Polar Express lights up the night

New show adds pizazz to holiday experience

The team began in October to assemble the North Pole in the Animas Valley north of Durango in preparation for the ever-popular Polar Express, which this year added high-tech equipment and a bigger light show. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The team began in October to assemble the North Pole in the Animas Valley north of Durango in preparation for the ever-popular Polar Express, which this year added high-tech equipment and a bigger light show.

From the big screen to the railroads, Warner Bros.' Polar Express is back - but with a bigger show.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has created a unique twist this year by incorporating state-of-the-art technology with its historically festive Polar Express train ride. A show of dancing lights, synchronized to Carol of the Bells, has been added to the festive train ride.

This is the first time the railroad has incorporated the dancing light show at the North Pole in Animas Valley, said Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG. Harper's railroad in North Carolina has also began using dancing lights.

Upon arriving at the North Pole, riders see Santa Claus waving from his sleigh alongside a group of elves. The lights brighten the valley as riders loop around the North Pole in advance of Santa Claus handing out their first gift of Christmas, a bell.

Jeff Ellingson, the railroad's mastermind behind the light show, quietly sits in a car waiting for the train to arrive. He controls the spectacle, which uses about 100,000 lights, with a computer-based network.

The computer-driven network that runs the show has 10 power boxes with 16 channels distributed over 5 acres, he said.

Ellingson does test runs about an hour before each train is scheduled to arrive, he said. The valley doesn't have an electrical source, so the entire show is powered by three large diesel generators.

Light-O-Rama, a professional light-show company, provided the railroad with the equipment used for the event, Ellingson said.

The team started in early October to assemble the North Pole in preparation for the first train ride, which took place the week after Thanksgiving.

"It took quite a bit of planning," Ellingson said.

Though the spectacle had several kinks at the beginning, Ellingson found that simplifying the process would make things run smoother.

"Too many computers were involved," he said.

By eliminating the excess technological devices, the circuitry could fire up faster, he said.

Once the software begins, the lights turn on and, two minutes later, the show begins. The music is powered by an MP3 player that uses a 4GB chip, similar to one you would find inside a digital camera, and the entire program takes about 18 minutes, Ellingson said.

The 50-foot tower, disguised as a lit-up Christmas tree, transmits the signals to various computers. Ellingson has one, while a sound technician aboard the train has another. They exchange signals over the Internet to sync up Carol of the Bells to the lights, Ellingson said.

Harper plans to develop the spectacle and market it to other railroads all over the United States and Europe, Ellingson said.

"Durango is the testing ground for the lights," he said.

The ride has become a family tradition for many, said Ben Martinez, the event coordinator. He's also seen the train ride used as date night for couples. On Dec. 7, he said, a man proposed to his girlfriend on the train. Even Santa Claus was in on it: He delivered the bell with the engagement ring tied to it, Martinez said.

The riders, most of them wearing pajamas, can be seen walking along Main Avenue after their adventure with Santa. And, apparently, local restaurants have embraced their customers' flannel bottoms.

"I have numerous restaurant owners who have stopped me and said 'Al, thank God for the Polar Express. Our restaurant is filled with people coming in with their pajamas.' That makes me feel good," Harper said.

Though most of the revenue the D&SNG makes is during the summer tourism season, the Polar Express has its fair share of riders, Harper said.

"Our excursion trains to Silverton are still our bread and butter of the business," Harper said. "But special events, particularly the Polar Express, are a huge, huge help for historic railroads like ours."

In the Polar Express's first year in Durango, the train had about 7,000 passengers. But this year Harper said he is expecting to exceed 21,000.

Harper said that about 34 railroads throughout the U.S., Canada and the U.K. are hosting the Polar Express this time of year. He expects more than 600,000 people worldwide will visit the North Pole via historic railroads this year.

"It's just growing dramatically. Harper said.

An intricate light show does come at a price, but railroad officials are leaving that price confidential. Various options are still being worked out regarding the technology behind the lights, and a final cost has not been determined, said Andrea Seid, spokeswoman with the railroad.

Passengers and Durangoans can expect to see the light show again next year, but a more complex version.

"Every year, it's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger," Ellingson said.

The 50-foot Christmas tree found at the North Pole is responsible for transmitting the signals needed to synchronize the light show. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The 50-foot Christmas tree found at the North Pole is responsible for transmitting the signals needed to synchronize the light show.

The North Pole is lit up with at least 100,000 LED lights, according to train officials. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The North Pole is lit up with at least 100,000 LED lights, according to train officials.

The Polar Express prepares to leave the North Pole on a recent weekend. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The Polar Express prepares to leave the North Pole on a recent weekend.