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Lisle pulls in holidays with annual 'Polar Express' ride

Pair of Lisle men have organized holiday train ride for 19 years

LISLE – This December, residents will sing carols, eat candy canes and visit with Santa while riding through the suburbs at 60 miles per hour. 

The Lisle Polar Express Christmas Train will take passengers to and from the "North Pole" on Sunday, Dec. 8.

Lisle residents Wayne Dunham and Jack Kelly, who play the train’s engineer and conductor, respectively, have organized the event for the past 19 years. 

“This is the warmest, fuzziest day of the year for me,” Dunham said. “[I look forward to] seeing the children and their parents getting along and everyone being happy.” 

The Lisle Polar Express will depart from Lisle and will travel nonstop to the Amtrak yards, located outside of Chicago Union Station. Dunham said if everything goes according to plan, the train will then go onto a trestle to give passengers a view of downtown Chicago from the south. 

“It looks suspiciously like the factories at the North Pole, to me, where they make all the toys,” Dunham said of the view. 

The train will then travel nonstop back to the Lisle Metra station. Residents will be unable to leave the train during the trip, which will take about 75 minutes, Kelly said. 

Passengers will sit in train cars clad in holiday décor and will be joined by several characters, including Mrs. Claus, Belle, Cinderella, Scrooge and five Santas.

The Santas will be evenly dispersed throughout the train so each child can spend ample time with them, Dunham said. Elves will also visit passengers on each car to lead the singing of carols and distribute Polar Express activity booklets and a bell from the harness of Santa’s reindeer with a message from Santa. 

“With so many [characters] wandering around there is always someone in a car,” Dunham said. 

Kelly added that each child will receive a candy cane, along with other surprises.

The Lisle Polar Express will have 10 passenger cars and seating for 1,000 people. Kelly said this makes the event not only the largest Polar Express train in the area, but the only one with fully chartered trains. For other events, a certain number of train cars are hooked onto regularly scheduled Metra trains, Kelly said. 

“We are excited to have a lot of things going [for the event] and it’s putting Lisle on the map,” Kelly said. 

Lisle's Polar Express launched when Fran Bolson, then president of the Lisle Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Dunham and Kelly were in a meeting discussing adding a Christmas train to the village's Once Upon a Christmas celebration.  

Dunham and Kelly, who was a member of the 20th Century Railroad Club and an avid railroad enthusiast, jumped at the idea. 

Tickets for the Polar Express went on sale Nov. 8, Dunham said, and residents who purchased tickets so far are from 65 suburbs and five states. 

“It’s more than just a Lisle event,” Dunham said. 

Dunham expects tickets to sell out during the first week of December. Tickets can be purchased at the following Lisle locations: The Nook, 4738 Main St.; Lisle Savings Bank, 1450 Maple Ave.; 7-Eleven, 1100 Ogden Ave.; and Safari Café, 6440 College Road. 

Residents can park for free in the Lisle train station parking lots. A hayride will be available to transport residents from the parking lot to the train station and vice versa. 

Kelly said his pet peeve is when he hears children say they have never ridden a train, as he experienced his first train ride when he was just 6 months old. 

“So now they have a chance to hopefully ride and I’m glad they ride the train,” Kelly said. “Hopefully they will ride many more of them.” 


Movie company pressures organizers over name

The Lisle Polar Express Christmas Train doesn't draw any profits, organizer Wayne Dunham said. Instead, ticket sales pay for use of the train – a $16,000 cost – and for the individuals who play the characters.

The remainder of the event is run by volunteers, which includes Dunham, Jack Kelly, Lisle High School students and Girl Scouts. Any leftover money is donated to the Scouts, Dunham said. 

Still, according to Dunham, movie production company Warner Bros. is putting pressure on the group to change the name of the event. The company sent a letter to the Lisle Convention and Visitors Bureau stating that the company would like a certain amount of money from the event proceeds if the name is used.

“It’s a sore subject,” Dunham said. “But we are not going to worry about it until next year.” 

He said the event name was born 19 years ago based on "The Polar Express" book.

“Having fun for the kids is the main thing for crying out loud,” Kelly added. “With this whole rights stuff what are you doing to the kids? You can’t call it Polar Express because someone wants [this many] dollars; explain that to a 6- or 7-year-old kid.” 


Polar Express Schedule 

Train Departure Time: 9:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8

Departure Location: Lisle Metra Train Station, 1000 Front St., Lisle

Trip Destination: Roundtrip to Chicago

Estimated Trip Times: 75 minutes each

Ticket Price: $16 each for children and adults 

Ticket Locations: The Nook, Lisle Savings Bank, 7-Eleven, Safari Café  

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