The Polar Express Returns to Portland Waterfront; Major Railroad Fundraiser for Sixteen Years – 11/26

The Inspiration for the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum Fundraiser

By Carol McCracken (Post # 629)

Children will be excited to learn that once again they can dress up in their favorite pajamas and ride the Polar Express train with their families along the Portland waterfront. All the fun starts the day after Thanksgiving, November 26th. As last year, the train leaves from the Hancock Street platform next to the Ocean Gateway Pier which is serving as the train depot. The Polar Express is hosted by the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Musum for which it is the major fundraiser.

After leaving the train depot, the Express travels along Casco Bay on the Eastern Promenade. Holiday decorations along the train’s route light up the night. Guests on board meet the conductor, have hot chocolate and cookies, listen to a reading of the magical story over the train’s sound system and sing carols. The train will pick up Santa from a special outpost of the North Pole and he will ride back with everyone to the train station. Every child will recieve a special bell on board the train. The ride lasts about 40 minutes and the entire experience about 90 minutes.

“There will be fewer partners working with us this year,” said Brian Durham, president of the railroad board recently. Rather, joining the festivities will be the Maine Interior Design Assocation. The “MIDA” will be decorating each of the seven coaches to be used in the Polar Express. They will be decorated in holiday decor from vividly brilliant fabrics to hand-made ornament bouquets to golden bells ringing along the rails. Passengers are on the Polar Express will receive hot chocolate and cookies. Hot dogs and hot cider will be for sale inside the Ocean Gateway. 

By way of background information, this year marks the sixteenth year that the narrow gauge railroad has celebrated the holidays in this location. Although the railroad arrived at the bottom of the Hill in 1993, it wasn’t until 1994 that the first Christmas Train ran.   Original board member and father of a young boy, Gil Wilcox was sufficiently inspired by the 1985 classic, “The Polar Express” that he encouraged the museum to run its own annual Christmas Train for children. This was viewed as a major accomplishment since the musuem had been founded only the year before,  September of 1993.

Between 1997 and 2000, a partnership developed that would serve as a model for all future holiday celebrations at the railroad. The Rotary Club of Portland and the museum combined manpower, talents and the Christmas Train to produce a new tradition – “Winterfest.” It was the idea of the Rotarians. This philanthropic non-profit was looking for a Portland venue in which it could set up a colorful lights display with an appropriate means of viewing the light show. The trains could provide an excellent vehicle from which passengers could “view over a million lights with displays bigger than life.” The Rotarians and the out-of-state Christmas Visions entered a revenue sharing contract for the displays along the show on the waterfront. The future looked as rosy and bright as the red cheeks of the children who ride the holiday trains.

It became a major event on the waterfront with  Mayor George Campbell  in 1997 flipping the switch that lit up the 20-30 ft. tall and up to 200 ft. wide displays along the Prom. There was a large heated tent used to shield the long line of passengers from the wind and cold. Each display had thousands of lights that sometimes were animated with shifting colors. However, the “heavy lifting” involved for the Rotarians who set up and took down the displays became a part of the Achilles heel of WinterFest by 2000. The labor intensive work as well as diminished profits for the two nonprofits called a halt to this fundraiser. In 2001, SantaFest came back to the Museum replacing WinterFest and some of the restrictions placed on the event by corporate sponsors; it had to be a secular observation with no Christmas carols and no Santa. Most were happy to return Santa to his proper place!

Three years ago, in 2007, the idea for The Polar Express was initiated and runs this year again – the original idea of a young father back in 1994.

For ticket pricing and schedule, please go to: www.PortTix.com or call 842-0800.