SANTA CRUZ -- A cast of characters danced down a rail car aisle Friday afternoon, pausing to chat with families seated at tables along the sides and handing out gingerbread cookies and copies of a new, holiday-themed book geared toward children.
The anthropomorphized animals, elves and, of course Santa Claus, are all characters in "The Train to Christmas Town," a newly released children's book about two siblings riding a train for the first time alone. It was penned by first-time author Peggy Ellis, whose husband is the president of Iowa Pacific, the Chicago-based company that now operates the 32-mile Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway. The Regional Transportation Commission recently acquired the rail in a $14.2 million deal.
"The Train to Christmas Town" also happens to be the name of an upcoming holiday-themed passenger train service that will begin operating next week. The original start date was Sunday, but it had to be pushed back to Nov. 23 because of staffing issues and the rush to get the rail cars ready.
"Everything just took a little bit longer than expected," said publicist Jim Graham.
Among the passengers who rode along for Friday's sneak peek were Kristin and Adam Cosner of Scotts Valley, along with their daughters, Bridget and Gabriella. Seated across from them was 4½-year-old Alden Glass, who, when asked by an elf what he wants for Christmas, whispered, "LEGO set."
Also along for the ride were Santa Cruz residents AJ Duryea and Christine Candelaria. Their four young children sat contentedly at their tables, alternately sipping hot chocolate, flipping through their books and enjoying the scenery.
"He told me, 'It's like we're standing still and the whole world is moving by us,' " Duryea said, recounting a conversation with his 8-year-old son, Aumar.
The car was festively decorated for the sneak peek, with red bows and wreaths hanging on the sides and sheets of wrapping paper hanging on the panels between the windows. Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet of Arkansas-based Trout Fishing in America performed live music, singing about taking the train to Christmas Town, and even a random ode to Mexican food. But that was a special treat for Friday's guests, and the music will be piped into the cars through small, wall-mounted speakers once it's open to the public.
The sneak peek came the day before a community-wide celebration of the rail, involving a series of one-hour whistle-stop parties starting at 9 a.m. in Watsonville.
The celebrations continue along the line, through Aptos, Capitola and Live Oak, culminating with a party in the Swift Street area of Santa Cruz -- rain or shine, organizers say.
Follow Sentinel reporter Kimberly White on Twitter at Twitter.com/kwhite95066
at a glance
TRAIN TO CHRISTMAS TOWN
WHAT: Hourlong, holiday-themed train ride takes passengers from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and back.
WHEN: 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 5:45 p.m., 7:15 p.m. Friday-Nov. 25, 28-30, Dec. 1-2, 5-9, 12-16, 19-23, 27-30 and Jan. 4-6 (times subject to change)
WHERE: Departs from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz
COST: $35 for adults, $25 for children ages 2-12, free for children younger than age 2