PALESTINE – Hitch a ride on Texas State Railroad's Polar Express Train Ride, and you'll rediscover the magic of being a child at Christmas time.

“It's our first time to ride, and we wanted to be with our kids,” said Shreveport resident Maxie Rambin, who rode the train on opening weekend with her blended family, with all four family members dressed as elves.

They were hoping it would be a magical experience, added David Bliss, who joked about his family working hard at the North Pole and wanting to have a little fun that evening in Palestine.

“It's been really fun – I like seeing all the outfits,” said Taylor Rambin, 13.

From tots to teens – and parents and grandparents, too – passenger outfitted in pajamas, with some carrying personal copies of the Chris Van Allsburg classic book, “The Polar Express,” swarmed the Palestine Depot on opening Saturday, Nov. 19.

As the train departed the Palestine depot for Rusk, actors serving as waiters delivered cookies and hot chocolate to the passengers, leading them in holiday carols and even short parades along the center aisles of the passenger cars.

As the train approached Rusk, the actors invited children to pull out their copies of the books as they visited them in their seats, reading from oversized copies of the book. Soon after, a conductor came to check boarding passes.

Then, as the overhead lights dimmed, children were instructed to look outside the windows to see Santa's Village, where “residents” waved to the travelers.

During a short break at the village – staged at the Rusk depot – Santa boarded the train, where, to the delight of children, he visited with passengers.

The Polar Express Train Ride, which launched several years ago, is Texas State Railroad's largest and most popular annual special event, with normal attendance averaging an estimated 66,000 riders coming from all over the country as well as from outside the U.S., according to Allison Hale, TSRR seasonal marketing coordinator.

“This year, the number of walk-ins are up, with people coming in, hoping to ride the Polar Express,” she said.

That doesn't surprise TSRR special events manager Janet Gregg, who said that a quality product and quality customer service draws people over and over.

“This railroad is the official railroad of Texas,” she noted. “It runs the only consistently operated steam train in the state and that alone makes it truly a Texas treasure. But when you add in the improved special event schedule that offers a wide variety of train rides for all ages and differing interests, then it becomes even more of a ‘must do’ tourist destination.”

It's certainly one which folks outside of East Texas have looked forward to being part of.

The Luedecke family of Houston – Kevin and Christal and their children Ashlynn, 8, and Kylie, 6 – had returned for a second year, saying it was a new family holiday tradition.

“I love it!” said Ashlynn, as her mother added that her daughters didn't know they would be riding the train again this year.

“They just found out a few minutes ago,” Christal said. “They love it, and it's a really good bonding experience.”

For Liberty residents George and Kathy Moye, it was the perfect formula for creating a holiday tradition for their grandchildren Olivia and Jace Gutierrez.

Days before, the couple drove to San Antonio to pick up their four-year-old granddaughter and her two-year-old brother just to make the trip Saturday to Palestine, where the hour-long Polar Express Train Ride initiates.

“We wanted to create a tradition that when they grow up, maybe they'll be bringing their kids and grandkids here,” Kathy said.

Thanks to young Jace's fascination with trains, George learned about the excursion from an online article.

“I've never ridden on the Texas State Railroad before, although I've always wanted to, especially this one,” he said.

For friends Janelle Gurule and Lisa Ceane of Katy, bringing their children to Palestine for the Christmas train experience was a no-brainer.

“The kids are a fan of the book,” Gurule said, as Ceane added that the kids watched the movie on the way up to set the mood, even dressing the parts of the characters for the train ride.

“They have the movie memorized,” she laughed.

The Polar Express excursion will depart the Palestine depot at various scheduled hours on Nov. 25-27, December 2-4, Dec. 9-11, and Dec. 13-23.

Tickets range from $25 to $105, and may be purchased by calling (877) 726-7245. Visit https://www.texasstaterr.com to learn more.

The Texas State Railroad's Palestine Depot is located at 789 Park Road 70.