Seeing is believing: GSMR Polar Express

The Polar Express Locomotive
Photo by Brannon Mahaley, Dec. 6, 2017.

The story was written and produced in colaboration with Travon Ricketts

In light of the holiday season, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is bringing back their re-enactment of the Polar Express, the classic Warner Bros. Pictures movie that melted hearts across the world one hot chocolate at a time.

The Polar Express themed train is something that families from all over the region come into town to experience.  It allows for an inclusive experience for adults to reconnect with their inner child and share the experience with their children or loved ones.  All passengers are treated with an exceptional show of dancing elves, waiters and waitresses delivering piping hot chocolate and even a visit from Santa Claus himself – delivering silver bells to all of the good boys and girls.

When darkness falls, the small town of Bryson City, North Carolina comes alive.  All of the shops surrounding the train station are cloaked in holiday lights and Christmas cheer.  The railway spared no small detail when recreating this experience for guests.  They even put lights on the train itself!

The 1755 locomotive was built by General Motors’ Electro Motive Division in April, 1956 for the Northern Pacific Railway and has a 16 cylinder diesel engine that produces 1,750 horsepower.  To put this into perspective, the Toyota Prius comes with a 1.8 liter gasoline engine, meaning that over five of the Toyota Prius engines would fit inside just one of the locomotive’s 16 cylinders.  It’s a massive diesel engine inside of this locomotive.

In turn, the railway requires quite a bit of funding to keep this experience alive for families and guests.  It is a good thing that the small town is expecting over 90,000 people to visit Bryson City within the approximate eight week time period that the Polar Express is in action this year alone.  Thus breaking the record of 84,000 guests who rode the train in 2016 according to the GSMR Polar Express website.

Trey and Cricket Barnett with their two week old daughter, Reylynn
Photo by: Brannon Mahaley, Dec. 6, 2017

As the train makes its way through the Smokies, it stops in several small town areas where passengers may stop & quickly shop around. Many of these small businesses are owned by dedicated locals who have built this town from the ground up and have seen the recent growth in the local economy.

This is true for Trey and Cricket Barnett who work for Wildwater Rafting located in the outskirts of Bryson City.  Their parents have been working for Wildwater since the early 80s and they chose to follow in their parent’s footsteps.  They say that they have only seen a positive impact on the community and even a lengthening of the tourist season by about three months which allows for more small businesses to make more of a profit.

La Dolce Vita Bakery waits for customers coming out from the Polar Express. Photo by Brannon Mahaley, Dec. 6, 2017.

The current approximate profit generated from ticket sales totals to about $70,000-$80,000 annually according to the ticket office workers.  This stimulates the local economy and provides small businesses with the option of keeping their doors open all year long.  These small businesses include bookstores, cafes, clothing shops and bakeries.

All of these small businesses offer  hidden treasures to the venturing tourist.  For example, many of the locals recommend the cheesecake from the La Dolce Vita Bakery just a block down from the station and window shopping through downtown.

The Polar Express attracts men, women and children from all walks of life.  People come from all over to work at the Polar Express events as well.  A local Western Carolina University student, Garrett Long, works long hours in the continually dropping temperatures to be a part of the experience.

“I can appreciate the flexible work schedule they offer because of school and the upcoming exam season,” said Long, “but it is amazing getting to witness the holiday spirit that the train brings to people of all ages.  That smile is worth so much more than any paycheck.”

The Polar Express brings people closer together by creating a welcoming and open environment for everyone to just have fun and celebrate the holidays. If you haven’t gotten in on the fun, the train will be in operation until December 31st and is sure to return next Holiday season.