The nearly 6,000 ticket holders who rode the Polar Express holiday train this season had a major positive economic impact on downtown Elkins, and there are plans to expand the season next year, officials said.
"It was, without a doubt, the best entertainment train we've ever done," said John Smith, owner of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad. "It succeeded far beyond our expectations.
"We've already booked around 2,000 tickets for next year, which is unheard of," Smith said. "We're riding a wave, and we hope it keeps cresting."
The Inter-Mountain photo by Brad Johnson
Posing in front of the New Tygart Flyer before one of the Polar Express holiday train runs in the Elkins Depot earlier this month were, front row, Braylin Davis, 1, and, back row from left, Taylor Blevins, 3, and Braxton Davis, 4. Their families brought them from Kentucky to ride the Polar Express.
The railroad had 35,998 passengers in 2011, which is "by far our biggest year," Smith said, adding that almost 5,900 of those tickets were for the Polar Express, which sold out completely before the first run of the season.
"We had five weekends that we ran the Polar Express this year, for a total of 26 trips," Smith said. "Our plans for next year are to run it for six weeks, and a total of 38 trips, including four Thursday night trips. That will total about 9,400 tickets."
The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad was one of 30 railroads across the U.S. offering officially licensed Polar Express train rides this Christmas season. "It was not inexpensive to get the rights to do this, but our goal was 4,000 tickets sold and we'd consider it a break-even," Smith said. "So obviously, we were very happy with the response."
The railroad's officials weren't the only business people thrilled by the turnout for the holiday train. Downtown merchants and hotel managers told The Inter-Mountain they saw economic benefits as well.
"We absolutely saw a positive impact. It's drawn our numbers way up, especially on the weekends," Jeff Loudin, the Hampton Inn's general manager, said. "Starting with that very first weekend that it opened, we did excellent business. Coming during the downseason like it did, it was a great thing."
Loudin said he met families who came from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C. to ride the train. "They came from all over the east, and they were big families," he said. "The feedback that we've heard about the train ride was that the kids loved it and the parents were very impressed."
"We saw a consistent number of people who came here to ride the train," Craig Fortney, the Holiday Inn Express's manager, said.
"We heard excellent feedback about it," Fortney said. "We had people wanting to book rooms for next year so they could ride the Polar Express."
The Elkins Sewing Center's Sue Pifer said her store "definitely had more people coming in, and they were riding the train. I think it's a super thing for us to have here."
Michelle Mace, the general manager of the restaurant C.J. Maggie's, said, "A lot of groups and families came in with kids in pajamas, both before and after the train ride. Its a very positive thing for the town."
"Our restaurant was full beyond capacity on the nights the train was running," Smith said, referring to the Railyard Restaurant. "At some points, our restaurant was so full, and the line outside so long, that I personally walked some people downtown and showed them C.J. Maggie's and Beander's. But that's a good thing, we were delighted."
Smith took the opportunity to thank some of those who helped make the holiday train a success.
"Missy Armentrout's Old Brick Players did a great job" at portraying characters from the 2004 "Polar Express" animated film, Smith said. "They were a huge part of the experience."
He also praised the Belington Revitilization Committee for creating a magical North Pole experience in Belington, where the Polar Express stopped to let Santa on board.
"The Belington Revitilization Committee did a spectacular job designing the North Pole," he said. "It was great for the holiday train, and they came out with cash ahead for other projects."
Smith said there will also be a few changes onboard the Polar Express next year. "When the train pulled in this year, the kids got so excited," he said. "It will be hard to replicate that feeling next year, but we're going to add new wrinkles and twists to it."
Contact Brad Johnson by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.