Holiday Train Ride Is Parenting Test

Posted November 26, 2007 4:45 p.m. EST
Updated November 27, 2007 1:23 a.m. EST

— Now that I have my own children, I really want to pass along the excitement of Christmas that I loved so much as a child.

So I was thrilled to hear about the Polar Express train in Williams, Arizona This would be perfect to start some holiday traditions of our own.

When I called six months ago, there were only a couple of weekends available. Some families book their trips to the North Pole a year in advance, and I am reminded by others that this trip is a BIG DEAL.

I thought it would be fun for the girls to watch the animated movie before the big trip.

Maybe not such a good idea.

Addie kept saying, "Mommy, is it going to be just like that?"

She is pointing to dancing waiters on the train, then later the sea of elves at the North Pole.

A week before our nonrefundable trip, Addie comes down with a stomach bug, which is promptly passed to my 2-year-old, then my husband. I escape for now, but come down with a nasty cold two days before.

Not a good start.

Still, we head out on our first road trip without any help. No relatives. Just the four of us.

The three-hour ride goes remarkably well thanks to the entertainment of the DVD player.

We check into our non-smoking room and discover it reeks like an ashtray. But the hotel is completely booked, so this will have to do.

After meeting Mrs. "Clock," as Addie calls Mrs. Claus, it's time to get in their jammies and line up for the one-hour train ride.

I'm a bit surprised by how many moms are in matching jammies, too. But I love that Addie thinks we really are going to the North Pole and that it is "very far away."

Then we have our first problem: the waiters don't dance. Our waiter tells Addie he was injured and can't perform. She has a blank look on her face.

Then come the cookies and hot chocolate, which Aubrey spills all over her new flannel pajamas - the same one my husband made fun of me for buying for the occasion.

Chris Van Allsburg's "Polar Express" book is read over the train's intercom. Some families are clearly repeaters because they brought their own books and are following along.

Aubrey falls off the seat and twice hits her head on the wooden window sill. The lady next to us seems concerned, maybe because we seem so unconcerned. But this is Aubrey, who gets a new goose egg on her head about every hour. Now a nice red welt is forming on her forehead.

The train rolls on.

Finally, the conductor announces we are arriving at the North Pole. The kids clamor to one side of the train and gaze at Santa and an adult-sized elf amid the lights of the North Pole. There is no snow.

Thankfully, Addie doesn't question me about that or anything else about the North Pole.

Santa boards the train and hands each child a bell, the same gift the boy in the book received.

The children are told to ring their bells, and my girls are delighted. And so am I, at how something so simple makes them so happy. Despite the ashtray room and summer camp-style food at the restaurant, maybe we have a tradition-in-the-making here after all! As we head back as another elf leads the passengers in Christmas carols. Sigh.

But the holiday bliss is not to last.

After a horse-drawn carriage ride around this small Western town, it's meltdown time. Addie, our horse lover, doesn't want to get off. It's been a long day with no naps.

She declares "I hate horses!" as we grab her and hurry back to the room.

Tears. Speech near hysteria. Something about petting the white horse.

We are exhausted and asleep by 9:23 p.m., albeit with frequent wake-up episodes through the night.

The next day, I find the photographer who took our picture on the carriage ride, but he is having a bad day. He finally finds our picture, then says: "I just found out I have prostate cancer and diabetes, so I just don't care."

We wish him better days and purchase our souvenir picture.

On the way home, I start feeling sick. My turn I guess. So I ride for three hours with a trash bag on my lap, just in case.

But that bell from the Polar Express jingled all the way home from the bottom of my diaper bag.