PORTLAND – Ask Hunter Buote how long he’s been waiting to ride on the Polar Express, and coming up with the answer didn’t tax the 3-year-old’s just-developing math skills.
“Every day!” the Jay toddler exclaimed in the Ocean Gateway marine terminal, transformed from now until Christmas into the departing station for the train introduced to children 27 years ago in Chris Van Allsburg’s richly illustrated book, and more recently in a movie starring Tom Hanks.
In the summer, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. takes visitors on a cooling ride around the city’s eastern waterfront and base of Munjoy Hill. From Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, that trip is magically transformed into a voyage to the North Pole, which is temporarily relocated to a spot just past the East End Beach.
There’s a brief stop on the way to allow the travelers — unlike the book, adults are allowed on this trip — to take in some piping hot chocolate to warm them on the journey.
Just like the book, there was a conductor waiting to escort the children onto the train. Hans Brandes of Falmouth, who looks every bit the part, from his gold-trimmed hat down to flame flickering in his lantern, said he loves volunteering for the Polar Express.
“It’s this time of year” that draws him, he said. “You get to see happy faces, especially when they’re dressed up in pajamas. My kids are in their 20s now.”
For those unfamiliar, in the book, a boy who thinks the magic is gone from Christmas hears a train whistle as he goes to bed on Christmas Eve. Soon, a train is outside his front door and the boy boards it. The train is filled with other pajama-clad children who are taken to the North Pole, indulging in candy and hot cocoa along the way.
The boy gets — and loses — a bell from one of the reindeer’s harnesses, only to find that Santa put it under the tree for him to find on Christmas morning. And even though most adults, and many of the boy’s friends, can’t hear it, the bell still rings for him years later, “as it does for all who truly believe.”
Allison Tevsh Zittel, executive director of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum, said about 8,500 people are expected to ride the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad’s Polar Express between now and Christmas.
It’s a major fundraiser for the nonprofit, which operates May through October and then during the holiday season. Tickets are $25 for coach seats and $40 for first class, and that includes hot chocolate, cookies, a reindeer bell and a visit from Santa Claus.
“The best part is all of our train crews are volunteers,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the guys who put in all the hours to make it work.”
Zittel said the Maine Narrow Gauge licenses the Polar Express through Rail Events, a company formed with Warner Brothers to license Polar Express trains. There are currently 31 railroads in the U.S. and Canada that offer the Polar Express around the holidays.
All of those technicalities mattered little to Anthony Casillo, 7, of Worcester, Mass., who boarded the Polar Express in Portland with his parents as the sun set Saturday afternoon.
After the ride, he was wide-eyed but quiet, saying his favorite part of the trip was getting to meet Santa.
“We love it,” his mother, Terri Casillo, piped in, “maybe even more than him.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: