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The Polar Express vs The North Pole Experience: Which Should You Visit?

Splash pad or pool? Local pumpkin patch or buy pumpkins at Trader Joe’s? The Polar Express or The North Pole Experience? All are common questions you hear as a Valley parent, yet I had never even heard of the The Polar Express nor The North Pole Experience until I had kids… and I’m practically an AZ native.

north pole experience

Many of you are probably clueless like I was and are wondering what the hype is all about and which one you should visit. Both attractions are located in Northern Arizona and use the unique mountain beauty and winter weather to give families an imaginary visit to the North Pole. Both experiences are VERY popular and sell out quickly, so book early to get your preferred date and time. It’s not unheard of to book your trip during the summer months (hint, hint). Both experiences last about 90 minutes, but that’s where the similarities end. The Polar Express and The North Pole Experience offer something unique for each family, so I’ve broken down the basics of each holiday attraction from a fellow mama’s perspective to help you chose the option that best fits your family at this time in your life. If you’ve been to The Polar Express or The North Pole Experience, let us know your tips in the comments section!

The Polar Express: The Magical Train Ride to the North Pole

  • The Polar Express is a train ride, operated by Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel, that recreates the classic holiday story, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. The train departs from Williams, Arizona at 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Only two departure times means that The Polar Express sells out quickly! After the train leaves the station it enters a magical tunnel that transports you from Williams to the North Pole. Outside you’ll see Santa’s village and then the man in the red suit himself gets on the train and visits each car and each family.
  • If you’re worried about your little one having to sit still, don’t be! Seats are assigned, but you don’t have to stay in them. Kids can crowd the windows to see the North Pole and dance and sing in the aisles as the train makes its journey. What’s nice is that they can move around and act like kids, but are contained in a train car so they can’t run off. Santa’s helpers keep everyone entertained with milk and cookies, stories, and a sing-along during the train ride.
  • PJs are encouraged and you won’t look silly wearing them since everyone will be rocking their jammies too! It’s a fun way to recreate the magic of the book. 
  • There are luggage racks on the train, which are nice for storing all of your child gear. 
  • Williams is a tiny town, but many families stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel that’s adjacent to the train depot. Many stay in Flagstaff and drive the 35 miles to Williams for the train ride, while other families make The Polar Express a day trip. 

The Polar Express was our first foray into the world of Northern Arizona Christmas happenings. My youngest was about 18 months. My oldest was 4. I thought it was the perfect experience for the kids at that age since we were contained and they couldn’t run off, the length of the trip was just right, and they could easily see and hear what was going on. While it’s a wonderful experience for all ages, I tend to recommend it for families with toddlers who are escape artists. We opted for the 5:30 pm time because of naps and bedtimes, but now that my kids are 4 and 7 I would take the 7:30 pm departure. It wasn’t dark outside yet during our 5:30 pm ride so we really had to use our imaginations. Visit The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel website for more information and to purchase tickets. 

The North Pole Experience: Inside Santa’s Workshop

  • The North Pole Experience is a building in a wooded Flagstaff area that has been recreated into Santa’s Workshop. A “trolley” (a tour bus) takes families on a short ride from the Little America Hotel through a “magical portal” (a winding road surrounded by trees) from Flagstaff to the North Pole. Once at the North Pole, the trolley makes a stop at Santa’s Workshop for a intimate tour of Santa’s very own digs. Friendly, super-perky elves escort visitors through different rooms of the workshop: a toy factory where kids create their own bears, Mrs. Claus’ bakery for milk and cookies, Elf University, Santa’s mailroom where children write a letter to St. Nick, and Santa’s sleigh hanger where little ones look around in awe at the North Pole command center as shadows of reindeer walk overhead. From the hanger, each family is taken into a visiting area where Santa himself spends time with family members.
  • The North Pole Experience is interactive, with an activity at each stop, so kids are allowed to touch, talk, and be kids. The elves give a short presentation at the beginning of each room visit, but soon after you’ll be up and walking around while doing that room’s activity. Strollers aren’t allowed and you’ll need to carry your things during the tour. (Designated coat holder right here!)
  • The North Pole Experience has more time options than The Polar Express, offering tours from 8 am to 8 pm on weekends and later in the day on weekdays. More options means that you’re more likely to be able to go to The North Pole Experience than The Polar Express, but popular time slots do fill up quickly. 
  • Some people wear pajamas. Some don’t. So you’re good either way!
  • The Little America Hotel is family-friendly and has a beautiful Christmas light display, so many families choose to spend the night there. Like The Polar Express and The North Pole Experience, Little America fills up fast so book your rooms early. Since Flagstaff isn’t a large city, most hotels are a short drive to Little America. Many families also make this a day trip. 

Last year was family’s first time at The North Pole Experience. My kids were 3 and 6. For our family, I think it was best that we went when the kids were a bit older because they were able to enjoy the hands-on experiences. Although our older daughter “got it” more than my younger one, they were both old enough to know about Santa and to be amazed at the magic of being inside his workshop. We took the trip with other family members, so I liked having plenty of time options since we were dealing with so many different schedules. Once again we opted for a daytime visit, but I would love to go back at night since I heard the light display is amazing. It also makes the “portal” to the North Pole more realistic. My older daughter is pretty intuitive and we had to cover her eyes and do a lot of work so that she didn’t notice that we were driving on a road in Flagstaff and not through a magical portal. Visit The North Pole Experience website for more information and to purchase tickets.

Have you been to The Polar Express or The North Pole Experience? Tell us what you think in the comments! 

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