Polar Express Rides in California
There’s something about decked-out steam engines, hot cocoa with Santa and the roaring sounds over the tracks that make a holiday train excursion a magical experience for the whole family. The Bay Area offers a variety of great holiday trains.
Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights – There’s a good reason why this has become a holiday tradition for many families. The train is decked out with lights and decorations inside and out on this hour-long ride through Niles Canyon. It includes refreshments, music and cheer. Limited tickets are available at this time. Last-minute tickets are sometimes available at the station. Trains depart from Niles at 4:30pm and Sunol 7:30pm every Wed., Fri., Sat. and Sun. except for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Nov. 24-Dec. 30 Niles station and Nov. 26-Dec. 30 Sunol station. $30 coach, $50 first-class, $600 private caboose. Niles Train Station, 37001 Mission Blvd., Fremont; Sunol Train Station, 6 Kilkare Road, Sunol. 510-996-8420.
Zoo Lights – One of the highlights of the Oakland Zoo’s Zoo Lights event is a nighttime adventure on the Outback Express Train, which is festooned with lights. The event includes hundreds of thousands of LED lights throughout the zoo, a light show, rides and more. Dec. 1-Jan. 1, 2017 (closed Dec. 24 and 25). 5:30-9pm. $10 adults, $9 children and seniors; members get $1 off regular price. 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland. 510-632-9525.
San Francisco and Peninsula
Caltrain Holiday Train – A Bay Area tradition since 2001, this dazzling show-train decorated with thousands of glittering lights will visit nine Caltrain stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara, providing holiday entertainment and collecting donations of toys for local children who otherwise might not receive a gift during the holidays. The public is invited to join the celebrations at the train stations, where you can view – but not board – the train. Check website for when the train is scheduled to arrive at each station. Dec. 2-3. FREE.
Santa Express Train – The Napa Valley Wine Train presents this magical experience where guests will enjoy a new musical and interactive journey to Santa’s Workshop accompanied by some of Santa’s best friends. The ride includes hot chocolate, cookies, a toy teddy bear for children and other holiday treats. It will run seven days a week from Nov. 18-Dec. 29 (closed Nov. 24 and Dec. 24-25). Train fare starts at $49. Napa Train Station, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa. 800-427-4124. .
Silicon Valley and South
Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad Fantasy of Lights Train – Children love this kid-size decorated steam train that runs through the Fantasy of Lights festival in Vasona Park. It’s a shorter train ride, making it ideal for little ones, and it’s easy on the wallet. All events are weather permitting. Thu.-Sun. in Dec. 6-9pm. Check website for ticket prices. Oak Meadow Park, 233 Blossom Hill Road, Los Gatos.
Roaring Camp Railroads Holiday Events – Roaring Camp offers several great holiday train events for families. On the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train, passengers ride aboard vintage excursion cars adorned with thousands of colorful lights while rolling through the streets of Santa Cruz. Aboard the train you can sing holiday carols, sip hot spiced cider and listen to musical entertainment while Santa visits the little ones. Continue the merriment with your choice of arcade games, mini-golf or laser tag at Santa's Kingdom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Departs from the Boardwalk. Nov. 24-25, Dec. 2-3, 9-10 and 16-23. $33 general, $27 children ages 2-12.
On Dec. 14, there will be Hanukkah Train departing from the Roaring Camp’s Boardwalk location. It will start with the lighting of the menorah at 6:15pm and then passengers will go for a one-hour train ride aboard the vintage excursion cars decked out with lights and Hanukkah decorations. The ride will include Hanukkah stories, dreidel games and kosher refreshments. $31 adults, $25 children. You can also get in the festive spirit at Roaring Camp’s Felton location. For the Holiday Tree Walk, passengers get to ride a steam train to Bear Mountain, get off at the summit and view beautifully decorated holiday trees as they sip hot cider. For each toy donated to Santa Cruz County’s Toys for Tots, Roaring Camp will deduct $2 per train ticket. Nov. 24-26 and Dec. 2-3 and 9-10. $29 adults, $22 children. 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton. 831-335-4484. .
The Skunk Train Christmas Train – Three to four hours north of the Bay Area in Mendocino County, the famous Skunk Train offers a holiday train ride that will leave your little ones breathless. On the train ride, families can enjoy a storybook wonderland, cookies, hot chocolate in a souvenir mug and a visit with Santa. From Willits it’s a 90-minute ride and from Fort Bragg it’s 60 minutes. Dec. 2-23. $44 adults, $34 children, $10 children under 2 and dogs. Fort Bragg Station, foot of Laurel Street; Willits Station, 299 East Commercial St. 707-964-6371.
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.