WATERLOO — There weren’t any snowflakes passing outside the windows of the Snowflake Express on Saturday.

But inside was a festive winter wonderland, complete with Christmas music, elves and Santa Claus himself.

“The show must go on,” said Jim Coloff, director of Magical Mix Kids, a nonprofit board that puts on the Snowflake Express every year. “The idea would be to have a nice, soft snowfall.”

But the annual train ride has never been lucky enough for that. Some years, it’s been as warm as 50 degrees; one year, it was 20 degrees below.

On Saturday, each of the six rides families took on the train of five passenger cars provided by the Northern Iowa Railway Co. was through rain or drizzle, with the wintry mix and snow tacking north.

All of the 4,500 tickets were sold out in three weeks.

That included one large block of 740 preschool children and their families from the Waterloo Community Schools, who were riding the train at noon as part of a school field trip to learn about transportation and safety.

The preschoolers were able to go for free thanks to a $1.5 million R.J. McElroy Trust grant, which will also go toward other students’ educational trips in the future, said Madelyn Ridgeway, coordinator for experiential and service learning with the district.

This was the first such trip, part of the new Waterloo Lifelab.

“Before now, field trips and experiential learning was based on a school’s budget,” Ridgeway said. “The nice thing about this is every child has the opportunity to go.”

The district had been searching for a way to get the preschoolers close to even a parked train, but found railroads hesitant due to liability issues. The Snowflake Express allowed preschoolers to take a ride — and that was a big deal, as the Lifelab is meant to make field trips into memorable experiences, Ridgeway said.

“You can hear their excitement,” she said, as a couple of children glimpsing the train for the first time squealed.

Magical Mix Kids board member Dr. Kim Neumann, a pediatrician at People’s Clinic in Waterloo, said getting on a train at that age was indeed something special.

“Most of the kids have never been on a train and may never be on a train again,” Neumann said. “It’s such a feel-good event.”

All the money raised goes toward helping anywhere from a dozen to 16 chronically or terminally ill Cedar Valley children and their families go to Disney World each year. Those trips are more than 50 percent funded by the Snowflake Express alone.

Volunteer elf Blake Drinovsky went to Disney World thanks to Magical Mix Kids in 2014. Now a freshman at the University of Northern Iowa, he’s helped with the Snowflake Express every year since.

“This organization is my family,” Drinovsky said. “If there’s a way I can give back, I will. And it’s also for the kids. It’s amazing to see their eyes go from, ‘Oh, this is fun,’ to ‘Oh, there’s Santa!’”

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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