All aboard! Polar Express comes to Norfolk for the first time
PUBLISHED: 16:50 21 December 2017 | UPDATED: 08:52 22 December 2017
Archant Norfolk 2017
It has proved to be one of the most magical Christmas films for a generation.
The 2004 Oscar-nominated animation The Polar Express follows a doubting young boy who takes an extraordinary train ride to the North Pole. He embarks on a journey of courage, friendship and self-discovery and reaffirms his faith in the existence of Father Christmas.
For the millions of youngsters who have watched the film it would be a dream come true to take that train ride and receive the little bell from Santa, that can only be heard by those who truly believe.
But for some that dream has become reality as the Polar Express has come to Norfolk for the first time.
The Mid Norfolk Railway, a heritage line between Dereham and Wymondham, has brought the magic of the film to life with an interactive train ride based on the story.
It has been a huge undertaking - the biggest thing to happen to the railway in its history, apart, perhaps from its reopening nearly 20 years ago.
General director George Saville said they started work on the project 14 months ago.
“The first thing was to put in a bid to the franchise holders,” he said. “We had to explain in detail what we would do and agree to include certain elements of the film in the trip.
“It is theatre on a train. We have a cast of 28 or 29 actors, playing parts from the film for the passengers, and we have created a North Pole village along the line which is the destination, before it returns to Dereham.”
It is quite a commitment for the actors, who had to audition for the roles, as there are 14 dates with three trains per day - a total of nearly 12,000 passengers.
But the railway has tried to recruit from the local area and that even includes a bakery to make the 12,500 cookies needed and to supply the half a tonne of hot chocolate, an essential part of the whole experience.
“It has been a huge investment,” said Mr Saville. “It even included car park improvements at the station but the idea is that it will make money for the railway and be a significant boost to our charity’s income. This will go towards all the projects we want to get done on the railway. We’d love to build an engine shed so we can keep a steam engine here in the winter.”
There is a plan to enlarge the experience next year and if ticket sales are anything to go by, it will certainly be welcomed.
When this year’s tickets went on sale they were snapped up within three weeks, and when a couple of extra dates were added, they too went like hot cakes.
Normally the railway’s Santa Express trains welcomes around 3,500 passengers so they have almost quadrupled with the Polar Express.
And it is not just Dereham or even Norfolk families who have been enjoying the experience.
“We had to hold a train up on the first Friday for a family of 10 because they had got delayed coming all the way from Southampton,” said Mr Saville.
“Then I met a lovely lady in the car park, and she had come from Scotland.
“People are literally coming from all over the country.”
And this means a boost for the whole of Dereham and Breckland’s tourism and hospitality industry as train customers are then asking where the best places to stay and eat are locally.
“People didn’t know Dereham existed before the Polar Express,” he added. “We certainly didn’t expect to sell out so quickly but we realised it was going well when the website crashed and I had to buy more capacity to deal with the volume of demand.
“The reviews we have received have been wonderful as well, people have really enjoyed it.”
It seems part of the fun has been in the dressing up for their parts as passengers. In the film the children are in pyjamas and dressing gowns as they join the train in the middle of the night.
Likewise many passengers have got into the spirit and turned up in their pyjamas, although the railway staff were a little bemused at one man’s costume - a turkey suit.
“We are just thrilled that we have been able to bring something different to Norfolk,” said Mr Saville.
“We are one of only three places in the whole country who have the franchise to do it, the others being Telford Steam Railway in Shropshire and Seaton Tramway in Devon.
“We feel very lucky that we were awarded the franchise and look forward to making it bigger and even better next year.”