By Patricia Hall, FairfaxFamilyFun.com
It’s a short and simple ride, but a super-popular event with kids: the Santa Train excursions by Virginia Railway Express (VRE)! Each year VRE hosts a series of “Santa Trains” rides that serve both as a public safety awareness campaign and a fun family outing. We have been attended the Santa Train for years and can provide you with all the information you’ll need (and more details and tips beyond what’s on the VRE site). This is a very popular event that ALWAYS sells out quickly, so you need to plan ahead. In 2015, the rides take place on Saturday, December 12, and tickets go on sale on Monday, November 23. Please see our write-up below (based on our posts from previous years, and updated for 2015) for program details and useful tips!
The “Santa Train” is not one train specifically but several trains — departing from four stations — featuring Santa and Mrs. Claus. This one-day event is held at the Woodbridge, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Burke Centre VRE stations. Passengers enjoy a short ride (that returns to the same station) and they get to meet Santa. The popular event is a benefit for Operation Lifesaver, which was founded in 1972 to promote highway-rail grade crossing safety. We may think rail accidents happen rarely, but according to Operation Lifesaver, about every three hours a person or vehicle is hit by a train. The Santa Train, VRE says, is “not just for fun, but it also has a serious and important message: ‘Look, listen, and live.’”
My family has gone on the Santa Train for five years now so the information below is presented partly from official VRE information and partly from my own experience. It’s a simple but fun event your family should try at least once. While most young kids would enjoy it, I would say (again, my own personal experience) that it’s ideal for children ages 2-7. Below are details of what you can expect and best tips for getting tickets.
So what happens on a Santa Train?
The ride itself is pretty simple: you board the train for a short round-trip ride (usually about 40 minutes); exact times vary by station. During the ride, VRE staff distribute paper “conductor” hats, Operation Lifesaver coloring books and candy canes to the kids, and may provide short tips on rail safety. On some trains, local school choral groups come through to lead riders in a holiday sing-along. During the ride, Santa and Mrs. Claus make their way through each car to visit briefly with the kids. (PS – you can take photos but must be quick, as Santa and Mrs. Claus are mostly just “passing through.”)
Tickets for Santa trains always sell out, and very quickly (as in, within a few minutes)! It used to be that tickets would go on sale the Monday after Thanksgiving, but in recent years they actually havegone on sale the Monday BEFORE Thanksgiving, in this case November 23, 2015. If you’re planning on going, you pretty much HAVE to be online and on the sales page by 9 am or at a ticket outlet by the time it opens (half the tickets are sold in person and half online). There are NO tickets sold the day of the event so if you don’t get them on time, you may be out of luck or at the mercy of people re-selling them (for more money) on Craigslist.
- You’ll need to buy tickets for each person. Per VRE, “all passengers, regardless of age, must have tickets,” so yes, this means that infants and babies must have tickets, too.
- Tickets cost $5 at outlets and $6 online. Due to the popularity of the event, online sales for most trains are limited to six (6) tickets per person and VRE is very strict about this; if you’re caught trying to skirt this rule, your entire purchase will be voided.
- If you’ll buy your tickets in person, arrive early. 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, and Fredericksburg.
- Online ticket sales can be by major credit card or PayPal. Have your PayPal account open and/or your credit card ready before you try to buy tickets (yes, they go that quickly!).
- Seating on the trains is not reserved but instead is general admission, so have your group together before you board. If you’re meeting another group, it’s best to do so before you get to the platform, as people tend to get there early and it may be hard to meet up when it’s crowded.
- 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, so if purchasing them that way, have your second and third train station choices already selected in case your first choice of a station and time sells out.
Find out about station parking, particularly if you are going to a station you’re not familiar with. Plan enough time to park and walk comfortably to the platform. Since only riders with tickets get to board, if you have yours you will definitely have a seat, but if you want to see the train pulling into the station (as kids often do), arrive early before the platform gets crowded. Wear Santa hats and Christmas clothing for extra fun and photo ops!
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. This is completely voluntary, but if you’re going to participate, just bring a new, unwrapped toy. See the VRE Toys for Tots FAQ page for more. One more tip: in addition to “big box” stores, some places to buy inexpensive toys are TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, Five Below, or even supermarkets. You also could buy and group multiple small items: for example, a drawing pad, paint set, crayons, glue, beads, and pipe cleaners in a clear plastic box makes a nice basic arts and crafts kit.
Have a great time on the Santa Train… Maybe we’ll see you “all aboard!”
Photos (c) P. Hall