This is your ultimate guide to the Polar Express in Williams, Arizona, covering ticket details, packing recommendations, and tips to enhance your experience!
The first question always asked is what exactly is the Polar Express experience. It basically takes the story from the popular Polar Express book and movie, and plays it out in about 1.5 hours of magic! There is a 5:30pm and a 7:30pm train every night, usually starting in mid-November and through December. The ride starts and ends at the Grand Canyon Railroad depot in Williams, Arizona.
Our experience on video
The train ride!
Waiters will sing and dance to songs like “Hot Chocolate” – and each person is served hot chocolate with a cookie on the way to the North Pole. The Polar Express book is read as well. Once you arrive at the North Pole, a brightly decorated light scene greets you, and Santa himself waves to the passing train! On the ride back, all join in singing familiar Christmas songs, with the magical experience of Santa appearing in the car and handing each person a bell, the first gift of Christmas.
We visited with our 8 year old and 4 year old, and had more fun than expected! Our youngest was captivated from the very beginning, and even screamed “Santa!” in pure joy when he appeared on the train. Our 8 year old took some time to digest all the action, but was loudly singing Christmas carols at the end said “it was pretty cool”. You can tell the company puts alot of work in making the experience run seamlessly, and the employees were fantastic with the kids.
Things to do
Also part of the Polar Express experience is a couple of additional activities. These take place outside of the train ride experience. There’s a room tucked to the side of the large gift shop, where you’ll find coloring, Mrs. Claus reading stories, and the chance to meet Santa. Don’t miss the Holiday Spirit meter outside of the station too! We’d addan extra 60-80 minutes for these activities.
The Santa meet does have a photographer and buying those photos are extra. (You can just meet Santa without buying photos.) Pricing ranges from $12-$70. We ended up purchasing the full package, which included a printed photo and all images, because the quality was actually amazing, and the photographer got the sweetest shots of Santa and the kids. Also, this mama is a sucker for photos.
Ultimate Guide to the Polar Express in Williams, Arizona
Is it worth it? If you love the Polar Express movie and book, yes. If you love all things Christmas, yes! If your kids are under 10 or 11, we’d say yes they would enjoy it. There were a few teenagers in the groups we saw and they didn’t seem thrilled about the experience. (Honestly, this is one reason Jana just went with the two younger kids, as our 12 year old wasn’t excited about a “Santa experience”.)
Tickets for the Polar Express in Williams, Arizona go on sale very early in the year! We booked our 2023 visit in February to get the preferred day and time. The sooner you can book, the better. Tickets may still be available in October or early November if you’re flexible. Pricing starts at $60/adult, and $43/child (ages 2-15). This is 2023 pricing. 2024 Polar Express tickets are currently on sale as well!
Remember there are two time slots to choose from, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. We opted for the 7:30pm, and would probably go for 5:30pm next time. The kids were tired and while they perked up after the cookie and hot chocolate, the earlier time would have been best. If you book a 5:30 time slot, do the activities after the ride; if you book a 7:30pm time slot, do the activities before the ride.
With your booking, there’s the option to add on overnight lodging, and dinner and breakfast. We opted for this package for convenience for our first visit, and total was about $415 for 1 adult and 2 kids. The Grand Canyon hotel was very nice, beds were comfortable, there’s an indoor pool and hot tub, and the Fred Harvey restaurant is next door. There was also the Polar Express movie playing on loop in a side room (you can also watch it in your room, no charge), and the chance to write a letter to Santa.
We have no complaints about this wonderful hotel, but would probably opt for another lodging spot on our next visit to save money. (There are plenty of hotel options in Williams, and some lovely Airbnbs. A few of our favorite resorts are Backland, Village Camp, and Clear Sky.) The restaurant meals were buffet style and while tasty, wasn’t the best value for our kid’s smaller appetites. But again, for convenience and a package deal, the hotel/meal option is a good one!
Tips for Polar Express
Here are a few more tips if you’re considering the Polar Express experience:
- Matching pajamas or coordinating outfits are not required, but you will see a lot of families and groups opting for this. It is a fun idea! Santa hats are also a fun, simple way to dress up for the event.
- The train ride is heated, but we didn’t find it overly warm. We brought jackets, and the kids kept theirs on most of the time. Remember that it can dip down to the 40’s and 30’s in Williams for November and December! Check the weather forecast before visiting.
- For the best views of the North Pole light display and Santa sighting, request to sit on the Santa side. This can’t be done online, so call to make this reservation and hopefully they can oblige. We lucked out and got this side without realizing it; extra magical was sharing the view with a family across the aisle.
- Since the experience is based heavily on the Polar Express book and movie, make sure your kids are familiar with the storyline. Read the book several times for sure! The movie wasn’t our favorite, but it was fun to have the “Hot Chocolate” song performed in person! On that note, if you have a copy of the book, bring it on the train ride to follow along during the story time. The chefs roam around with oversized copies for all to see, but our kids really like being able to see the photos as the story went along.
- If you book a package stay the hotel, you will receive your train tickets at check in. Otherwise, your tickets will need to be picked up in the depot gift shop. Get those first, and then enjoy the activities. Lines can get long.
- Make sure your phone is fully charged before the experience, or bring a battery charger!
- There are bathrooms on the train, and one in the depot gift shop. Definitely use the restroom before boarding, so you don’t miss any of the action on the train.
- Extra items we brought and used: water bottles, wet wipes, and a bag to carry jackets/water bottles.
- If you’re looking for more things to do around Williams, check out these blog posts.
How to decide?
Another question we often receive is which is best, the Polar Express in Williams, Arizona or the North Pole Experience in Flagstaff, Arizona. We have review of the North Pole Experience here, and a post giving a quick rundown of each event here.
Honestly, you can’t compare the two, as they are both very different. Yes they both have Santa, both have activities too. But they both have a different focus, and both are very unique. Both will get you in the Christmas spirit.
And isn’t that the goal of any Christmas activity? Merry Christmas to all!