Originally published Oct. 25, 2016
By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
We don’t like to put one holiday ahead of another one, so it seems odd to write about Christmas in October. But when it comes to the Santa Train by Virginia Railway Express (VRE), you have to plan ahead! Each year VRE hosts a series of “Santa Train” rides that serve as a public safety awareness campaign and a fun family outing. This is a very popular event that ALWAYS sells out quickly (usually within the first hour online), so people make special plans for when the tickets go on sale. This year the Santa Train rides take place on December 10, 2016, and tickets go on sale on Monday, November 21. Please see our write-up below (based on our posts from previous years, and updated for 2016) for program details and useful tips!
WHAT IT IS: The “Santa Train” is not one train alone but several trains — departing from various VRE stations at different times — that have Santa and Mrs. Claus aboard. Passengers enjoy a short “ride to nowhere” (trains return to the same departure station) and meet Santa and Mrs. Claus along the way. The event is a benefit for Operation Lifesaver, which was founded in 1972 to promote highway-rail grade crossing safety. The organization says that about every three hours a person or vehicle is hit by a train so it encourages awareness of safety issues along railroads.
WHAT’S NEW IN 2016: Great news! For years people have lamented at how quickly the online tickets sell out (only half the tickets are sold online; the rest in person at different locations). People have asked for more trains to be added but that is not an easy thing to do since VRE doesn’t own the actual railroads it operates on and the whole project, the organization says, requires careful coordination. But now in 2016 it is adding two Santa Train stations! Joining the Woodbridge, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Burke Centre VRE stations, which have offered Santa Trains for the past few years, Spotsylvania and Broad Run are now departure locations, too! In all, there will be 13 Santa Trains operating on December 10.
Want to go? My family has gone on the Santa Train for six years now so we have plenty of useful tips for you. This is a simple but fun event, especially for very young kids (I’d say kids ages 2-7 would enjoy it most), and something you should try at least once. See our tips below and what you can expect and best tips for getting tickets.
So what happens on a Santa Train?
The ride is a simple, short excursion of about 40 minutes (times vary by station) during which VRE staff distribute paper “conductor” hats, Operation Lifesaver coloring books, and candy canes to the kids, and then Santa and Mrs. Claus go through all the cars (have your camera ready for a quick photo opp!). On some trains, local choral groups lead riders in a holiday sing-along.
Tickets for Santa trains always sell out, and very quickly. If you’re purchasing your tickets online, you pretty much HAVE to be online and on the sales page for the train you want (see the station links below) by 9 am on the day of the sale (November 21, 2016) — and even so, it’s not a guarantee you’ll get a ticket. You might also want to consider just going to one of the ticket outlets, being there before the sale begins. Tickets are not sold the day of the event so if you don’t get them in time, you may be out of luck or at the mercy of people re-selling them (for more money) on Craigslist. Other good things to note:
- Per VRE, “all passengers, regardless of age, must have tickets,” so this means you must buy tickets for everyone, including infants and babies.
- Tickets cost $5 at outlets and $6 online. Sales are limited to six (6) tickets per person for most trains and VRE is very strict about this.
- If you’ll buy your tickets in person, arrive early and note the method of payment accepted (at some places it’s only by cash or check). If buying them online, have the browser page open for the specific train you want (they’re sold by station and ride time) and your credit card (or PayPal account information) ready.
- For the exact schedules for each train and details on where/how to purchase tickets, see the specific sales pages for Manassas, Woodbridge, Burke Centre, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Broad Run.
- Online ticket sales are only by major credit card or PayPal. Have your PayPal account open and/or your credit card ready before you try to buy tickets.
- If buying at the specific station or outlet in person, you can ONLY buy tickets for trains departing from that specific station. Online you can buy for any train/any station (you may want to have some secondary choices in case your preferred station sells out).
Find out about station parking ahead of time, especially if you are going to a station you’re not familiar with. Plan enough time to park and walk comfortably to the platform. Seating on the trains is not reserved but instead is general admission, so have your group together before you board. Arrive early before the platform gets crowded so you can see the train pull up, and wear Santa hats and Christmas clothing for extra holiday fun!
Activities at/near the stations
If you plan to do something before or after Santa Train, consider your location. The Manassas VRE station, for example, has several restaurants and shops within walking distance of the train, plus ice skating at the nearby Harris Pavilion. The Burke Centre station, on the other hand, is by an office building that’s mostly vacant on the weekend, but you can take a short drive to nearby restaurants.
Toys for Tots
Santa Train stations also serve as collection sites for the Marine Corps’ “Toys for Tots” campaign, so bring a new, unwrapped toy. Please remember that for some kids this may be the only present they get, so while you don’t have to spend a lot of money, do get something thoughtful that kids will enjoy.
Have a great time on the Santa Train… Maybe we’ll see you “all aboard!”
Photos (c) P. Hall