SANTA CRUZ -- A giant Iowa Pacific locomotive pulled away from the Boardwalk on Saturday loaded with giddy kids and special guest Chris Rene, the Santa Cruz singing sensation who wowed judges on the "X Factor" in 2011.
Rene, who turns 30 on Dec. 25, was invited for the one-hour Train to Christmas Town ride by Grind Out Hunger, a Santa Cruz nonprofit dedicated to fighting childhood hunger.
Grind Out Hunger was given one car of the train for 50 passengers. The $50 ticket for each passenger, $2,500 in all, was donated to the food charity.
Grind Out was created through the vision of skateboarders helping kids overcome hunger. Santa Cruz Skate and Surf Shop founded the organization, which works largely in area schools.
The school that raises the most pounds per student wins $1,400 in gift certificates to Santa Cruz Skate and Surf Shop.
Rene joined the ride to mingle with his hometown fans and help raise money for an organization he believes does good work.
"Grind Out Hunger is awesome," Rene said before the train departed. "A lot of people will get fed because of this event. Me being part of is a blessing."
When not riding trains, Rene said he's been busy recording new songs and is planning a show at the Catalyst in January.
Rene said he will be showcased in NBC's "Real Music Live" on Dec. 22.
Other riders on Saturday, particularly young boys, said the Train to Christmas Town is a great way to celebrate
Angela Babione of Monterey said her two sons, ages 6 and 3, were very excited to ride on a real train.
"It's just another way to celebrate the holidays," Babione said. "The boys love trains, and it's something festive to do."
Michelle Flamm drove from Sunnyvale with her 2-year-old son to snag a seat on the train.
"He loves trains," Flamm said. "It's a good way to get him started on the whole Santa thing."
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