Vickroy: Name change can’t stop this holiday train
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy December 4, 2013 9:10PM
Children enjoy last year's holiday train ride to meet Santa, offered by the Frankfort Park District. | Supplied photo
Bound for the North Pole
The following towns are offering train trips to meet Santa this holiday season.
Blue Island Park District, Dec. 21; (708) 385-3304; blueislandparks.org
Bolingbrook Park District, Dec. 14 and 15; (630) 739-0272; www.bolingbrookparks.org
Chicago Transit Authority, through Dec. 23; 1-888-968-7282
Chicago Ridge Park District, Dec. 6 and 13; (708) 636-4900; www.chicagoridgeparks.com
Frankfort Park District, Dec. 15; (815) 469-9400; www.frankfortparks.org
Joliet, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Will County, Dec. 7; (815) 730-7072; www.casaofwillcounty.org
New Lenox Park District, Dec. 15; (815) 485-3584; www.newlenoxparks.org
Olympia Fields Park District, Dec. 7; (708) 481-7313; www.olympiafieldsparkdistrict.org
Orland Park Recreation Department, Dec. 7; (708) 403-7275; www.orland-park.il.us
Plainfield Park District, Dec. 6; (815) 436-8812 Ext. 35; www.plainfieldparkdistrict.com
Richton Park Park and Recreation Department. Dec. 21; (708) 753-8800; www.richtonpark.org
Tinley Park Park District, Dec. 8; (708) 342-4200; www.tinleyparkdistrict.org
Worth Park District, Dec. 13 and 20; 708) 448-7080; www.worthparkdistrict.org
Riding another rail
Since most, if not all, of the Polar Express rides are sold out, here is a train-related event kids can attend.
The Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club is inviting youngsters to come watch trains run through a winter wonderland while having photos taken with Santa from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 7 and 14 at 1311 S. Schoolhouse Road, New Lenox; (815) 485-2588.
Updated: January 6, 2014 1:11PM
“The mountains turned into hills, the hills to snow-covered plains. We crossed a barren desert of ice — the Great Polar Ice Cap. Lights appeared in the distance. They looked like the lights of a strange ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea. ‘There,’ said the conductor, ‘is the North Pole.’ The North Pole. It was a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made.”
— Chris Van Allsburg
Even before the movie “The Polar Express” became a mega-holiday hit, there was a magical connection between Christmas and trains.
At the turn of the 20th century, people would travel by train to get home for the holidays. They’d often arrive bearing gifts.
Steve Noel, owner of Hobby Town USA in Orland Park, said that in the 1920s, Joshua Lionel Cowen, whose company had been making toy trains for about 20 years, realized the connection and went to major department stores in New York City that had a Christmas tree, pitching his new Lionel toy train sets as a perfect complement.
“Before long, every big store had a train running around its Christmas tree,” Noel said. “People saw it and wanted one of their own.”
“It has been full speed ahead ever since,” said Rich Thayer, who fixes Lionel and other trains at Hobby Town USA. “Sales are crazy this time of year.”
When “The Polar Express” debuted nearly 10 years ago, the Lionel sets sold faster and for more money than anyone anticipated, Thayer said.
“We’d see them on eBay for hundreds more than retail, at $500 to $750 a set,” he said.
Kids and parents loved the story of a small boy being invited onto a train filled with other children bound for the North Pole. “The Polar Express” cemented the relationship between trains and Christmas. The beautifully illustrated book and the computer-animated film featuring Tom Hanks’ voice as the conductor quickly became national hits. And have stayed that way.
Greg Bosak, owner of Chicagoland Toys and Hobbies in Chicago, said 80 percent of the train sets his shop sells are bought between early November and Christmas.
“The Polar Express set has been exceptionally popular,” he said. “It’s our best-selling set this year.”
Trains, Bosak said, help stir the imagination, and children are particularly mesmerized by steam engines.
Noel said while the Polar Express rush has died down a bit, sales continue to be brisk. This year’s Polar Express set comes with a remote control. Next year, Lionel will introduce one that can be run on an iPad.
It’s a way to marry tradition with technology, Noel said, something that’s essential if you want to keep the younger generations interested.
Youngsters can set up their Polar Express train set at home, but one thing many won’t be able to do, at least this holiday season, is ride the Polar Express via their local park district to meet Santa.
Oh, the train trips still are in full swing and a good thing because they routinely sell out. But since Warner Bros. issued an announcement in October that organizations would have “to transition their events to our official partner,” Rail Events, in order to use the name or read the book during the train trips, many park districts, including those in Frankfort and Orland Park, opted to change the name instead of relinquishing control of the trips.
Stacy Proper, recreation superintendent for the Frankfort Park District, said after the district received the Warner Bros. letter, which arrived just as officials were finalizing their holiday events, they decided to change the name to the North Pole Express. It still sold out, prompting one to speculate that a polar train trip by any other name is still as exciting.
Proper said the new restriction is unfortunate, “but it won’t stop us from offering the train trip.”
Proper said Frankfort as well as other towns are exploring the possibility of honoring the licensing agreement in the future. For now, a little tweaking was all it took to keep the train running this season.
On Dec. 15, nearly 400 people, filling three train cars, will journey from Tinley Park’s 80th Avenue Metra station to the “North Pole,” aka the Joliet station, Proper said. They’ll meet with Santa at their destination and enjoy hot chocolate and cookies on the journey back.
Ray Piattoni, facility coordinator for Orland Park’s recreation department, said the village’s 135-ticket train ride, now called Santa’s North Pole Express, also is sold out. Participants are encouraged to come in their pajamas for the trip from the 143rd Street Metra station to Oak Lawn, where they’ll meet Santa, make reindeer food and enjoy cookies.
“The event and everything fun about it is the same,” Piattoni said. “Only the name has changed.”
Indeed. As local event planners get ready to shout “All aboard!” they’re determined to not let semantics derail the holiday magic.
“We’re still going to have a lot of fun,” Proper said.
And that’s because this may be one case in which the destination, and the jolly toymaker who lives there, trumps the journey.