CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- The clickity-clack of the churning steel wheels on the tracks blended perfectly with festive Christmas music wafting through the train cars.
The Iowa Northern Railway Co.’s Hawkeye Express transformed Saturday into the Snowflake Express, taking more than 3,500 people on a holiday-theme joy ride for charity from the Rotary Reserve near Cedar Falls to just north of Shell Rock. Many participants, on a train for the first time, called it a magical family experience.
Organizers of the inaugural event said the best part is the community will make a lot more dreams come true. At $10 a ticket, almost all of the proceeds will go to The Magical Mix Kids, which raises money to take chronic or terminally ill children and their families to Disney World.
“I’m super excited. It brings back the magic of Christmas and the excitement of the holiday season,” said Molly Morris of Waterloo, who was accompanied by several nieces and nephews. “It’s fun to see the excitement of the kids.”
The 25-mile round-trip journey gave people a rare glimpse of the Northeast Iowa countryside from the rails. Clipping along at about 30 mph, the leisurely ride allowed people to thoroughly notice farm fields, timber, wildlife and the West Fork of the Cedar River.
Kids and adults were glued to the windows of the five double-deck Pullman passenger cars, with diesel engines on each end, that gently swayed as the train sped along.
“I found a deer ... no kidding,” Ava Mehlert, 7, of La Porte City, yelled to her two siblings sitting nearby.
Not long after spotting the animal about 10 minutes into the nearly hour-long ride, the engineer laid on horn as the Snowflake Express crossed a road.
“I like the noise it makes,” she added.
“The Polar Express” is one of Lanie Morris’ favorite book and movies. It’s about a magic train that takes kids to the North Pole to see Santa Claus.
The 7-year-old from Fredericksburg said she could barely sleep Friday night, knowing she was going to ride the next best thing.
“I was too excited. I got to sleep at about 2 (a.m.) ... I couldn’t wait,” she exclaimed.
Smiles were a permanent fixtures on faces throughout the locomotive. You wouldn’t think things could get much better: cookies and hot chocolate before boarding and the story of the “Polar Express” read over the public address system during the ride.
Then the most popular Christmas couple made their way down the aisles. Kids heard “ho, ho, ho” and head whipped around as if on a swivel.
Santa Claus, with Mrs. Claus in tow, greeted youngsters and reached for outstretched hands; shaking some and giving high fives to others. The jolly old elf was the only one that could get kids away from the windows.
The smile on Lanie’s face, after Santa slapped her hand, even made the St. Nick’s heart melt.
“Everybody has been so good. Everyone is getting presents,” Santa said.
Five trips were made Saturday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. All 3,500 tickets sold out about a week after going on sale after Thanksgiving.
Jim Coloff, director of Magical Mix Kids, was ecstatic about the turnout. He was even more giddy about the number of families that will benefit from the community’s generosity.
After expenses, Coloff estimates about $30,000 was raised. It’s enough to pay for seven of 12 eastern Iowa families the organization sends to Disney World in Florida each year.
“Fundraising is tough these days. This is going to be a huge boost,” he said.
Coloff hopes the fundraiser will become an annual event.
“Everybody loves trains, Santa Claus and Christmas,” he said.
If it’s up to Bill Magee, general manager of Iowa Northern, the Snowflake Express will ride again. He knows first hand how important The Magical Mix Kids organization, created in 1998 by radio station 93.5 The Mix, is to the Cedar Valley.
Magee’s family went on a Magical Mix Kids trip in 2008 after his daughter, Faith, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3. Now 10, her last chemotherapy treatment as 4 1/2 years ago.
“It’s a memory our family will cherish forever,” Magee said.
Magee has gotten involved with the organization and suggested the charity train ride. Coloff admits he and others were hesitant at first because of the logistics involved.
Coloff wishes he’d listened to Magee earlier.
“I never doubted it would be a success,” Magee said. “There’s just something about riding the rails that is just soothing and comforting.”
Magee was head conductor Saturday, wearing an authentic Union Pacific Railroad uniform from the 1950s. He was one of more than 60 volunteers helping on the train, parking cars and inside the Rotary building.
Iowa Northern donated the train and fuel for the event.
“It’s something I don’t think many people will forget,” Magee said.