“Welcome aboard,” children were told Saturday evening as they entered the historic Billings Depot on Montana Avenue. “Here’s your ticket to the North Pole on the Polar Express.”
Hundreds of ticket holders filled the North Pole-themed depot — walls draped in shimmery white cloth and lights, frosted trees and candy cane pillars. Mrs. Claus, played by depot board member Karen Grosz, walked around with a platter of cookies for the kids.
Inspired by the 1985 children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg that later became a Warner Bros. movie starring Tom Hanks, the Polar Express story came alive for nearly 200 children and their families as students from the Rocky Mountain College theater group acted out scenes from the tale.
It’s the story of a boy’s train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve and how his belief in Santa Claus and the holiday spirit is revived along the way.
Dressed in pajamas, children gathered in front of a stage, cookies and hot cocoa in hand as the story unfolded in front of them.
“Where are you going?” the boy asked a train conductor.
“Why, to the North Pole, of course,” the conductor replied.
As the train arrived at the North Pole, the audience heard a whistle, jingling sleigh bells and the roar of the train coming to a halt. Kids jumped up and stomped their feet and chanted, “Santa, Santa, Santa.”
And then Santa Claus made his grand entrance into the depot. “Ho, ho, ho,” he shouted.
“This is a big deal — the train depot, Santa, all the excitement — I think it feels really real to Jeremiah,” Jessica Morey said about her 5-year-old son’s experience. “He’s been so excited. All day, he’s been asking, ‘Is it time yet?’”
Six-year-old twin sisters Rielee and Tailor Senn and their best friend, Ainslee Hoke, were in front of the stage for the play and were first in line to get their photo taken with Santa.
Phil Bratton, of Billings, accompanied his three grandchildren. “It’s really neat having the Depot here to tie in the story,” he said.
Bratton’s granddaughter Molly Heeman, 10, said her favorite part was the re-enactment of the book. The story is one of her favorites, she said. Molly’s little sister, Tilly, 4, said she loved seeing Santa Claus.
The event continues Sunday with 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. showings. Tickets are $25 each and include a 25th-anniversary edition of the hardcover "Polar Express" book, a special bell and a photo taken with Santa Claus, provided by Tracy Moore Photographers’ Kerry Sandelin.
The event was made possible with the help of a grant from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
Volunteers worked all night Friday and through the day Saturday decorating and preparing for the event. Cheryl Wing, owner of Party Solutions, donated $8,000 worth of decorations for the weekend extravaganza.
Jennifer Mercer, Billings Depot executive director, said the hope is to make the Polar Express at the Billings Depot an annual event.
“It’s a phenomenal family event,” Mercer said. “I think it’s really a magical experience for kids.”