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Popular Experience Fiction - The Polar Express Train Ride


Train Illustration By Chris Van Allsburg
The Polar Express (Illustration)

As a follow up to our "Living In A Story" article about experience fiction (XF) we thought we'd discuss a seasonal experience fiction that defies the expectations of even this young format. The experience fiction is The Polar Express Train Ride (TPETR) based on the Polar Express book and movie.

Each year thousands of children all over the US (and UK) dress up in their pajamas to board a mysterious train bound to the North Pole to meet Santa. During the trip the children experience the magical story of The Polar Express. They meet characters from the books, live out scenes from the movie, and have the chance to create their own experiences on their way to the North Pole.


The Polar Express is a children's story originally written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick) and published in 1985 by Houghton Mifflin. It tells the simple and mysterious story of a child who wakes up one Christmas Eve to find a train outside his house, The Polar Express, ready to bring him to the North Pole to meet Santa Clause. The boy enters the train and finds many other children in their pajamas who are also riding the train to the North Pole. The train brings him through wildness, over mountains, and up to the North Pole where he is selected to receive the first gift of Christmas from Santa. He knows he can ask for anything he desires, but simply asks if he can have one of Santa's sleigh bells. When he gets home however, he finds he has lost it through a hole in his robe's pocket. The next morning when opening his presents he sees that Santa has found it and returned it to him. He also discovers that only people who believe in Santa can hear the ringing of the bell.

The Polar Express was later adapted into a computer animated movie in 2004 by Warner Bros. directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks. This adaptation took the story in a very different direction. Unlike the book, the movie relied heavily on action and adventure instead of the simple quiet mystery of the book. The Polar Express and it's occupants in the movie are constantly in danger and their trip to the North Pole is perilous and full of thrills and spills.

Children on The Polar Express Train Ride

The Nice

The Polar Express Train Ride is produced by Rail Events Inc. and takes place at almost 40 different participating railroads around the United States.  Other events are available in the UK as well. It is produced yearly and has received positive reviews from the families participating in it. Here are some reviews from the Grand Canyon production

It seems like TPETR gets to the heart of the purpose of experience fiction; making dreams come to life. It's a simple experience based on a simple story and still, it manages to make magic happen and put children (and their parents) into a living story. Children can hear the train, the music, and the sleigh bells. They can feel the wind and the snow through their pajamas. They can smell and taste the hot chocolate and nougats. Of course, most importantly, they can have that range of intangible feelings that come from interaction and experience whether it's staring up into the eyes of the imposing train conductor as he asks for their golden ticket, singing carols together in the train car, or meeting Santa who presents them with a silver bell just like the one in the book they read over and over again each year. In fact for many the experience fiction itself has become something that families participate in year after year.

The experience is an adaptation and it does a good job of focusing on the elements that are really interesting to children in real life. Much of its success is probably due to this careful translation from story to reality. For instance there are no hauntings, near-death experiences, or industrial accidents as in the movie. There are mysterious train rides, hot cocoa, dancing waiters, Santa Claus, and silver "magic" sleigh bells. They even read the book during the train ride to seal in the sense of being in a story.

It's interesting to note one other point that makes this adaptation so successful. In the movie the main character leaps from one exciting and death defying event to the next, yet every time he passes back through the main train car en route to the next harrowing encounter, we catch glimpses of all the "other kids" sipping cocoa, chatting excitedly, and singing carols. The experience story concentrates on THOSE kids. Those kids are having a great time. One of the keys to their successful adaptation is that they do not try to make the children feel like the main character. Participants are really acting as the extras... which is a good thing. They don't FEEL like extras however because, who does? In many ways they have kept the simple elegance of the original children's book plot and mixed in all of the exciting visuals and characters from the movie without making the participants jump through hoops like the main characters. It's a winning combination.

Train from the movie The Polar Express
The Polar Express (Movie)

Making A List

Outside of theme parks, this kind of production is absolutely unique. TPETR has some extremely rare elements in it and it also solves some of the most difficult problems current experience fiction faces. Not all of these differences are necessarily positives but in aggregate they make this experience fiction quite fascinating and successful. Here are some of the more unusual elements of TPETR.

Paying Participants. Most experience fiction is "free" and supported by advertising money, grants, or by indie developer's time investments. In a world that expects content for free, individuals pay anywhere from $20 to $80 and up for a magic ticket to the North Pole and many of the events are completely sold out year after year. It's used by many organizations as a fund raiser for (usually train-based) non-profits.

Perennial. Part of the problem (or pleasure) of many transmedia productions is that they are extremely transient. They rise out of nowhere, are participated in by those in the know, and then disappear so completely that even archivists have a difficult time recording exactly what happened. They may only last an afternoon, a week, a few months, and then they are gone. TPETR may last in any one location about a month, but then next year it's back! This allows the production to gain experience and invest in their experience and lets the audience grow and anticipate. It also allows for them to advertise, do PR, and cultivate an evergreen audience that returns year after year.

Family Oriented. This experience isn't targeted at teens or twenty somethings. It's for young children and their families. Yes, one of the most commercially successful experience stories currently running is for five year olds. Outside of theme parks this is very rare.

Distributed. It is hard to broadcast reality. TPETR works around this by creating multiple independent productions across the country. In 2013 there were almost 40 productions running concurrently in the US with more in the UK.

Adaptation. Most experience stories are original, even impromptu, stories. TPETR is adapted from a beloved modern classic and Caldecott medal winner and commercially licensed. It ensures that the productions can draw from a large base of fans who have grown up with the story and a large amount of professionally created material from industry leaders.

Religious. This isn't a plus or minus but it is worth noting. The story is based on Santa Clause and that's quite different from the standard experience story fare of SF, crime fiction, and fantasy.


Train Conductor

The Naughty

Of course, TPETR isn't any kind of apex for experience fiction. It has its many flaws. Probably the most difficult challenge in this particular story is that expectations can't help but reach a fever pitch from children, who may think they are really going to the North Pole, not to mention parents who are envisioning the perfect holiday memory that they will always look back on. It's hard to turn reality into fiction. Children and adults might realize that the magic train in the book is a good deal more comfortable than the real train they happen to be riding on. Drinking luke-warm hot chocolate on a bumpy train in the freezing cold might be a serious let-down. Or it could be thrilling.

Even if every aspect of the environment is controled and designed, as in theme parks, there isn't a "real" Magic Kingdom, and kids might still have a very un-magical tantrum if they get too tired. Even with all the positive reviews of TPETR, this negative one pretty much sums up a great deal of the problem of creating experience stories. "We ride the Polar Express and it stinks"

Even more than most types of fiction, mileage may vary in experience fiction. So much depends on what the participants on both sides bring to it. How much imagination will the participants bring to the event each night and how much talent and effort will go into producing it? When a book is read over and over again it is always the same, but not in experience fiction. It's always different. Moment to moment the weather, the actors, the children, the improv moments that present themselves and how they are handled, and a host of hard to define qualities mix and jumble making for an exciting, but unpredictable time.

Polar Express Train in Real Life
Polar Express (XF) 

Still TPETR keeps it simple and they focus on the inherently pleasurable physical experiences of taking a train ride, drinking hot chocolate, eating sweets, singing Christmas carols and then they mix it with the mysterious joy of imagining you are in a story you love, going somewhere enchanted, to experience something magical. It gives kids plenty of props and sensations to create a feeling of enchantment.

The Polar Express Train Ride is making its final runs for the season but don't worry, it will be back next year, and the year after that, and the year after... 


photo credits : Photograph by Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Used by permission from D&SNGRR, durangotrain.com, Photograph by Grand Canyon Railway. Used by permission from thetrain.com, lead illustration by Chris Van Allsburg  from the book The Polar Express - Houghton Mifflin Company, all other images from the movie The Polar Express - Warner Bros.