A new ‘Golden Age’

Classic train travel returns to the Golden Triangle.

Much like the holidays, the Polar Express has left town with the change of the calendar, but train lovers still can ride the rails in Lake County.

The Royal Palm Railway Experience tourist train rolls between Tavares, Mount Dora, and Eustis, a pairing of the Golden Triangle and the “Golden Age” of travel aboard classic railcars. The daytime rides, which began in October before a six-week holiday break for the Polar Express, return in mid-January on Wednesdays through Sundays.

Evening dinner train service initially starts Saturdays and may also expand to Fridays, says Neil Bagaus, spokesman for Orlando & Northwestern Railway, which markets the Royal Palm brand. Morning brunch trains and seasonal events also are in the plans.

Photo: Fred Lopez

The Royal Palm venture is designed to re-create travel “reminiscent of the famous streamlined passenger trains that once served Florida,” with vintage diesel locomotives, dome cars, and other preserved equipment, a promotional release states. The trips primarily are for entertainment with narration onboard.

“This will be the finest tourist train experience ever offered in Florida,” Neil says. “Our fleet of air-conditioned equipment will allow our passengers to experience the very best of classic mid-century modern style.”

The railway and the city of Tavares struck a deal in July 2017 with Florida Central Railroad, the owner of the tracks. The city’s former steam-engine train, the Orange Blossom Cannonball, closed down a year ago after the railroad terminated its contract with the operator.

Photo: Fred Lopez

“America’s Seaplane City” isn’t likely to change its name to “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” but restoring the rail offerings is a boon for Tavares, City Administrator John Drury says.

“Expanding the city’s economic base to include the Polar Express is lock-step in sync with the city’s goal of creating the downtown’s entertainment district as a destination,” he says. “It really punctuates the ‘entertainment’ portion of the entertainment district in a very family-friendly way.”

The Polar Express, operated by Rail Events Inc. in cooperation with Warner Bros., recently wrapped up a successful run of mostly sold-out rides during the holiday season. Using about 40 actors from Disney World, Sea World, and other theme parks to play the characters, the ride re-created Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 book (and the 2004 film) about a boy who takes a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa.

The one-hour roundtrip included singing, dancing, a reading of the book, treats, Santa Claus, and gifts of silver sleigh bells, catering to children and other fans who often wore their pajamas on the train.

Photo: Fred Lopez

That’s a tough act to follow, but more fun is around the bend. Seasonal specials will include a Valentine’s Day dinner train ride with entertainment, and murder mystery rides also are planned, event director Joey McCollough says. Negotiations for licensed events similar to the Polar Express were ongoing in late 2017, he says.

The daily Golden Triangle trips also will bring new visitors and consumers into each of the three stops on the route: Tavares Union Station, 305 E. Ruby St., Mount Dora Historical Railroad Station, 341 Alexander St., and Eustis Band Shell, 250 Ferran Park Drive.

In Tavares, the Polar Express not only brought excitement to downtown, it generated interest in the regular tourist rides as well for people such as Kathy Rouse and Ronald Ellis, snowbirds from Pennsylvania.

“We’ve ridden it before when they had the steam engine and we’ve ridden trains in other areas,” Ronald says. “We probably will ride (the new train) for the fact that you can get on and off and ride all day.”

The daytrips are run on the same train used for the Polar Express but with far fewer coaches. While the Polar Express had 12 coaches and capacity for 600 passengers, the daily rides carry 80-120 people to maintain a comfortable environment, Joey says.

Photo: Fred Lopez

The Royal Palm Railway Experience uses a quilt of railcars from around the country, so assembling the train was no easy task, Neil says. Three locomotives and 15 passenger cars were brought in over a period of weeks from other states, including Illinois, Indiana, and Mississippi. Many of the railcars have been restored to their original 1950s appearances.

Leesburg residents Tony Burkett, whose grandson thinks he looks like the conductor in “The Polar Express,” and Elaine Cruthers saw the November debut of the Express in Tavares. They also plan to catch the daily train.

“I think it would be a blast,” Elaine says.

Schedules and pricing for the Royal Palm Railway Experience can be found on the company’s website, thefloridatrain.com.

Photo: Fred Lopez