VERSAILLES — Think of it as Woodford County's version of The Polar Express — except in this version, rather than riding on a train to go see Santa Claus, the jolly old elf rides along with you.
The Bluegrass Railroad Museum's annual Santa Train has pulled out of the station nearly every year since the museum opened in 1988, and it remains one of the more popular attractions, executive director John Penfield said. This year there were five Santa train rides scheduled to meet increasing demand; the last trip is at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Watching the children's faces is what makes the trips fun, said conductor Ernie Begley.
"Especially when you yell out 'All aboard!'" Begley said. "Even the adults light up when you do that."
"We as adults never outgrow certain things in life, and the love of trains is definitely one of them," said engineer Art Richie. With his full white beard, Richie could pass as Santa himself.
Brennan Ison, 10, rode with his brother Brody, 5; grandmother Barbara Ison; and family friend Tammy Gambill, all of Morgan County. Saturday's 11 a.m. jaunt was Brennan's fifth train ride.
"I just like them because of the cool way they sling around the tracks," Brennan said.
Frances Faulk, 79, of Alexandria, La., was accompanied by her great-granddaughter Evie Watt, 6, and Evie's parents, Bethany and Lyle Watt of Lexington.
"I've flown all over the world nearly, but I never have been on a train but once, when I was a little girl," Faulk said. "I feel like a little child."
The non-profit museum depends on volunteers to keep the train rolling.
"We close down until mid-May, so the money we make here allows us to make it through the winter," Penfield said Saturday. Proceeds are used to pay for fuel, insurance and maintenance of the locomotives, cars and 5½ miles of track.
The train rolls along at 15 mph southwest from Versailles to Young's High Bridge at Tyrone on the Woodford-Anderson County line, and it then goes in reverse on the same track back to its station outside the Falling Springs Center off U.S. 62.
Saturday's train was powered by two diesel locomotives to make sure it could get out of the downslope grade on icy tracks closer to the Kentucky River. Passengers could choose to ride in coach cars or first-class passenger cars with plush, reclining seats.
During the trip, children gave their wish lists to Santa, and conductors and volunteers led the passengers in singing Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Large icicles hanging from limestone rock along a stretch called Lock Hollow added to the wintry adventure. Upon disembarking, Penfield handed candy canes to each child.
The train might become more like The Polar Express next year. The museum's board of directors is considering adding a night yuletide ride in which children would be invited to ride in their pajamas, just as in the children's book and movie.
"It would be a bigger undertaking than this, so we're looking to see if we can attract some more volunteers from the community to help us," Penfield said.