We wanted to take our kids to see Santa but we wanted to enjoy it too. Santa Express was the experience we were looking for. We think this new way to get into the festive spirit is what any parent or Christmas lover needs.
While we stood on the depot platform a brightly colored train, clad in reds and greens rumbled into the station. The train settled to a stop and the returning passengers stepped off the train. Soft light glowed from just inside the train car and while we waited to enter the bitter cold seemed to fall away.
Once we boarded and found our seats the train set off. We were soon treated to a hot chocolate with a deep, flavorful taste and delicious cookies. Slowly, the rumbling train car began to fill with anticipation as we got closer and closer to our appointment with Santa.
The train slowed and we found ourselves scanning Santa’s workshop until shouts of “Santa” filled the cozy car.
Virginia Scenic Railway
If you aren’t very familiar with the Virginia Scenic Railway you can be forgiven. The passenger rides along the rail line just opened in 2022.
The train leaves from the downtown Amtrak station in Staunton, Virginia. The passenger rail is hosted by Buckingham Branch Railroad and rides along their 280 miles of track through the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.
Currently, there are two 3-hour excursions that each include a delicious meal, dessert, and beverages.
The Santa Express is a much shorter seasonal excursion. The meal is replaced with some amazing cookies and a great cup of hot chocolate. Not to mention a visit from the man in red, himself.
Tickets for the Santa Express go on sale in October and, like the other trips on the Virginia Scenic Railway, sell out very quickly.
What to Expect on the Santa Express
If you can, arrive early and spend some time exploring Staunton.
We had about 45 extra minutes prior to boarding. Because the depot is downtown there are plenty of places to walk around and explore. We wandered over to Pufferbellies Toys & Books and our plans to walk to all the shops turned into a toy store shopping spree.
Regardless of how you spend the extra time before your departure, make sure you arrive a few minutes early so you can watch the train pull into the station. Our kids and I really enjoyed watching the brightly adorned train roll in.
As the train came into view, the mood at the depot shifted from quiet conversations to giddy shouts and cheers resonating throughout the cool evening.
Booking a ride on the Santa Express
If you are thinking about booking a trip with the Virginia Scenic Railway you may want to follow them on Facebook. They announce on their Facebook page when tickets go on sale and tickets go incredibly quick.
When you book a ticket you choose your seats. There are four person tables and two person tables on the Santa Express ride. If you are an odd numbered family or just want to go by yourself, don’t worry.
We are a family of five so we booked a four person table and two person table beside each other. You still only pay for the number of seats you book. The only limitation is that four top tables must have two seats purchased.
The Train Ride
Once we boarded the train we were met with the delicious aroma of fresh baked cookies and the rich chocolatey goodness of homemade hot chocolate.
After a few quick moments of the assembled crowd corralling excited children and finding their seats, we were off.
The rhythmic shifting and humming of the train coupled with the most delicious hot chocolate was sweet, sweet seasonal bliss.
Looking around the train I could see everyone, child and parent alike, was just as entranced as I.
The Arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus
We travelled for close to 20 minutes before a huge house came into view. Sitting at the edge of the property was a small workshop adorned with festive lights and a sleigh parked out front.
Santa was standing proudly outside the workshop waiving to us.
In the time it took Santa to walk behind his workshop, he and Mrs. Claus appeared on the train.
The shouts and incredulous exclamations from bright eyed children swept through the train at their arrival. Even a few of the adults faces scrunched up as they did some quick calculations.
Santa and Mrs. Claus walked the aisle stopping at each table to talk to each family. Afterward, Santa found a seat by one of the Christmas trees and welcomed each family in turn to come and share their Christmas wishes.
When it was our turn, our kids happily made their way to Santa. He was patient and actually listened to them and gave each a very nice mug filled with a small coloring book and crayons.
We took photos and made our way back to our seats. There was a lengthy discussion about whether or not he was the real Santa that stretched beyond the rest of the train ride and into our ride home.
Santa departed the train about ten minutes or so before we arrived back at the depot. When it was time to disembark I really wasn’t ready to.
I think that was the longest train ride I’ve ever had. It was a pretty special introduction to rail travel and I’m excited to try a longer trip.
Would we take the Santa Express again?
We will be doing this again. Again and again, I hope. It was magical for our kids but it was also magical for us adults.
This isn’t a Christmas event or experience that you need to drag yourself to. Book your tickets early and get excited. You won’t be disappointed.
The final conclusion of the discussion
After the long discussion between our kids and their solid arguments for and against the man we saw being the real deal, they were undecided.
I have to agree, albeit for different reasons. On the one hand I don’t generally believe in Santa, on the other, I’ve never seen a Santa so convincing. So, we all decided maybe that really was Santa.