Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Polar Express, Northern California version

On our previous trip to the Mendocino area, we had considered going on a ride on the Skunk Train, which is a set of real old school steam engines that weave through the scenic redwood forests from Fort Bragg to Willitts. Although Finn is crazy about trains, we hesitated because it was a 3 hour journey, and that seemed a little long for a 3 year old. We were envisioning his excitement fading into boredom and disappointing his little heart that trains were in fact, not that cool. But Oscar's ear infection cut our trip short anyway, and made our decision for us.  We did however, discover a pamphlet at our hotel, advertising the "Christmas Train" ride. We only needed to take a glance at the info to know that this would prompt our return, and use of the 2nd night we had purchased at the hotel.  It was the answer to our previous debate about the ride on the skunk train.  It was only 90 minutes long, and the ride was peppered with Christmasy entertainment for kids. Christmas jammies encouraged! Plus it was much less expensive than their normal ride. Sold!

We purchased the Polar Express book a few weeks prior to our reservation date, which was set for 10 days before Christmas. The book fascinated Finn, and he was intrigued, and maybe a little bewildered by our promise to him that we were going to take him on the Polar Express.  It was as if he didn't really believe us, especially as our car ride up to Fort Bragg started to drag on for him.  He demanded to go home, no matter how much we reminded him about the Polar Express.  Once we arrived in Fort Bragg, our first stop was our hotel, where we checked in and all changed into our Christmas jammies (except Jer who is much too manly).
Upon our arrival and change into the promised jammies for the train ride, Finn stopped complaining about wanting to go home, even when we piled back into the car for the brief drive to the train depot. He knew something exciting was brewing.  The long drive up North was immediately worth it when we pulled up to the train station and saw comprehension spread across Finn's face when he caught sight of the trains.  Real trains! That he would get to ride! He finally believed us that he was actually going to ride on the Polar Express.  His previous real-life experience with trains has been limited to the mini trains found at the zoo and Fairyland.  These were the real deal.
He was fascinated to watch Papa buying tickets at the station, and we let him pick out a train Christmas ornament to take home for our tree.  Then we headed out to wait at the depot.  He carefully studied the driver circling the train, making preparations.  Finn took notes, and now at home, he lets the steam out of the underside of his make-believe train (bed) with a "psssssst" sound, before he starts to drive it.

Waiting at the depot

The excitement built as we saw the conductor (a real conductor!!) come out of the station and take position by the train steps and door.  Finn got to hand our tickets to the conductor as we boarded, and then he got the overwhelming task of picking the seat we should take.  But the first comment he made when we entered the car was, "But where are da tables?" He was expecting the interior to look just like in the book, which depicts cocoa being served on linen-covered tables.  We had told him he would get cocoa too, you see.  Oscar was just thrilled to be on an adventure. He loves being out and about.  And I just about died every time I looked at him in his little elvish jammies.

I will never forget the look on Finn's face when the train whistle sounded and we felt the train give its first lurch of movement. Pure joy. He was thrilled.

Finn loved pulling out of town and waving to the cars waiting at the crossing.

And he stayed perched this way, taking it all in, until hot cocoa was served. 
It was really sweet to see him sharing his excitement with Oscar.

His eyes widened as he saw that there really was hot cocoa on the train!! And it was served by elves! They also served sugar cookies that were delicious.

Throughout the journey the elves walked the aisle singing Christmas carols.  A Christmas story was also read. They passed out paper and pencils so the kids could write a letter to Santa.

When we reached the turn-around point of the journey we looked out the window to see Santa riding on the engine of the train, which was switching sides to pull us back!  When Santa got on board, Finn was a little nervous about meeting him.
But he quickly warmed up to him when Santa sat and chatted with him a good while and left a handful of candy canes.  "Dat Santa guy is really nice!!" he was happy to announce later.

Finn kept tabs on Santa the whole time he was on the train.
Oscar reluctantly took a nap in the bjorn, and was happy to wake up and still get to enjoy the adventure.

Finn made sure that he got to enjoy some of the goods that Santa left, since he had been asleep for his visit with us.
And Oscar did get a chance to meet Santa back at the depot. He stared him down intently.
Although Finn had decided that Santa was alright, he still didn't want to sit on his lap.
We gave Finn's letter to Santa to the elves to ensure delivery and a few days later Finn got a letter in the mail from Santa!  He was so pleased.  This is a really cute program they've got going up in Fort Bragg.

The train returned early enough for us to enjoy dinner out.  We just went in our jammies, and returned to the North Coast Brewing Co restaurant since we had really liked it last time. The kids were great...until we had almost finished and Finn started doing laps around the room yelling at the top of his lungs.  We hurried out and Finn and I burned some of his energy by walking to the nearby ice cream parlor. Delish.

Well, folks.  I think we've found ourselves another yearly tradition. At least for several more years. It was perfect. The season felt more like Christmas to me this year than it has in a long time. I think that had a lot to do with this experience, which really prompted Finn's interest in the Santa story and Christmas festivity. It was just plain fun.

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