By the time I reached first grade in 1998, my mother had read "The Polar Express" to me countless times, and while it was one of my favorites, she might have enjoyed it even more than I did.
It was a Christmas staple, forever a bedtime story front-runner on frigid, winter nights - unless, of course, we stumbled across it on the bookshelf before October ran around and kicked off the countdown a few months early.
Imagine my awe, then, when my mother told my brother and me that not only was the Polar Express real and embarking on its annual journey practically out of our own backyard in Flagstaff, but that all of us would be taking the same trip described in the book.
It was the pilgrimage of a child's dreams, and I remember as I stepped on the platform, dwarfed by grown men in footie pajamas and surrounded by children buzzing about what the night may bring, I was convinced that some unspoken wish of mine had been granted. We boarded as the excitement grew, settling into our seats and peering through a frosted window as the train made its way through snow-tipped pines toward the North Pole.
It all felt so real, just like the book: the dark forests, the noise of the train whistle, the building anticipation that rivaled Christmas morning itself.
The children in my car crowded together as we approached our destination, cupping our hands on the cold glass to peer out at the twinkling lights of Santa's Village. Waving to us from his sleigh, Santa soon boarded the train, and as he pressed a silver bell into my hand, I was convinced I'd secured a permanent spot on his Nice List.
Now, almost 15 years after my trip to the North Pole, the Polar Express continues to bring the classic journey to life every year for a new round of believers.
Christmas comes alive in Northern Arizona during winter
A trip to Northern Arizona during the winter months has its fair share of perks: warm fires lit in cozy homes, freshly fallen snow and a festive array of events ranging from the traditional to the theatrical. Keep the stress at bay this year and plan your holiday outings in advance. Here are a few ideas:
The Polar Express in Williams
• What: Pack your favorite pair of holiday pajamas and steal away to the North Pole on the Polar Express, a truly one-of-a-kind experience that re-creates the classic children's book. Little ones lend an ear as the story is read aloud during the trip, while older passengers partake in the free hot chocolate and warm cookies passed out by Santa's helpers.
• Where: The North Pole, of course - but the journey begins at the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel, 233 N. Grand Canyon Blvd.
• When: Select dates and times from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31; trains depart at 5:30 or 7:30 p.m, with select matinee departures at 3:30 p.m. Visit thetrain.com for availability, and do it fast. Weekend dates are the first to go and are already nearly completely booked, while weekday trips will be the next to fill up. The trip runs just over an hour.
• Cost: $32 age 16 and older; $18 children for matinee trips; $37 and $23 for evening trips. Christmas Eve Limited prices are $69 for adults, $43 for children, and include special gifts from Santa. Hotel packages are also available and can be priced online.
• Reservations: Future Polar Express-ees can make reservations online at thetrain.com, but bigger parties would do better to request reservations over the phone at 1-888-848-3511.
• What: You could say that Prescott takes its title as "Arizona's Christmas City" seriously, considering one of its most historic buildings is dramatically illuminated every year after the traditional Christmas Parade.
Those looking for an extra dose of yuletide cheer can visit the nearby "World's Largest Gingerbread Village" in the lobby of the Prescott Resort and Conference Center.
• When: Dec. 7; parade begins at 1 p.m., Courthouse lighting at 6 p.m.
• Where: Prescott Courthouse Plaza, 120 S. Cortez St.
• Cost: Free.
• Reservations: Not needed; check prescott.org or call 1-800-266-7534 for information.
• What: While Sedona's holiday light extravaganza Red Rock Fantasy at Los Abrigados has been canceled this season after 22 years, there are still twinkling attractions in red-rock country. The Festival of Trees at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village will feature nearly 50 Christmas trees and gingerbread houses exquisitely decorated by area artists and galleries. If your family spots a winner, the trees - each with its own theme - will be auctioned off on the last day of the fest.
The one-night only Festival of Lights follows the next week, a familiar attraction for visitors seeking Southwestern spectacle. A staggering 6,000 luminarias are lit at 5 p.m. Dec. 14, and visitors are welcome to traverse the illuminated walkways and even purchase their own $10 luminaria honoring cancer survivors by calling Tlaquepaque at 1-928-282-4838.
• Where: Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, 336 State Route 179 .
• When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 7.
• Cost: Free for both events, but tickets are available for the Festival of Lights Holiday Wrap Up Party and Silent Auction at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 7. Tickets are $20 per person or $35 per couple, and can be purchased by calling Tlaquepaque.
• Reservations: Not needed.
Theatrikos Theatre Company presents: "It's a Wonderful Life."
• What: One of America's most beloved Christmas stories returns to the stage in this intimate playhouse, which has put on a holiday show since it moved to its current location in 1988. In a season of stories one-upping one another's Christmas miracles, the saga of family man George Bailey still holds up after nearly 70 years of heavy rotation on December TV schedules. This fresh take makes it new again, and a stroll through downtown Flagstaff after the show - especially if that stroll coincides with the historic downtown's annual Northern Lights Holiday Parade at 6 p.m. Dec. 14 - will keep the holiday cheer going well into the night.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from Dec. 6-22.
• Where: Doris Harper-White Playhouse, 11 W. Cherry Ave.
• Tickets: It's not too soon to buy your tickets, which are $17; discounts available. Call 1-928-774-1662.
Kate Newton is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org Kate Newton