My son was obsessed with trains as a toddler. One of his first words was choo choo. While my other son could be entertained by Barney or other kid shows, my oldest found train videos calming. So when he was old enough, we started to visit Santa trains in the area. Here are my suggestions, tips, and reviews of some of the Santa trains in the Chicago suburbs.
1. Polar Express at Union Station. This is by far the best, although some will say in online reviews that it is not worth the money. I think it is, especially if you choose a time like 8:45 on a week night when it is cheaper and easier to find seats. You start with the experience of posing by the engine of the Polar Express (for a small fee). As you walk to the train, the boy and conductor form the movie greet you. The movie is acted out on the train with dancers and sounds. We got an ornament, cookie, and hot chocolate. We all loved it last year, but because of the cost we decided to do something different this year. however, nothing measured up, and my kids asked to return to this one. Maybe next year if my ten 4th grader will still be interested. https://www.chicagothepolarexpressride.com/
2. The Polar Express at Fox Valley Trolley Museum. Tickets go on sale in June and sell out fast so watch for the date. This is on a trolley and not a train, but it is still one of my favorites. we have been twice. Even if you have tickets, line up early if you want to be seated together. I liked that there is a guitar player playing Christmas songs and you get hot chocolate. You do not stop at the North Pole, but you stop by it and Santa waves to you from outside of the trolley. http://foxtrolley.org/polarexpress/
3. The Lisle Santa Train. This used to be called a Polar Express train until they got a cease and desist notice. But they still read the story on the train. We went for the second time this year and it has improved. The first year we were in the last car and Santa only came quickly in the end and we didn't see many characters. This year we were bombarded by three santas to the point where the last one had to claim he was Santa's brother. And princesses and Scrooge and elves passed frequently ending with Gaston. This year we got a book included in the price and a bell. the first year we went hot chocolate was served outside the train and this year there was none. Other people brought doughnuts and drinks, which would have been a good idea. The cars are lightly decorated and you take the 90 minute train to Chicago and back. Tickets go on sale through mail or at local stores around October. If you want the early train, get tickets early. This year the 9:45 was sold out by the middle of November, but there was also a 1:30. It is always the first weekend of December. Follow the Lisle Convention and Visitor Bureau on Facebook to watch for next year's date. https://www.stayinlisle.com/event/lisle-santa-train-2/
4. Park Districts. Many park districts host their own santa trains on trolleys or the metra. Most have preference for residents and sell out fast. Check this site for some of them. http://www.santainchicago.com/santaonthetrain/santaandtrains.htm We decided to take it easy one year and try out a local santa train in New Lenox. They do sell out by November. I was disappointed that this trolley started in a golf course, but did not drive through local scenery or lights. It took us down a busy road to the park district, which was turned into the North Pole. We did get a great picture with Buddy the Elf and he looked just like the Elf in the movie. There were crafts and treats. I heard this yar it was scaled back a little more, but it is still fun.
5. The Holiday Express at Blackberry Farm. I have avoided this one until this year. Although I already bought tickets for the Lisle train, I saw this was only $5 a ticket and thought it would be worth it to squeeze it in to our holiday schedule. It was, especially for the price. I had always been worried we would freeze in an outdoor train, but it was a nice enough day. Santa is at the farm in a hidden location, so be sure to find him. This year my kids each got a plush bear included in the price of the tickets. They made reindeer food, rode the sleigh (hay ride minus the hay), saw the ponies, heard a story, and more of the basics of their usual attractions. So Santa was not on the train, but the train had lights and you could see other lights as you took the train route around the farm. Not a yearly must for us, but it was well worth the money. For the $5 you can get a nice santa photo in their historical main street, a train ride, a craft, and a gift. This place is also fun for younger kids on a summer day or for a special event like Harry Potter. https://www.foxvalleyparkdistrict.org/holiday-express-lights-blackberry-farm-december-8-days/
6. Happy Holiday Railway at the Illinois Railroad Museum in Union, IL. We have not been to this santa train, but have been to this museum many times. I will likely go in the future. It is just a 90 minute trip for us and snow could make it harder to get there. It is a 40 minute ride and santa visits the train. They usually have many old trains to visit. This place is worth a visit at any time. This year they added extra times so it is popular, but should be easy to get tickets to. http://www.irm.org/events/hhr.html?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI4-ze5veG2AIVxiOBCh0BHw2FEAAYASAAEgICavD_BwE
7. Santa's Candy Cane Express at Hesston Steam Museum. We have also not been to this train for Christmas, although we have been to the museum twice. On a normal day you can ride multiple trains. Some you sit in and one smaller train you straddle as it takes you through the surrounding woods. I love this place, but it is a little far as it is in Indiana and I believe the trains are all open so it could be cold on a winter day. But it is definitely worth going to on any day. http://www.hesston.org/
These are the places we have been to, but see the link in #4 for more.