As the Christmas season approaches, the Conway Human Development Center is gearing up for its fourth annual Polar Express event and welcomes area residents to climb aboard.

Attendees are encouraged to wear their most festive pajamas for the upcoming event as organizers work to add a magical touch to the Christmas celebration. Santa and his beloved Mrs. Claus will be on site for photo ops as little elves help guide attendees along the wonderland adventure at the CHDC campus.

The event is free and open to the public.

"The Polar Express is our favorite annual event here on grounds," CHDC Superintendent Sarah Murphy told the Log Cabin Democrat. "This event is all about the joys of the Christmas season. CHDC being blessed to have our own train just makes the experience even more special."

Rail road volunteers who worked faithfully to get the train up and running continue tending to the facility's needs to ensure the Old Century Flyer, transformed into the Polar Express, runs smoothly for the holiday season.

The Polar Express event, which welcomes families from across the county, is organized by the CHDC's Volunteer Council.

"It is fitting that that rail road volunteers who worked tirelessly to get it fully operational, and to this day keep it running smoothly, are volunteers," Murphy said. "CHDC has the best volunteer group, which is called the CHDC Volunteer Council, which is a group made up of parents, community members and staff whose mission is to enhance the lives of the individuals served at CHDC. We are able to enjoy events like the Polar Express because of our volunteers."

All aboard the Polar Express

Organizers are offering tours to local schools as well as elderly and adult programs that RSVP during daylight hours Dec. 5 and 6. In the evening hours, the facility train and all its Christmas-themed amenities will open up to the general public.

Santa-printed footie pajamas, candy-cane covered tops and reindeer spirits will hopefully fill the facility's campus as the CHDC Volunteer Council welcomes the community to ride the Polar Express and enjoy hot chocolate as they also indulge in fresh popcorn all while decorating cookies and celebrating the holiday season.

After touring the campus on a cozy train ride aboard the facility's hidden gem, attendees are encouraged to also decorate ornaments at the North Pole, which will be headquartered indoors. While inside, children and their families will be able to write out their Christmas wish lists for Santa, participate in Christmas Bingo and have their picture taken with Santa. Photo ops with Santa cost $5, while the remainder of the festivities are free.

"The Christmas season just comes once a year, so I hope everyone will take advantage of the free, fun activities we are sharing with our community," Murphy said, adding that the Polar Express train is also wheelchair accessible. "Please come to our beautiful campus and visit Santa and the Grinch, decorate cookies, drink hot chocolate and of course, ride the train!"

CHDC residents will have exclusive access to the Polar Express on Dec. 4 and on Wednesday, Dec. 5, other groups can begin making their way up to a wonderland experience.

Event times and locations vary for certain groups for morning and afternoon tours.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 5, organizers welcome elderly and adult programs as well as programs for adults with disabilities to take part in the Christmas-friendly experience.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 6, the festivities open to childcare programs and kindergarten through fifth grade special education programs, foster children and home school programs.

Those who participate in these daytime runs are asked to RSVP by Nov. 30.

The general public is welcomed to participate in the family-friendly event from 5-8 p.m. on Dec. 5 and 6.

CHDC Volunteer Council Coordinator Elizabeth Molica said organizers ask that those who wish to participate in the daytime programs RSVP by Nov. 30 and let the Christmas crew know how many guests will attend with their group as well as what time during the six-hour window they wish to stop by.

"These groups will have opportunities to have their pictures with Santa free of charge during their visit. However, each group will need to bring their own cameras and one of our elves will take their group's picture with Santa," she said.

History behind CHDC's train

CHDC held its inaugural Polar Express event in 2015. All hands were on deck and many volunteers gave their time to ensuring this project was a success.

Now the "Polar Express," the train is a renovated Old Century Flyer made of a 1957s Ford gas truck engine with four cylinders.

The Old Flyer has seen its travels, but found its forever home at the CHDC facility.

"The train's original home was the Burns Park Funland in North Little Rock," Murphy said. "In 1959, the train and track were sold to the Little Rock Chapter of the Railway Business Women's Association, which donated the train and track to the center."

The track became damaged around 1990, but with the help and efforts of many local volunteers who raised funds and labored to refurbish the piece, it continues running today.

"In 1992, employees of Union Pacific volunteered to donate materials and time to refurbish the exterior and interior of the train," Murphy said as she recalled the history behind the unique CHDC exhibit. "Then again in 2009, another set of volunteers from the Central Arkansas Model Trail Club revamped the old train. Since 2009, a small, diligent group of men have volunteered hundreds of hours to seeing that the little rail would roll again."

The group that continues the train's upkeep is led by Bob Huber (aka "Railroad Bob), who is a retired railroad employee; Jack Adams, who is a retired machinist; and Bill Smith, who is a retired heavy-equipment operator.

The CHDC's Old Century Flyer train is a valued piece of history included on the National Register of Historic Places.