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All aboard the Polar Express!

Yuletide magic abounds on Centralia's No. 15

A ride on the No. 15 becomes magical the day after Thanksgiving. Photo credit:

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Few literary works from 1985 can be justifiably dubbed modern classics, but The Polar Express may be an exception to that principle. We know parents who read it to their families every Christmas Eve, reminding them that even kids who've begun to doubt the existence and demi-divine powers of jolly Saint Nick can find warmth and joy in the twinkling atmosphere of Christmas. It's a secular doubting-Thomas yarn in which the supernatural hero answers skepticism with kindness and undeniable evidence. Author Chris Van Allsburg won his second Caldecott Medal for the book, which sold millions of copies even before 2004 -- the year Robert Zemeckis adapted it into a computer-generated feature that starred Tom Hanks in six different voice and motion-capture roles. The movie, in turn, was adapted as a simulator ride that's been featured at theme parks all over the world, but you and your kids won't need to travel far to experience The Polar Express' loco-magic live and in person.

Van Allsburg patterned his Polar Express and illustrations after the Pere Marquette 1225, an American 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine he remembered from its permanent-display status near his childhood home in Grand Haven, Michigan. (As a kid, Van Allsburg associated the 1225 with 12/25, otherwise known as Christmas Day.) The movie followed his lead.

In Centralia, however, the Polar Express takes the form of a 1919 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado steam locomotive, the Cowlitz, Chehalis & Cascadia No. 15, which is lovingly maintained and operated by the nonprofit Chehalis-Centralia Railroad Association. A ride on the No. 15 is pleasant enough on a clear summer evening but wreathes itself in special magic the day after Thanksgiving. That's when the nine-mile track squeezes through a chimney in spacetime to convey passengers to Santa's snowy domain, an arctic workshop located somewhere between the magnetic North Pole and, one assumes, Kal-El's Fortress of Solitude.

For only 10 bucks each, passengers on the Chehalis-Centralia line's Santa Steam Train meet and take photos with Santa before and after the half-hour round trip. For the real Van Allsburg experience, spring for the trademarked Polar Express Train, which features not only a reading of the book but also a gift from the selfless elf himself. Of course, there'll be caroling and cookies and, as the movie makes frenetically clear, hot chocolate. The railroad invites younger guests to arrive in pajamas. Sorry, parents -- no flannel jammies for you -- but make sure to dress warmly, as the No. 15 is spacious but largely open to the elements.

To purchase advance tickets, highly recommended during the busy holiday season, call the number below or visit All Chehalis-Centralia locomotive rides are ADA-compatible, and kiddies under 2 ride free in parents' laps.

The Polar Express Train, 5, 7 and 9 p.m., Fridays-Sundays, Nov. 24-Dec. 17; Santa Steam Train, 1 and 3 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays, Dec. 2-10, 1945 S. Market Blvd., Chehalis, free-$38, 360.748.9593,

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