ELKINS - Three years ago, it was considered a Christmas train. Today, and 14,000 sold-out seats later, the Polar Express could be considered one of the region's most valuable assets to tourism growth during the "quiet" time of the year.
The 2013 season kicks off on Thursday with a Pajama Parade in the Town Square. Sponsored by The Inter-Mountain and West Virginia Radio Corporation radio stations, WDNE/WELK, the event will include a remote broadcast, Christmas music, give-aways, and a Pajama Parade. The remote begins at 4 p.m. and the Parade is at 6 p.m. The public is invited to attend, and children and parents alike are encouraged to wear their pajamas.
The Polar Express runs in early November to mid-December, a time traditionally known as a "shoulder" season, in tourism lingo. Even most ski resorts in the Mid-Atlantic region don't open until Thanksgiving. How is it possible that one train could bring 14,000 visitors in a six-week period to a mountain town in early winter?
The Polar Express excursion train trips are expected to draw 14,000 visitors from early this month through mid-December.
When the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad purchased the only Mid-Atlantic Polar Express franchise in 2011, even officials at the railroad had no idea the event would grow to such magnitude in such a short time.
"In 2011 we offered 4,600 seats," said John Smith, Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad president. "That first season we realized we would have to grow the event to accommodate the demand. We have grown each year, and the 2013 season will kick in with 14,000 people riding this train."
Smith said the railroad added new dates and more cars to the Polar departures, which will begin with the kick-off on Thursday and continue through Dec. 15.
As the Polar Express has grown, so has community enthusiasm and involvement. The Old Brick Playhouse orchestrates the entertainment on the train and in the Elkins Depot Caboose Room. Santa's Workshop spread from the Caboose Room last year into downtown Elkins. Merchants participated in planned activities for children visiting Elkins to ride the train. Elkins ON TRAC and the railroad aided in marketing the events.
This year, Elkins ON TRAC is spearheading the downtown Santa's Workshop program, which will feature activities on Fridays and Saturdays. The RailYard Restaurant is also again offering their Holiday Package, a holiday meal with live Christmas music prior to the Polar departures, and new to the agenda this year is the showing of "The Polar Express" movie every day the train runs at Elkins Cinema 8 at the Tygart Valley Mall. Movie time is 1 p.m. daily.
Beginning Nov. 29, American Mountain Theater and Gandy Dancer Theatre open their annual Christmas shows. Matinees are scheduled as well. The American Mountain Theater has scheduled shows every day The Polar Express pulls out of the Depot.