What It’s Like To Ride The Polar Express in Bryson City, North Carolina

ALL ABOARD! Grab your finest pajamas and a heart open to the magic of Christmas – it’s time to ride the Polar Express and pick up Santa from the North Pole Village.

conductor walking beside diesel great smoky  mountains historic train
Polar Express Train

Watch the joy on your children’s faces as they enjoy a real life version of this beloved Christmas story and movie onboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) historic train.

In case you didn’t know, The Polar Express is a popular book by Chris Van Allsburg about a magical train ride on Christmas Eve, taking a young boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. In 2004, an animated movie version was created starring Tom Hanks that was full of song and celebration and poignant messages.

It’s such a magical experience that 90,000 people ride The Polar Express train ride in Bryson City, NC each Holiday Season, making it one of the most popular Christmas experiences in North Carolina.

Bryson City, North Carolina

Aerial via of a town called Bryson City
Bryson City

Bryson City is a cute mountain outdoor adventure town located at the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That means there are plenty of other things for you to enjoy while visiting for Christmas. We say, stay a few extra days and make the most of it!

It’s about a five hour drive from Raleigh.

The magic does not start and end with the conductor’s whistle. Bryson City goes all out to keep the Christmas spirit of the experience alive by decorating the entire town with over 200,000 LED Christmas lights. I was quite impressed driving in and think it’s the most Christmassy town I’ve visited so far in the USA.

Bryson City at night
So pretty at night

We visited Bryson City in the Fall last year, right on opening night for the Polar Express (as guests of Explore Bryson City). It’s certainly one of the best things to do in Bryson City during the holiday season!

In this guide, we’ll share what the Polar Express Train in Bryson City NC is like, including helpful information and tips on tickets, who it’s best suited for, and other things to do in Bryson City either before or after the attraction.

NEED to Know: Polar Express Train Tickets, Dates, and Times

gift shop lit up at night with christmas lights

For 2022, the Polar Express runs from November 10 – Dec 31. There are three train journeys each night: 5pm, 6:40pm, and 8:20pm and each trip goes for 1 and 1/4 hours.

There are several ticket classes you can choose from, each having different amenities and features.

The First and Premium Class will include souvenir mugs, additional treats. Some classes will have windows you can open or close. Since it’s so cold, I think keeping them closed is the way to go and doesn’t impact the magic!

Tickets start at $44 for adults and $29 for kids in Coach Class up to $94 for adults and $69 for kids in First Class.

girl smiling with a Polar Express golden ticket

As we did not experience First Class, I can’t say for sure whether they’d be worth the extra price. I don’t think I would pay it for our family, but our kids are much older and so not as swept up in the magic of it.

While you can book tickets on the day, it is highly recommend you purchase them in advance. This is a top North Carolina Mountains attraction and can book out quickly.

A few tips:

beer garden of the nantahala brewing
Nantahala Brewing Company
  • I think the second train is optimal for nighttime light viewing, to give you time to eat dinner before the train, and for an earlier finish – especially for younger kids!
  • Don’t go on the opening night. As it’s the first time everyone does the show, there could be a few first night jitters and hiccups. Nothing major happened for us, and I’m sure little kids wouldn’t notice, but it was just something I noticed enough to share as a tip!
  • The Polar Express is a North Carolina Christmas attraction that is best suited to families with younger kids. Having said that our teen still enjoyed it, even though she complained it was cheesy, and as you’ll see in our video below, our tween, loved it as did Big Kid Craig.
  • Younger children will love riding the Polar Express in their pajamas. We didn’t know that was a thing until we saw all these people wandering around the streets of Bryson City in pajamas, wondering what was going on. It was only when we arrived at the station that we realized!
  • If you plan on eating at a downtown restaurant before your train journey, you will need to reserve and eat well in advance. Wait times are extremely long during Polar Express Season in Bryson City.
  • A good option for food is the Nantahala Brewing Company on one of the side streets. Thankfully it wasn’t as busy and service was fast. They have a large outdoor beer garden with a grassed area for the kids to play, plenty of seating, and cozy brick fire pits. They even had live music when we visited. I loved the casual ambiance and our chicken wings and pulled pork meals were great!

Check in: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot

The Polar Express experiences begins with your arrival to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot located right in downtown Bryson City.

polar express train nc
Photo opps at the depot

You’ll receive your golden ticket for the train journey – which is part of the experience so don’t lose it. It’s recommended you arrive an hour before your scheduled departure.

You can peruse the Christmas stores while you wait, have your photo taken at the Christmas tree, or watch a spectacular light show while waiting for the train. There is also a red caboose in the main street which is set up for family Christmas photos.

bryson city north carolina 21
The red caboose

We liked Uncle Bunky’s Christmas cottage for a wide variety of Christmas items including ornaments, glassware, home décor, and stuffed animals.

things to do in bryson city north carolina
Uncle Bunky’s

We picked up a Bryson City Christmas ornament for our tree. With each of the Christmas experiences we have on our travels, we collect an ornament to remind us of the stores we have made together. 

You an also do these after the train ride or visit here at any time during the day as well.

The Polar Express Train

people watching The Polar Express arrive

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) historic train depot is in the heart of Bryson City.

The Railroad has steam and diesel trains, and has may different scenic, seasonal, and themed train rides featuring food, wine and spirits tastings, fall foliage journeys, of course, the Polar Express.

The diesel train is used for the Polar Express, except for Christmas Eve and New Years Eve when they use the special steam train (for a higher price).

The train arrives at the station with white rope lighting around the exterior edges of each car and guards waving to welcome you.

All classes except coach will have assigned seating, so you’ll want to arrive early if you’re in coach and want to choose your seat. The guards are good at helping you get seats together with your group.

On the Polar Express Train

Expect high energy once aboard the Polar Express. As soon as everyone gets settled into their seats the performance begins with the attendees singing and dancing their way through the carriages.

Characters from the story who perform include including hobo, show conductors, chefs, waiters, dancing elves and Hero Boy.

Of course, they deliver a cup of hot chocolate and a snickerdoodle cookie to all passengers while singing the hit Hot Chocolate song from the movie.

We made sure to make the most of the experience by singing and dancing along. Savannah even jumped up to dance with our attendee.

conductor showing pictures from the Polar Express book to young girl on the train

There are calm moments on the train as well. As you ride along in the train, the story book is read over the speakers (which can be hardd to hear). The attendees walk up and down the carriage flipping the pages of the book so kids can follow along.

A photographer will also come around to take a fun photo with your group pointing at the bell!

The Polar Express, Bryson City

And keep that golden ticket out because the conductor will punch hundreds of holes in it, just like they do in the movie!

There is not a lot to see out the windows along the way. You will see some homes dressed in Christmas lights, keeping the integrity of the magical Polar Express experience in Bryson City.

But once you arrive in the North Pole Village – where the train turns around- you’ll see quite a fun light display out the window.

North Pole Village 

santa and his helpers waving at the North Pole Village
The North Pole Village

I thought the North Pole Village was fun. It’s illuminated by 62,000 colorful lights, dancing elves, excited helpers and Santa.

I really loved the enthusiasm of everyone standing out in the freezing weather and entertaining us all watching from the warmth of the train. That’s Christmas magic right there!

The Polar Express, Bryson City

This is when Santa boards the Polar Express and will make his way through the train on the return journey home. He stops to greet all children on the train, chatting with them and giving each passenger a special gift – their own silver sleigh bell.

You can ring it as you sing carols all the way back to Bryson City Depot. All four of our bells are now sitting on our Christmas tree – another Holiday memory for us to share when we put up our Christmas year each year.

girl holding a bell
You just have to believe!

This is a fantastic Bryson City attraction for families with younger kids. It’s a fantastic way to get them into the spirit and believe in the magic of Christmas.

Polar Express Video

Watch our video below. It will give you the best insight into what the Polar Express is like to ride:

Smoky Mountains Train Museum

people looking at model trains

Admission to the Smoky Mountains Train Museum is included as part of your Polar Express ticket. It’s located at the Depot. Leave time before your departure or come back the next day as we did. (keep your tickets).

The museum houses the largest collection of Lionel trains with over 7,000 pieces of locomotives, rolling stock, trackside details and accessories. Some pieces date back to 1918 and are displayed in enclosed floor to ceiling wall length cases.

Kids will love the two large interactive set ups and intricate displays. There’s even a Christmas train with Santa waving on the back.

Is the Polar Express Train Worth it?

The Polar Express train is a relatively expensive Christmas experience in North Carolina, especially if you have a large family.

Whether it is worth it, depends on how old your children are, and how much they either love trains, the magic of the Polar Express Story, and of course, Christmas!

Most people will also have to factor in the expense of taking a vacation in Bryson City as well – which I do think is worth it. If you are going to pay all that money, I would definitely factor a little more into your budget to explore Bryson City and make it an even better family vacation.

I wouldn’t personally go JUST to experience the Polar Express alone all the way from Raleigh, but it was a fun addition to our Fall getaway to Bryson City.

For more tips on things to do in and around Bryson City, including the Great Smoky Mountains and places to eat and drink, click to read our Bryson City guide.

Where to stay in Bryson City

cabin in the mountains surrounded by fall foliage

We stayed in a cozy mountain cabin with spectacular views about 30-minutes south of Bryson City. We loved the open plan and loft bedroom for the girls. It was well stocked with videos, games, kitchen appliances, and cookware. Plus, there was a fireplace, huge deck and fire pit area.

It’s the perfect accommodation if you plan to stay for several days with some downtime to enjoy the cabin!

Because we were so busy exploring the Bryson City region, we didn’t get much of a chance to experience the cabin. And the extra 30-minute mountain drive is a little challenging if you have a busy schedule! Driving home late at night also wasn’t optimal.

Bryson City vacation rentals closer to downtown might be a better option for you. (see available options here or here.)

Or, Savannah and I stayed at the Stonebrook Lodge in downtown Bryson City when we passed through here for a night on our Chattanooga Road trip. It’s a great accommodation option and is only a few minutes walk to the train depot.

You can also find more options here:

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polar express 1 1

Have you ridden the Polar Express? Did you feel it was worth it? Share your stories and tips in the comments below.

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