December 2023

Joy Ride: Children, Families Enjoy Polar Express Experience

December 13, 2023    |  

“The Polar Express” came to life in the heart of West Baltimore on Dec. 8 as local children and families embarked on a whimsical journey aboard the Polar Express Experience at the historic B&O Railroad Museum. The enchanting train ride evoked memories of the beloved 2004 holiday movie, and included music and dancing, cookies and cocoa, golden tickets, and of course the special guest, Santa Claus himself.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) Office of Community Engagement (OCE) organized the event, providing 150 tickets to families from West Baltimore. It was a gesture of holiday spirit that went beyond mere festivities; it was a testament to the University’s commitment to nurturing meaningful relationships with the community it serves.

Families on the Polar Express sipped hot chocolate and followed along with the book as the story played on the speakers.

Families on the Polar Express sipped hot chocolate and followed along with the book as the story played on the speakers.

“This time of year is all about making memories and having fun, but it can be such a busy and costly season for everyone,” said Sarah Porter, MSW, associate director of community programs at OCE. “We are just happy to be able to relieve some of that pressure for the families in our community. Above all, we are just excited to share the holiday spirit with our community.”

(See a photo gallery below.)

Before the train’s departure, excitement bubbled among the participating children as they were handed copies of “The Polar Express” book and a set of Christmas pajamas matching those worn by the characters in the story. As the passengers settled into their seats, the conductor’s voice resonated through the speakers, and a collective cheer heralded the arrival of dancing chefs bearing hot chocolate and cookies.

“The best part of the train ride was the hot chocolate,” said Cameron Green, Polar Express passenger and UMB Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL) member. “I had to get two because that’s how good it was.”

Amid the rhythmic rocking of the train, families gathered around, “Polar Express” books in hand, reading the timeless story together. The journey was more than a locomotive ride, it was also a communal celebration of the holiday spirit, uniting hearts through the magic of storytelling.

“This takes me back to that Christmas morning anxious excitement,” said Mark Williams, Polar Express passenger and parent. “When my sons and I took a picture with Santa on the train, I felt like a kid all over again.”

A special visit from Santa Claus marked the climax of the adventure, as he strolled through the train, extending greetings and capturing cherished selfies with each family. Every child received a silver bell from Santa’s sleigh — a token echoing the story’s sentiment, ringing only for those who believe.

The enchantment continued beyond the train’s final stop. Exiting the train, families were greeted by the sight of large wooden sliding doors unveiling a North Pole display. Complete with snow flurries, a towering Christmas tree, and an opportunity to take a photo with Santa, the scene was a picturesque postscript to the Polar Express journey.

Inside the museum’s Roundhouse, tables awaited, offering children the chance to engage in holiday crafts, color festive ornaments, and pen heartfelt letters to Santa. The immersive experience extended to the museum’s train exhibits, where visitors explored historic train cars and marveled at intricate miniature railroad displays.

UMB’s commitment to fostering relationships with the community was palpable in every festive detail. The University’s partnerships with the B&O Railroad Museum, the University of Maryland BioPark, and the Under Armour Foundation were crucial in making this experience possible.

“The Southwest Baltimore community is so dear to all of us at the BioPark,” said Jane Shaab, MBA, associate vice president for economic development at UMB and executive director of the BioPark. “We love supporting special, fun activities that bring cheer to our neighbors while also highlighting the wonderful amenities in our area, like the B&O Railroad Museum.

“The Polar Express Experience is a lovely opportunity to do just that and to bring a little bit of holiday magic and lots of smiles to everyone involved,” she added. “We’re so pleased to support the strong work of our UMB Community Engagement Center.”

OCE staff were hopeful that the strong work would pay off with lasting memories. It certainly did for Celestine King, Polar Express passenger and PAL member, who exclaimed, “The best part of the train ride was when I got to give Santa a high-five and take a picture!”