BELLEFONTE — Dressed as Rudolph this weekend, Mike Hawbaker made his way through the train cars of the Santa Express.
During one of the 11 trips, Hawbaker approached a small child, who gave the costume-clad volunteer a small piece of paper. The child had hand drawn a little picture of the reindeer and wanted to give it to the red-nosed Christmas staple.
“That’s why we do this,” Hawbaker said, smiling as he looked at the drawing.
The annual event is a joint effort among the SEDA-COG Joint Rail Authority, the Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad and the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society, train owner Jeff Pontius said. He also organizes similar events in Williamsport, Bloomsburg and Sunbury.
The seven train cars were built in the 1920s and 1940s and Pontius has been purchasing and restoring them over the years to get them ready for use. The route started at the Bellefonte train station near Talleyrand Park, and the locomotive traveled to Pleasant Gap near the fish hatchery before heading back.
To start, a volunteer reads “The Polar Express,” getting everybody in the spirit before the cars are visited by the holiday characters. Children had a chance to interact with Santa Claus, Buddy the Elf, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, a gingerbread man, the Grinch and other holiday favorites.
Interacting with the young children and seeing their faces light up is the best part for Pontius, who was dressed as Buddy the Elf.
“It’s wonderful for the community,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Lancaster or far away. It’s right here.”
He added that the weekend’s events bring lots of people into town and help local businesses and hotels.
And it provides Christmas memories for the families.
Six-month-old Conner Nyman is experiencing his first Christmas this year, so parents Jordan and Amanda Nyman decided to take him on the train.
Conner shook hands with all the characters, and seemed to have a good time throughout the ride. Amanda Nyman, who was also riding the train for the first time, said it’s a fun event for families and they plan to bring him back in future years.
But people looking to ride in the future might want to get tickets early.
The event sold out in less than five weeks this year, the fastest in its history. Pontius said he will keep ticket prices low to ensure that it is affordable to any family.
It is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society, allowing the organization to pay insurance costs and help restore other train cars.
Matt Morgan can be reached at 235-3928. Follow him on Twitter @MetroMattMorgan.