Polar Express Article in the Smoky Mountain Times
‘Polar Express' stays on track through the
national economic fog
Polar Express" idles on Friday evening just before the 6:30
p.m. trip to the "North Pole." The Great Smoky
Mountain Railroad’s general manager says ridership on the
Express has held steady from last year. (Aaron Morgan)
Even though the economy has been plagued with bad news lately, Great Smoky
Mountains Railroad (GSMR) General Manager Kim Albritton said the holidays are
going to be good for GSMR. "The Polar Express" train excursion has
already sold 30,000 pre-booked tickets this year.
"We're at the same place
we were this time last year," Albritton said. "We're right on
She said GSMR has been successfully operating holiday excursions for 15 years.
But the "Polar Express" excursion, which began in 2004, has far
exceeded its predecessors. Last year, more than 46,000 people rode "The
Before 2004, GSMR ran "Santa's Express" out of the Dillsboro depot.
Albritton said ticket sales for the previous holiday trains averaged between
6,000 to 8,000. Most of those tickets where for school children on field trips
from the classroom.
The success of "The Polar Express," she said, is largely due to the
Warner Brothers film version of the popular Christmas book of the same name. The
animated movie was released in theaters across the country in 2004, the same
year GSMR changed the name of its holiday train excursion.
"We always read the
(‘Polar Express') book on the holiday trains. But when the movie came out, the
title received national attention. It was a huge national event."
Given all the recent bad news for the economy, Albritton said she is
"shocked that it (ticket sales) are holding."
Ticket prices for "The Polar Express" are $38 for an adult and $26 for
a child. Train riders can also opt for a "first class" upgrade, which
adds $15 for an adult and $10 for a child. Albritton said the first class car,
which includes amenities such as a souvenir mug and holiday snacks, has been
filling up fast.
"The first-class car has been selling out, people are paying for the
This year, GSMR adopted a new marketing strategy. Instead of spending money for
advertising in surrounding states, Albritton said the company opted to spend its
entire marketing budget in North Carolina. That move may have helped keep the
holiday business strong.
The effort included television and radio ads, brochures and the purchase of a
mailing list. GSMR mailed 75,000 brochures to North Carolina addresses this
year. And Albritton said the effort is paying off.
"As long as we do a good job, they're going to keep coming back."
From Dillsboro to Bryson City
Citing rumors that GSMR was running out of money, and despite of them, Albritton
said the company is not closing. She said the 2009 brochure and rates are ready.
The rumors, she said, date back to the summer when GSMR halted all train
excursions from Dillsboro to Bryson City.
At the time, the reasons given for Dillsboro shutdown were a drop-off in
ridership and the soaring cost of diesel fuel. However, Albritton said moving
all train excursions to Bryson City "was always part of the master
plan." She said economic circumstances forced GSMR to make the move sooner
than management had hoped.
The Times reported that as many as 40 employees faced layoffs or a move from
Dillsboro to Bryson City in July. But Albritton said on Monday that less than 20
jobs were lost. She said at least six of the Dillsboro employees are now working
in Bryson City.
In retrospect, Albritton said the move was "ahead of the curve."
"If we were still Dillsboro," she said, "we'd be in big trouble
Although ticket sales are high, there is still room for improvement. Albritton
said most of the Friday and Saturday trains are sold out, there are still a lot
of tickets available for weekday trips.
GSMR has also recently added the "Take Santa Back" after-Christmas
version of "The Polar Express." The new excursion is scheduled for 2
trips a day, at 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There are 5,800 tickets available.