm out and wave to everyone outside. We weren’t cold at all.
- When you get on the train, there is a bag with your ceramic souvenir mugs in your seat, but you don’t get your hot chocolate until you exit the train at the North Pole, where it is served in a disposable cup. That’s also where you get your pre-packaged snickerdoodle cookie and they hand you your bell from a magnetic pole.
- Santa also doesn’t greet the riders on the train. When you get off at the North Pole, you wait in line to have a socially distanced visit with the big guy (who may or may not have a fake beard). The line didn’t take too long, especially because it snakes past carolers, real reindeer, through Santa’s Christmas tree barn, and the D&SNG museum before you get to the end.
- Most of these changes aren’t ideal, but they clearly did everything they could to keep passengers as safe as possible, and without them I don’t think the Polar Express could operate this year. As with everything, it is what you make it. If you’re determined to have a good attitude and have fun, that’s exactly what you’ll do.
Covid has messed up a lot of things, but some things never change. They still read the book as you rattle down the tracks and my kids were so excited about the sheer size of the book itself. Honestly, so was I. The conductor still punches your ticket, and even though we didn’t receive a message in ours (let’s be honest, that would have been close to impossible), the cuttings still snowed down on our heads and made us all laugh. The train heads to the edge of town and then is stopped by “caribou” blocking the tracks. Once the caribou is cleared, the train starts heading back the other way though my youngest didn’t even notice. It passes the depot and ends at the North Pole, just as it should.
As I said before, this was our first Polar Express experience, and though our adult experience included a few small disappointments because of that dang virus, the ride was still completely magical for our kids.