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Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Polar Express / Bryson City, NC

"The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on."
- The Polar Express

On Saturday, December 15, I took my 7 year old to Bryson City, NC and surprised her with a new pair of pajamas and a golden ticket to ride The Polar Express on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Her verdict? "It's the best day of my life!"

We arrived in Bryson City a little early so we could eat dinner before boarding the train. We settled on one of the only open restaurants (on a Saturday evening for dinner!), The Station Restaurant. It is conveniently located across the street from the train station. That might be about all it has going for it though - the food was bland, the service was slow and less than stellar, and the restaurant itself was overfilled with tables and customers making it difficult to walk to your table, the restroom, or back to the front door. We actually noticed a few tables of customers get up and leave after not receiving any service for 15+ minutes. The food was edible, but bland and tasteless. They were out of nearly every type of beer on the menu, and our order of "boneless chicken wings" were actually three chicken tenders microwaved with some buffalo sauce. The smoked trout dip was bland and tasteless. They also did not have any dessert - not a single item! We ended up walking across the street to FryDays and Sundaes where we each enjoyed a delicious ice cream cone for dessert before boarding the train.

Outside the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train station

Thirty minutes prior to the scheduled departure time for the train, we began walking down to the boarding area. This is the only area we think the GSMR was lacking - the organization and direction prior to boarding. They tried to keep the crowd contained to one side of a fence, but it didn't work, and there were too many customers and not enough GSMR staff directing traffic. Once we heard "All Aboard!" we boarded the train into our assigned car, and found seats. We were in coach class on the Bryson City car, so it was open seating. The two staff members assigned to our car were absolutely spectacular - Mr. Jangle and Dasher, as they called themselves. They were dressed as chefs, as in The Polar Express movie, and really went above and beyond to make the train ride not just enjoyable, but magical, for the kids. They danced up and down the aisles, stopped to take a few minutes to talk to every single child, and served cookies and hot cocoa. They read The Polar Express book to the kids, and walked the aisle to show the pictures in the book. The conductor of the train even came through the car and punched all of the kids' golden tickets.

Golden Ticket to ride the Polar Express 
Golden Ticket to ride the Polar Express

When we arrived at The North Pole, Mr. Jangle and Dasher identified all the houses decorated with lights - Santa and Mrs. Claus' house, the head elf's home, Rudolph's house, the toy factory, and on and on...even the one that wasn't lit up was identified as The Grinch's house. Santa boarded the train at The North Pole stop, and walked through every car with an elf to give each child a silver bell from his sleigh.

Santa giving a silver bell from his sleigh 
Santa giving a silver bell from his sleigh

Mr. Jangle and Dasher led our train car in a sing-a-long on the way back to the station, complete with a boys vs. girls contest for singing Deck the Halls the loudest, and an interactive motion for each of the 12 Days of Christmas. My 7 year old was exhausted, but thrilled to have been able to ride The Polar Express. She was all grins and smiles the entire trip, and the souvenir sleigh bell and golden ticket really made it all that much more special for her. This is definitely a trip we will be taking again!

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