On an average day, the B&O Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore displays the history of trains and the railroads in Baltimore, but in December, the museum is transformed into the North Pole. The trains are decorated with garland, lighting displays are set up from wall to wall, snow machines blow flurries through the air, and a giant tree stands in the middle of the museum’s Roundhouse. The price of admission to this magical holiday experience is a train ticket on the Polar Express.
On Dec. 19, children and families from West Baltimore were given tickets to ride the Polar Express Experience, an immersive holiday-themed train ride at the B&O Railroad Museum that’s based on the best-selling novel and animated movie “The Polar Express.” The tickets were provided by a sponsorship from the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) in a collaboration between UMB’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs (OCPA) and Office of Community Engagement (OCE).
“The holiday season is one of the best times to build and reinforce positive relationships, and that’s what we’re doing with our neighbors at the Polar Express Experience,” said Bill Joyner, JD, MSW, UMB’s associate vice president of community engagement. “We're engaging in the history of Southwest Baltimore here at the railroad museum. We’re sharing in the spirit of the holidays and celebrating our shared history, our shared relationships, and our shared happiness with our families and neighbors.”
Before boarding the train, all of the participating children were given the “The Polar Express” book and a set of Christmas pajamas to wear just like the characters in the story.
“We just wanted the kids to have a nice little wintertime experience and make lasting memories as a family,” said Nadine Bah, a mother from Hollins Market. “My kids had such a good time. My daughter was really excited for us to put on our pajamas and wear them on the train.”
Once the families were seated on the train, the conductor asked over the speakers if anyone needed refreshments. A cheer from the crowd cued several dancing chefs who brought out hot chocolate and cookies for everyone. Then, as the train began to chug along to the North Pole, everyone gathered around their “Polar Express” books to read the story aloud together.
“I loved the hot chocolate and cookies on the train,” said 5-year-old Jalin. “They danced and sang and read our books! It was amazing!”
The train ride concluded with a special visit from Santa Claus, who walked up and down the train aisle to say hello and Merry Christmas to all the children. Each child also received a silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. In the story, Santa gives a magic bell as the first gift of Christmas that only rings for those who believe. Aboard the Polar Express Experience, the train car was filled with a festive jingling sound as the children shook their silver bells to show that they believed.
The Christmas magic did not end when the train stopped. When the families departed from the train, they headed to the large, wooden sliding doors at the front of the museum’s Roundhouse. The doors opened to reveal a North Pole display complete with snow, a giant Christmas tree, and a photo-op with Santa.
“We’re here at the North Pole! We’re meeting Santa and seeing a big Christmas tree!” 5-year-old Amarii said as she ran through the entrance of the Roundhouse. “Everyone should come here, and they’ll have a Merry Christmas!”
There also were tables set up for children to make holiday crafts, color festive pictures, and write letters to Santa. This was all in addition to the train exhibits set up at the B&O Railroad Museum that allowed visitors to walk inside historic train cars and marvel at intricate miniature railroad displays.
“It was such a joy to be invited here for the Polar Express this year,” said Shaqana Owens, a West Baltimore community member. “I was so excited to get the call from UMB to participate in this for free. My son loves ‘The Polar Express’ book, and he loves trains, so this was perfect for him. We’re just here making memories and having a fun time, and that’s what the holidays are all about.”
The sponsorship of more than 70 tickets to the Polar Express Experience was spearheaded by Kristi McGuire, director of marketing and communications, OCPA, and Liv Myers, program coordinator, OCE. Every seat on the train was filled, and organizers hope to bring this immersive holiday experience to even more families next year.
“I’m just over the moon seeing our neighbors and families sharing this amazing experience,” Joyner said. “I can't wait to do this again next year.”