Whistles holler as a train chug-chug-chugs to a halt, wheels screeching. A pajama-clad child stares up wide-eyed as the doors slide open, flooding the platform with soft yellow light. His hair is tousled by a gust of wind that whooshes in behind the train. A tinge of magic glimmers in his eyes as he grips the handrail and hoists himself up giant-sized steps into the pulsing locomotive.
Sound familiar? If you've ever read The Polar Express, it should. But this isn't the sleepy-eyed character from the beloved children's book standing awestruck on the platform. It's your own child, gaping open-mouthed as the magical tale unfurls before him.
All around Chicago, Polar Express trains roll out of Metra stations and steam around museum grounds as Christmas approaches. "North Poles" spring up from Glen Ellyn to South Elgin. Not quite your own backyard, but pretty darn close.
Hundreds of children pull on mittens and scarves and wait in anticipation for a chance to live out the tale penned by Chris Van Allsburg more than 20 years ago. Most trips feature a reading of the adored story with cookies and milk. All include visits with Santa.
Kids are encouraged to come in pajamas, but make sure to bundle them up against the cold. If your child has never ridden the train before, warn him about the loud noises and staying a safe distance from the tracks on the platform. Then sit back and watch the excitement bloom on his face as he gets swept up into a magical Christmas adventure.
To help you hunt down a Polar Express train ride in your area, we rounded up a few in the city and suburbs. Slots fill up fast, so make sure to call early.
West Chicago Park District
When: 12:15-2:40 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: West Chicago Metra Station, 508 W. Main St.
Price: $8, $7 residents
Get tickets: (630) 231-9474 or www.we-goparks.org/trips.htm
This popular train trip on the holiday-decorated Metra departs from the West Chicago Train Depot for a ride kids won't soon forget. Passengers snack on cookies and juice, hear the story of The Polar Express and sing Christmas carols as they make the journey to and from the "North Pole" to meet and take pictures with Santa. Each child takes home a "first gift of Christmas" and every family gets a copy of the book to enjoy over and over. Waiver required to ride.
When: 9:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Dec. 3
Where: Lisle Metra Station, 1000 Front St.
Get tickets: (800) 733-9811 or www.stayinlisle.com
Board the train at the Lisle Metra station and zip all the way to the North Pole (a.k.a. Union Station in Chicago). Santa and his helpers will be along for the ride dressed in their holiday best to take pictures and sing along with Christmas carols. Tickets go on sale Nov. 1 at various locations in Lisle (check the Web site for locations).
Blackberry Farm's Pioneer Village
When: 5-8 p.m. Nov. 25-26, Dec. 2-3
Where: 100 S. Barnes Road, Aurora
Get tickets: (630) 892-1550 or www.foxvalleyparkdistrict.org
Step onto the train and back in time to steam through the old-fashioned village decked out for the holidays, duck into the century-and-a-half old log cabin and cozy up at the one-room schoolhouse for a reading of The Polar Express (going on continuously throughout the evening). Santa and Mrs. Claus will be on hand for photos and visits. Kids can't get enough of the train? Ride it to their heart's content. Just make sure their coats are zipped and mittens are pulled on, since the attractions are mainly outside. Unlike most Polar Express events, reservations are not required.
Glen Ellyn Park District
When: 9:25-10:25 a.m. and 1:25-2:25 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: Glen Ellyn Metra Station, 551 Crescent Blvd.
Price: $24, $16 residents
Get tickets: (630) 858-2462 or www.gepark.org
While they're waiting for the real-life version of the Polar Express to arrive at the Glen Ellyn train station, Santa's helpers hand children their own copy of the book. Kids settle into their seats and hear the book read aloud on the way to Elburn where Santa awaits their arrival. Look forward to cookies and milk and sing-along carols on the ride back. As a memento of the trip, each child leaves with a bell from Santa.