The Conway Human Development Center drew in large crowds over the past two days as staff members and volunteers welcomed the community to participate in the facility's fourth annual Polar Express event.
Attendees were asked to wear their most festive Christmas pajamas, and many followed suit.
Children and their parents gathered at the CHDC campus on Wednesday and Thursday to take part in the annual Christmas celebration provided by CHDC volunteers.
On opening night, the campus train did not stop making rounds about its half-mile track until the three-hour event came to a close at 8 p.m.
"We were thrilled to see so many faces from our community," CHDC Superintendent Sarah Murphy said. "It is a blessing to be able to share the train and the Christmas spirit with so many people. The crowd from [opening] night was amazing. There is nothing better than seeing children light up with happiness as they meet Santa or even the Grinch."
The CHDC campus, with the help of the facility's Volunteer Council, transformed into a winter wonderland as it celebrated its fourth annual Polar Express event on Wednesday and Thursday.
CHDC Volunteer Council Coordinator Elizabeth “Liz” Molica said watching the sun go down followed by the campus lighting up with Christmas lights and holiday cheer is a special feeling.
"When it gets into the evening hours and the sun goes down, it just creates a magical experience where you can also visit with Santa. It's great to see others making memories and starting family traditions here."
After touring the campus on a cozy train ride aboard the facility's hidden gem, attendees were encouraged to stop by the North Pole, located indoors, where they were able to snap a photo with Santa and also to decorate cookies and ornaments.
Families lined up in front of the campus train station waiting their turn to board the Polar Express. While in line, Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted guests, and volunteers dressed as elves or in other holiday attire walked up to attendees bearing warm smiles and hot chocolate.
One mother posed with a group of volunteers dressed up in the spirit of the event just before boarding the Polar Express.
Beth Fuller said her 2-year-old son is quite the fan of trains and that she and her husband Jason were excited to bring their young boy out to the annual event.
"We're excited to be out here tonight," Jason said Wednesday, adding that "this is the first year [Dean] is old enough to understand and enjoy an event such as this."
Before opening up to the general public, the Polar Express ran its rounds for CHDC residents and also local schools as well as elderly and adult programs during the daytime hours throughout the week.
Those who rode CHDC's Old Century Flyer train, which is a valued piece of history included on the National Register of Historic Places, said they enjoyed the experience and plan to come back and celebrate Christmas at CHDC in the future.
"I loved it," 8-year-old Logan Bullard of Conway exclaimed as he rode on the decorated tractor up to the North Pole on Wednesday.
His mother, Lindsey Bullard, said she brought her son to the event last year and was excited to take part in festivities again this year.
"It's a well put together, family-friendly event," she said, adding she and her son will most likely be back next year.
As attendees boarded the Polar Express, they were serenaded by a number of holiday tunes played by members of the Conway Symphony Orchestra's brass quartet.
Molica said the annual event would not be helpful without the many CHDC volunteers as well as the efforts of the facility's staff.
Greenbrier Junior High School's EAST program as well as the school's Beta club helped man the train station and pass out hot chocolate during the two-day event. Molica said she also wanted to give "special thanks" to the University of Central Arkansas Pre-Medical Club and members of the St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway.
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.