The Wensleydale Railway Polar Express Train Ride: The Ultimate Festive Experience [Review]

January 12, 2020

DISCLOSURE: AD / This post was made possible by the provision of cost-free tickets from WENSLEYDALE RAILWAY. All imagery, wording & opinion expressed are my own.

It’s the start of a new year and the Christmas decorations have been packed away for another 11 months, however I’m not quite done with Christmas yet. (Neither is the toddler to be fair, he’s still watching The Grinch.) I’m talking about the one and only Polar Express train ride that I haven’t been able to sit down and tell you about until now.

You may remember when, back in August (now last year), we were invited along to the Wensleydale Railway for a special press day, ahead of their new Christmas event, The Polar Express Train Ride. It was a funny thing meeting Father Christmas in the height of summer but because I have a childlike thing for all that’s festive, I was all down for it.

While the actual Polar Express engine wasn’t with us that day, our insight was excitingly promising. We’d seen and heard and tasted what was yet to come in December and we could not wait. So it became the highlight on the calendar, second only to Christmas Day itself. The Polar Express Train Ride was surely the ultimate festive experience that would beat all other Christmas experiences. So – did it deliver?

With Christmas just days away, the time came to board the Polar Express. Of course it had to be one of the wettest, most miserable of days we’d had that month, and had I’d been the superstitious sort I’d have taken it as a sign.

I’d arranged for our friends to join us on our trip to the North Pole, so, golden tickets at the ready and dressed in our pyjamas, we were all Leeming bound. With our ride booked for quarter to five in the afternoon, and to ensure we had plenty time to make the most of the entertainment beforehand, we set off early.

It was just as well we’d given ourselves the extra time because we needed it. The event management had arranged to operate a park and ride from Leeming Bar services, and it wasn’t the smoothest way to begin our experience. Coming off the A1, we headed toward what was signed as the park and ride carpark, only to be volleyed back and forth between carparks by attendants telling us to drive to the other side. It was like a game only less fun.

Once we’d finally got parked up we needed to find a coach. Easy enough; walking back up to the services reception one was already waiting. We sat down, chatted with our friends for a bit and then a bus conductor came on board asking us to now come off the coach to go check in at reception. Wondering why this wasn’t said before we actually boarded, our friends were told they could stay on and wait for us, while we “checked in”. Clamouring off the coach and into reception I headed to a gentleman who didn’t seem all that sure why I was handing him my ticket email, and after a brief glance he proceeded to advise us to “now board a coach”. Which. We. Had. Just. Done. {Deep breath}

Heading back out to board our coach (again) we were met with, well, no coach. It had left with our friends, without us and the tickets. My eyes, by this point, I’m sure, were now rolling so far into the back of my head I could see my sanity departing.

Thankfully, another coach did come along and we weren’t stood in the rain too long. A short drive away we finally reached our destination, the station.

I was so incensed the coach had separated us from our friends, I’d spent the best part of the journey stressing about the possibility of never finding them again, so when we arrived it was a relief my friend popped out of the marquee to say where they were.

What was normally the railway’s carpark was today transformed into a fairy lit area of wooden chalets selling hot food, drinks and fluorescent kids lights, which sadly because of the rain, we, like it appeared most others were thinking, avoided in favour of getting ourselves dry under cover.

There was a foyer just inside the marquee where several high tables were in situ for guests to stand at with their food and beverages before heading into the main area. A brightly painted Polar Express gateway led you into the room, where rows of fold out chairs faced a projector screen airing the Polar Express movie. Even with the earlier parking fiasco, we had plenty, perhaps too much, time to play with and there were only a few other pyjama clad families milling around the marquee, half watching the movie, half anxiously watching their hyper kids charge around the vast tent. (Or maybe that was just me.)

The marquee set up was a strange one. Aside from turning up to watch the Polar Express movie halfway though, there wasn’t anything in the way of entertainment going on. We also realised there wasn’t a member of staff to be seen, they must have all been somewhere outside, so no one had even greeted up when we arrived.

Steadily the room filled up, with families lining the marquee walls and huddling tight behind us on the back seats; the atmosphere buzzing with chatter and the heat of a train’s worth of passengers.

Finally pre-entertainment began. An enthusiastic young actor-come-MC bounced to the forefront of the marquee, charging the audience up through renditions of, unrelated to Polar Express, songs, and panto style jeering, before introducing a young woman (who we’re told is “Noelle”) and a random tale of “finding Noelle’s Christmas spirit” ensued. The kids in the crowd seemed to enjoy it and I whooped when prompted, if only out of politeness and not wanting to be the party pooper. It just didn’t feel particularly Polar Express-y.

And with the room feeling so loud and enclosed, my anxiety soared, making me feel panicky and stressed and hot, and wishing I hadn’t put my thermals on beneath my PJs after all.

Through the volume of the entertainment we could hear the pelting rain thundering above us. And so when we came to leave the tent – a mass descend to the stage and out the other side – we suddenly found ourselves out in the elements on the platform.

Waiting for the train to pull into the station was exciting, but because we were just so sodden – the wind lashing the rain into our faces and soaking through what jackets we did have on – it couldn’t come quick enough. When it did chug in, the thrill was palpable; the smoke emanated the platform and even though we could barely make out the shape of the express in the dark, the unmistakable headlamp made its entrance known.

Boarding the express brought huge relief, and once we’d located our seats, as per allotted on our booking form, I was surprised by how less stressful this bit was. Even with the carriage full, it didn’t feel crowded and I felt I could finally relax into the experience.

You could tell we weren’t the first passengers on the train that day though. Shuffling into the booths, I curled my nose up at the sight of chunky biscuit crumbs all over our seats. Hmm, no dustpan or brush had been round these parts lately, I thought. So on first impressions, attention to detail and cleanliness wasn’t exactly first class.

With our toddlers sat upon on knees, we had room to sit as two families together in one booth. It did mean less room to move, but we were snug and happy to cuddle up.

With the soundtrack playing through the speaker, our journey on the train unfolded into the story of the Polar Express, seeing us enter key scenes such as the hot chocolate arrival, the hobo (who came inside because he couldn’t actually sit on top of the train) and the visit to the North Pole to meet Santa.

Of course we didn’t actually end up at the North Pole, but the train did depart from the station, taking us half an hour up the line to a mock up Christmassy scene where Santa awaited to board the train himself. I can only guess this part though as our carriage made a swift pass by and we couldn’t see much of anything through the dark.

I couldn’t wait for Reuben to be presented with “the first gift of Christmas” which Santa was handing out to each of us. I spotted him appear in the carriage further up and gave a cheer, and it wasn’t long before he reached our seats.

He was a very convincing Father Christmas: a slight of figure older guy with a real beard who looked every inch the part. But he was very quiet; he barely spoke a word and there were no ho-ho-hos or jolly musings. He came by our seats and handed us the “first gift of Christmas” bell. Yes, a bell, but it’s beautiful one to be fair. In a polished chromium finish, and embossed with the Polar Express brand, the silver bell rings (to prove you believe!) and hangs from a leatherette cord.

While thankfully we were able to grab a photo with the big man himself which Reuben fully delighted in, it seemed the most important part of the experience – meeting Santa – was sadly fleeting in its presence.

Image taken from press day post

Judging by what we saw from the press day back in August, I couldn’t escape the sense of underwhelm. And it wasn’t because we’d seen it all before, because we hadn’t. It was simply not as good.

Our friends, too, had noticed things that weren’t right: of four toilets onboard, only one was working. And it was the decoration too: while the festive garlands were the same, it was odd to find generic lanterns and not the Polar Express branded lanterns on the table instead, and some of the tables didn’t even have one.

Disappointingly, the acting parts didn’t feel authentic either. The staff were friendly enough; the cooks were the most engaging of them all, who would go past our table and make a witty comment, and brought us our hot chocolates and cookies. The conductor was pleasant, but he lacked the air of authority and charm. And the hobo character was a real odd one; he looked nothing like the hobo from the film or the press event, so much so we guessed who he was just because there was no one else in the carriage!

Our return ride back was quicker than the earlier steady jaunt and the soundtrack changed to generic Christmas songs like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that we all sang along to. It was fun; the boys, by this point, were cavorting in the aisle beside our seats and we joined in with the camaraderie that felt more relaxed now that acting and the experience was basically over.

When we climbed off the train we seized the chance to get a closer look of the engine, and that was a great way to end the experience. The size of it was incredible and with its commanding black exterior and glaring headlamp, it looked just like the real deal.

We didn’t want to hang around afterwards; the way out sent you through the gift shop and it was rammed, so we called it a day and headed out to catch a coach. I had a headache coming on and Reuben was looking forward to his McDonalds Happy Meal anyway, and, of course, the rain had now subsided to a drizzle.

So was the Polar Express Train Ride the all-out festive experience I was hoping it would be? Not particularly, no. The rain took the shine out of it, but this sadly wasn’t the problem.

Was it toddler friendly? Well, Reuben hated the entertainment. If you could eliminate the marquee part of the experience, the train ride itself was a lovely family experience.

I hate to keep comparing to the press day but it existed for a reason: to give us a taste of what to expect when the experience landed at Christmastime. I remember the conductor we’d met back in August gave Reuben special attention, chatted to him and put his hat on Reuben’s head but we didn’t see much of our different conductor on this December day. He clearly had a lot more passengers across two carriages to tend to, and while that was to be expected, it also shouldn’t have been so. Tickets are not cheap and without personal attention, what’s your experience?

With the Polar Express Train Ride set to return next Christmas (this 2020 season), I’d hope for improvements across the experience. First of all, the park and ride system was dreadful – parking attendants need to know what they’re doing and coaches shouldn’t be leaving passengers behind. Then the pre-entertainment needs overhauling. It was pretty lacking and low quality – not what you expect from a brand affiliated to Warner Bros..

I love the Polar Express movie so to make an experience from the modern Christmas classic is where childlike dreams are made. It gives you all the festive feels, gets you excited for Christmas and makes for a perfect family outing. Just beware its popularity means it’s manic. If any of your party are sensitive to noise and overstimulation, I’d definitely suggest you take ear defenders.

And a raincoat for everyone, because it still rains at Christmas!

Have you been on the Polar Express Train Ride? How was your experience? Maybe you’re thinking of taking the kids next time – what are you most looking forward to? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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