Santa’s Paradise Express combines an experience of historic steam train travel with holiday cheer. This special train at Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County continues running on the first three weekends in December. A visit by Santa marks the highlight of the 45-minute round trip ride through Amish countryside to Paradise, PA, but there are other attractions as well.
The romance of it all started when we arrived at the circa-1915 train station and saw the smoke billowing from the jet-black coal-fired locomotive. I felt like I should be wearing a petticoat and carrying a carpetbag to head out West somewhere. The engine and train cars all looked polished and clean; you can tell the trains and the station are lovingly cared for.
Just seeing the train on the track had my three-year-old son jumping with glee. Santa was also walking around on the platform before the train embarked, and he’d stop and greet visitors.
We rode coach but you can also buy tickets for the dining car, first-class, and even a deluxe President Car. Coach is pretty fancy as it is. A coal potbelly stove heats up the wood-paneled compartment. The weekend we rode, there was no problem at all finding seats. Stockings and holiday ribbons decorated the car. It was easy to imagine yourself settling into your plush velvet seat by the window in the early 1900s.
Soon after the train left the station in a cloud of steam, the conductor came by to take tickets. He also posed for pictures with my son. A brass duo dressed in bygone-era clothing soon entered our car and played “Silent Night” and a couple other Christmas tunes, encouraging anyone to sing along.
They moved to the next car, and after a little while, Santa arrived, with his snowy white hair and beard (didn’t look fake to me.) He came with an entourage that included a helper dressed in green velvet robes and a photographer who takes official photos that you can buy after the ride. Santa took his time with each family, and I was grateful he was so patient posing for multiple shots with our three kids.
He even held our two-month-old baby for some photos, and when he handed her back he said, “I gotta be careful with the handoff. Don’t want to fumble the baby.” Then from the helper’s stash, he gave out a present to each of the kids (for ages 3 to 11). (I don’t want to give it away, but both older kids liked the little gift because it was train-related and mom liked it because it was practical.)
Soon after Santa moved on to the next compartment, two women appeared singing carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” All in all, it felt pretty festive inside the train.
Outside, the scenery was bucolic. We saw a storehouse packed with corn, farmhouses with their silos standing tall, a field striped with rows of purple cabbage, and quite a few cows. We passed the Red Caboose Motel, where you can sleep in a restored caboose. The train stops briefly at Groff’s Grove, a picnic area that is of course more popular in warmer months. You can disembark here and catch the next train back, but no one did since it was really cold the day we went.
The entire ride is short enough to keep even the most restless little ones entertained but long enough to give older kids and adults a sense of having traveled somewhere and really seen some of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Back at the station, we ended up buying three official photos (for a total of $50) and bought souvenirs at the gift shop. The store stocked railfan T-shirts, train sets, conductor costumes, and other train-themed items.
It was too cold to be hanging around outside with a little baby but the station featured other activities including a holiday storytime area at the caboose and a Tinsel Trolley ride, a self-propelled motor car.
You can continue the train theme by heading across the street to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, where kids can climb on full-size trains in the exhibition hall and play with toy trains in the education center.
Santa’s Paradise Express is a unique way to get into the holiday spirit while experiencing a taste of classic rail travel.
- Santa’s Paradise Express runs Dec. 1-2, 8-9, and 15-16. Departure times are 11 and 11:30 a.m., and 12, 12:30, 1, 1:30, 2, 3, 4, and 5 p.m. Coach tickets cost $17 for adults, $11 for ages 3-11, and $3 for under 3.
- There’s lots of onsite parking. You pick up your tickets at the ticket office window at marker 3, which is about midway between the two possible entrances to the station from the parking lot. The railroad recommends buying your tickets ahead of time online but it’s also possible to get coach tickets just before the desired departure time. The railroad also suggests arriving 30 minutes before departure so you have time to pick up the tickets and find a seat on the train.
- You can’t eat in the coach cars, but if you wanted to have lunch on the train you can book tickets for the dining car. The dining on board is provided by Hershey Farm Restaurant, a very good Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord about five minutes drive away. Hershey Farm also runs the newly renovated Trackside Cafe at the station (whoopee pies!).
- Other events at Strasburg Railroad include The Night Before Christmas Train on November 30, December 7 & 14, 2012. and Day Out with Thomas (dates coming soon!)
Photos by Amy Alipio