By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
Christmas is still weeks away, but if you want to attend one of the area’s most popular holiday events, you need to plan for this one-day sale soon: Virginia Railway Express (VRE) has set the date for its Santa Train ticket sales! Each year VRE hosts a series of “Santa Train” rides that serve as a public safety awareness campaign and a fun family outing. The VRE Santa Train 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 VRE Santa Train rides will be on December 8, 2018, and tickets go on sale on Monday, November 19, 2018.
We have attended this event for many years and are happy to share tips for getting tickets and what to expect on the ride. Please see our write-up below, based on information from VRE and our own experience, so you don’t miss out!
What the VRE Santa Train 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.
A total of 13 trains depart from 5 stations at various times from morning to mid-afternoon, all on December 8, 2018. In 2018, participating VRE stations are: Fredericksburg, Manassas, Burke Center, Woodbridge, and Spotsylvania (in 2016 trains also departed from Broad Run but that’s not the case this year). Each train (by station and time) has its own name, such as “Blitzen Express,” “North Pole Express,” or “Frosty Express” but all rides are the same. People often ask why more trains don’t go from more stations, but that is not an easy thing to plan for since VRE doesn’t own the actual railroads it operates on and the whole project, the organization says, requires careful coordination.
Activities on the VRE Santa Train
The train ride itself is a simple, short excursion of about 40 minutes (exact times vary by station and route) during which VRE staff distribute paper “conductor” hats, Operation Lifesaver coloring books, and candy canes to the kids, and then Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus go through all the cars to greet the children (have your camera ready for a quick photo opp!). On some trains, local choral groups sometimes lead riders in a holiday sing-along. It’s a simple activity, but the thrill of riding a train and seeing Santa, plus the low price, make this event a best-seller.
Ticket information and tips
Tickets for Santa trains always sell out, without fail and very quickly. Ticket sales happen online and at retail locations, with about an even split (half online and half in person). 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 19, 2018) — and even so, it’s not a guarantee you’ll get a ticket. If you’re going to buy your VRE Santa Train tickets online, you should create an account ahead of time, have your credit card readily available, and be ready to buy as soon as the clock strikes 9 am. I also suggest you have a “Plan B, Plan C” and so forth for other trains locations and times in case your first choice sells out quickly (people have complained about some trains being sold out literally within just a few minutes!).
You might also want to consider just going to one of the in-person ticket outlets, being there a bit before the sale begins. Tickets are not sold ahead of the ticket sale day and none are available on the day of the train ride itself, 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 well above face value) on sites such as Craigslist.
Want to attend this event? My family has gone on the Santa Train for seven years now (and we buy our own tickets!) so we have plenty of useful tips for you. This is a simple but fun event, especially for young children — I’d say kids ages 2-8 would enjoy it most — and something you should try at least once. Keep in mind that:
- 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, payable in cash or by check only. Sales are limited to six (6) tickets per person for nearly all 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, and Spotsylvania.
- 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, walk comfortably to the platform, be there well before the train departs. 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 cheer and fun photos!
Activities at and 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, as well as museums, within a short 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 drive
The VRE Santa Train event includes a collection 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!”
All photos (c) P. Hall