Polar Express Rides in California

There’s something about the roaring sounds of train travel, twinkling lights, hot cocoa and a visit with Santa that create fond holiday memories. Fortunately, the Bay Area offers a variety of holiday train rides that make for wonderful family traditions.

 East Bay

Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights – There’s a good reason why this outing has become a holiday favorite 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 stations. Trains depart from Niles at 4:30pm and Sunol 7:30pm every Wed., Fri., Sat. and Sun. except for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Nov. 22-Dec. 30. $30 coach, $60 first-class, $650 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. 6-Jan. 5, 2020 (closed Dec. 24 and 25). 5:30-9pm. $12 adults, $11 children and seniors, under 2 FREE; parking FREE. 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. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph and Santa’s elves will be there. 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. 7-8. FREE. 

North Bay

Santa Train – It will feature games, sing-alongs and a fun cast of holiday-inspired characters, all while savoring hot cocoa and freshly baked cookies. After being greeted by elf and fairy friends at the train’s Downtown Napa train station, guests of the Santa Train will board and embark on a journey to Santa’s workshop in the “North Pole.” Once the children arrive, they will receive a toy Jolly Bear ornament as a special thank you for their assistance. It will run seven days a week from Nov.19-Dec. 27 (closed Nov. 28 and Dec. 24-25). 5-7pm and 7:15-9:15pm. Train fare is $59.99-79.99. 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 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. 29-30, Dec. 1, 7-8, 14-23 and 26-31. $33 general, $28 children ages 2-12. 

For the Holiday Tree Walk, passengers 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. 29-30, Dec. 1 and Dec. 7-8. $29 adults, $23 children. 

Roaring Camp also has a Hanukkah Train every year departing from the Boardwalk location. Check website for dates, times and cost. 

5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton. 831-335-4484.

Weekend Getaway

Polar Express Train Ride – This hour-long train ride through Gold Country includes hot chocolate, cookies and characters from the story Polar Express. Once you reach the “North Pole” you get to meet Santa and each passenger will receive a silver sleigh bell, the “first gift of Christmas.” Nov. 29-Dec. 22. Trains are scheduled for 3:30pm, 5pm, 6:30pm and 8pm Fri.- Sun. Tickets are $50-70. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, 10501 Reservoir Road, Jamestown. 209-984-3953. 


 Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


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