Royal Gorge holiday train rides expected to be up 40 percent this season

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The Santa Express Train is roaring into the Royal Gorge next month and expects to represent about 20 percent of the total rides on Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cańon City.

More than 20,000 riders are expected to ride the train during the five-week period from Nov. 18 to Dec. 26. That’s about 6,000 more riders than last year, said Kelly Pascal Gould, spokeswoman for the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.

“ Overall, the train is on track to be up more than 15 percent over last year,” she said.

This year, Royal Gorge Route Railroad owner Mark Greksa added a mid-day Saturday excursion to the Santa Express Train, something he said visitors asked for. He started the Santa Express Train five years ago, creating a little Santa’s village of lights in the gorge. The idea for the holiday train was to extend the peak tourism season.

Each year ridership on the Santa Express Train has increased. The first year, the Santa train had  6,000 riders, and last year there were 14,000 riders. The increase in traffic has helped revenue at local restaurants and hotels in the off season, Pascal Gould said.

“We are hearing from managers and retailers that their scene has changed,” she said.

The Santa Express Train is a series of restored mid-century locomotives decorated in holiday lights. Children are encouraged to wear pajamas and listen to stories told by “Santa’s elves” and Santa jumps on board during the ride to meet the children.

“We have Santa waiting for them at the North Pole,” Greksa said. “The kids go nuts.”

It’s been 13 years since Greksa resurrected the train rides into the Royal Gorge, which is typically a 90-minute ride along the Arkansas River through the 1,000-foot deep Royal Gorge. Today, Greksa has a staff of 80 employees and a payroll of about $1 million.

A new advertising campaign on outdoor billboards has brought in new visitors this year, Greksa. This year, more than 60 percent of ticket sales were to walk-up customers, signaling a more local vacation crowd. Overall,  ridership will be about 105,000 making the train “a major player in Colorado tourism,” he said.

“We’ve traveled around the world, and tried to figure out what we like,” Greksa said. “I wanted to raise the bar and offer up first-class service. That has helped us grow — even in a tough economy we are growing.”

For more information on the Santa Express Train visit www.royalgorgeroute.com.