The Polar Express: A Look from the Inside

by | Dec 7, 2021 | Attractions

I have picked up yet another couple of hats… a chef’s hat and a steward’s hat by being part of this year’s Polar Express currently going on at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.  I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the many behind-the-scenes activities as I can without spoiling the “magic” that the show is for us all.

You may be wondering how I ended up in the Polar Express. I was told they needed chefs and when I inquired about what the chefs do… “oh they just serve the hot chocolate”!  Okay then sign me up!

Practice, Practice

Fast forward to November 4 when practices began for the show.  I was expecting to be shown how to pour the delicious hot chocolate served during the train rides.  As I was walking into the museum, I noticed a lot of young people coming in and thought to myself “they must be elves”.  Nope… they were chefs as well.   The director had us line up and then two people got up in front of us and said, “let’s learn our first dance”!

Okay… now is when the shock is hitting me that … wait… what???  DANCE??  The two instructors at the front began breaking down the “Hot Chocolate” dance and the shock was sinking in even more.  If you know me then you know “quitting” isn’t even a word that exists in my vocabulary.   If I had to dance then, by golly, I was going to dance… mask and all.

After the “Hot Chocolate” dance lesson, of which I still didn’t know, we went on the learn yet two more dances and Christmas Carols.  Now having a background in teaching some aerobic classes for the last 26 years I knew what a grapevine was so the next two dances weren’t as challenging.  However, the “Hot Chocolate” one was kicking my rear and I wasn’t about to let it win.  I had some great people to assist me like, Liberty Hill, and a few other returning actors help me along the way.  Keep in mind this was only the first night of practice!  The practice was every day from Thursday, November 4 until Thursday, November 11 and that included all day on Saturday, November 6.  I quickly realized that this was going to be a major commitment and I wasn’t about to give up or let anyone down!

Now, this was a lot for me in all honesty… working all day, teaching yoga, and then practicing into the night each day, but I was not alone.  The young people, who definitely outnumber the older folks, worked equally hard!  They had school during the day, dance practice, and dance competitions, and some of them have jobs on top of that.  The elves are also in school all day and bless the hearts of the parents that bring them each night and come back to take them home a few hours later.

I practiced each free moment for the “Hot Chocolate” dance… such as at lunch, at home, after classes, and yes in my sleep.  Can you say, “OCD Much”?  After several rehearsals on the trains, we were ready for costume fittings and our first show on Friday, November 12.

I had the pleasure of being on Train B… more specifically “Prancer” and I was working along with our Steward Andy Alvarez.  Andy was a wonderful teacher and showed me the ropes quickly as to how to ensure that our passengers had a wonderful experience on our train.  I asked Andy how long he had been in the Polar Express and he said, “two years, and I like it because of the acting”.  Train cars are set up the night before usually to ensure a smooth start to the next day.  Napkins, tickets, and songbooks, along with other various items depending on which train car you are on, are in place ready for our guests.  Chefs sing, dance, walk around with large Polar Express books during the story, and while guests go out at the North Pole show the trains are reset and ready for the arrival of Santa.

At the end of the shows when everyone offboards the train the chefs and stewards hustle (not the dance) to get set back up for the next show which sometimes can be as little as 5 minutes apart.  Trust me it’s a lot of work.  You might be interested to know that while we are setting up for the next show a crew comes through sanitizing between each train car.

Chefs in the Kitchen

Now what you don’t see is the kitchen on most of the train cars and how crazy and how organized it can be all at the same time!  Hot Chocolate is brought on fresh before each show.  Temperatures are taken before the beverage is poured and before it is served to ensure the proper temperature for each passenger.  Delicious chocolate chip cookies are served with the hot beverage as well.  Some train cars have their own kitchens, and some share a kitchen with other trains.  It can be a fun and crazy time, but I have yet to see anything go awry and everyone works well together to create a magical experience.

Talent Comes from Near and Far

We have a lot of local talent in the show, such as Liberty Hill who has been doing the show now for 5 years starting off in the gift store.  She tells me “I do this because I love to see all the kids smile and create magic for them!” Liberty was also instrumental in helping me learn the “Hot Chocolate” dance. Trust me she has a lot of patience! Some other local talent I was also lucky enough to walk in with one day was Eve Rich and she also has been in the show for 5 years, “I like that I can utilize my skills on the train”.  Nicky Black is also a chef or steward, depending on the need the day of the show, and she shared, “this is the closest thing to a Disney experience you can get in not just Rowan County, but North Carolina too!  I love being a chef.  That’s why this is my third year doing it.”

We also have people that drive in from out of town to be in the show, like Robin Lewis and her son Josh, that drive from Stanly, North Carolina for each show.  Josh shared with me that “since I’m in the show my mom decided to be in it too”!  Josh has also been in a movie and loves performing.   Some actors/actresses come in from Mooresville and some from Davidson County like Carson Shoaf who is in his second year.  Carson is also a lifeguard at the YMCA in Lexington and works there before coming to Spencer to perform some days.

Along with the chefs and stewards, you will also see the elves! One elf, Hailey, is doing the show for her very first time.  I spoke with her mom, Courtney Spangler, about the experience.  “It has been exciting and magical for her.  She enjoys seeing the joy in the kids that she sees while still being so innocent herself.”

Lastly, we can’t forget the most important talent, the Big Man himself… Santa!  Hands down we know he is the most popular guy on the train!  Just ask any kid there!

Long Hours and Many Days

I can’t write this without mentioning the other behind-the-scenes people that do all the hard work of corralling the actors/actresses, coordinating the food, the trains, and the ones that keep us all motivated to be awesome each night.

Those people are Kelly Alexander, Executive Director/COO at North Carolina Transportation Museum and Foundation; Marcus Neubacher, Director of Administration at the North Carolina Transportation  Museum Foundation; Elaine Holden,  Outreach and Program Coordinator, Membership Services at the North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation; Danielle Hough, Director of Special Events at the North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation; Betsy Mowery, Director of Development for the North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation, and Lane Baker, Vice President of Rail Operations.

Working directly with the actors and actresses are Ryan Miles, Director Extraordinaire, Hailey Glick, Manager of all the schedules for performers and queen of emails, plus managing Train A performances, and Ada Valdez, queen of all check-ins, vaccinations, along with managing Train B performances.  We also have Ashleigh that takes care of the cleaning and fitting of all costumes.  We couldn’t look tip-top without her!

I have to mention all the great guys that work on the train… like seriously work to ensure that each night the train cars have air, heat, and electricity.  We are performing on trains and sadly sometimes they have issues, but I have seen some amazing people just pull together to resolve anything and everything.  Charles Stubbs and his group of merry men are amazing, and I love them all!!

Last, but not least are the amazing group of people that load and reload the trains throughout the entire night.  They bring in supplies all night long for each train car and believe me that is no easy task.  They also take off things, such as empty Cambro boxes, and they help us get the trash from each show off the trains.  All of the hot chocolate and cookies are magically made by Debbie Suggs Catering… again no easy task!  We go through a lot of them each show which can be 3 to 4 shows a night!

All Aboard

The Polar Express is going full steam from now until December 23.  There are some tickets still available.  Visit www.nctransportationmuseum.org and find a night and time for you and your family.  If you don’t make it to this year’s production mark your calendars for 2022 now.  Tickets normally go on sale in the summer!

This may be one of the hardest things I have ever done and also maybe the one I am most proud of doing.  I could have walked out that first night, but then I would have missed the magic the guests bring with them and share with me each night as I walk to their seats and chat with them about where they are from and if this is their first trip to the North Pole.  I could have missed being covered from head to toe (literally) in spilled hot chocolate.  I could have missed connecting with so many great youths that come each night to perform and bring energy to each show.  Or I could have missed the night a little girl was leaving the train and she ran up and wrapped her arms around me and told me she loved me… yeah, I could have just walked… but I am so happy I stayed.

About The Author

Janet Ruffin

I’m an adventurous soul that loves to interact with people everywhere I go. You might say I’ve never met a stranger! I look forward to discovering and sharing all the things Rowan County has to offer because it’s Your Rowan!