Running Utah's only operating historic railroad takes a lot of time, energy, and a pinch of magic to create the year round fun at the Heber Valley Railroad. Mark Nelson, is the executive director of the Heber Valley Railroad, home to the Heber Creeper and he shares some of his favorite moments of bringing guests aboard.
How long have you been the director of the RR and what has been your favorite moment so far?
I've been the Executive Director of the Heber Valley Railroad for 3 1/2 years. Often times directing Utah's only historic railroad has been like riding a roller coaster instead of the Heber Creeper. There have been many wonderful times as well as lots of challenges. I really enjoy being a part of preserving this important piece of Utah and U.S. history. I totally enjoy being a part of providing "great experiences" on trains to our guests. I especially enjoy providing historic and fun train experiences for children and families.
What should riders do to get the most out of their Heber Valley RR experience?
Our guests should come prepared for an old-fashioned train experience. That will include a historic old train on a track with spectacular scenery. The passenger coaches might be warm or cool - most were built in the 1920's or 30's. Be prepared to "roll with it". I suggest our guests arrive at least 30 minute early. Wander around and look at the old train cars. Check out the gift shop. Take some pictures. Ask if there is someone available who could show them around and talk about the history of the railroad in Heber. Hopefully you'll feel the excitement and joy our staff has to be a part of preserving this unique piece of history.
What’s on the horizon for the Heber Valley RR?
Our friends should be very excited as we are about the future. In 2016 we will bring the 1907 steam locomotive, No. 618 back into service. There is nothing quite like the magic of a steam locomotive. We will invite everyone to come to the party when that is introduced.
There are also plans in place, and progress being made toward building a walking and bicycle train along the tracks from the depot to Soldier Hollow, as well as a trail from the Deer Creek Dam to Vivian Park in Provo Canyon.
We have plans to introduce some new services for our guests. Soon we will have a bicycle carrying car. This will allow riders to hop on the train with their bike, and ride one-way to any of our stops and they hop off with their bike. We expect this to be very popular.
We also have plans to bring into service an open-air coach which is very popular in the warmer weather months.
We will also continue to introduce fun special event trains and experiences. For example we hope to have a "Steam Punk" event in 2016 after the No. 618 locomotive returns to service.
What product or service does the RR offer that people don’t generally know about?
Of course our main service our what we call "Scenic Trains." These are relaxing rides along our route. They usually have a host on board who is happy to discuss the history of the train and provide other interesting information. Often times these Scenic Trains are robbed."
Many people don't realize that over half of our customers are riding other "Special Trains." These include trains on most Monday Nights. This 90-minute round trip includes noisy music, hosts who might dance, sing, play the fiddle, or ask you to sing along. Lots of fun and low prices for the whole family to enjoy. Many Friday nights we have Special trains that are perfect for couples on dates. These include, Chocolate Tasting, and Cheese Tasting trains, and other fun themes like Masquerade, Magic, and Cowboys.
We also have special events that usually span several days. In 2016 these will include our Easter Bunny trains, Wild West Days, Wizard Trains, Dinosaur Trains, Hobo Trains, The Pumpkin Train and of course North Pole Express.
How many different themed trains do you do each year and which is your favorite?
As mentioned above, we have many themed trains! In 2016 they include: Valentines Train, Princess Train, Easter Bunny Trains, Wild West Days, Summer Kick-off, Dinosaur Trains, Freedom Train, Fiddler's & Fireworks, Wizard Trains, Swiss-Days Specials, Steam Punk Trains, The Pumpkin Train, Cowboy Express, and North Pole Express.
It's hard to say which is my favorite. They are all great. I think I might enjoy Wild West Days, Wizard Trains, and North Pole Express the most.
What is your favorite part about the North Pole Express?
My first reaction was "when it's over." That's only because the North Pole Express is a very intensive effort by our team. What I enjoy most is the magic of the event. There is both an internal and an external joy to NPE. Internally, we have an amazing team and it is so fun to put together this big event and work closely with so many great people. In addition to our regular staff, we employ way over 100 local young people. This year we will run 68 NPE trains and carry 27,000 guests to the North Pole.
Externally, I love the NPE because of the magic it provides for our guests. Many of our riders come in large family groups, often wearing matching flannel pajamas. The joy of Christmas, the joy of family, the special love everyone feels, and the great NPE ride and experience all combine for something that seems to reinforce all that Christmas means.
Which is faster Santa’s reindeer or the HVRR?
Santa's reindeer can fly. The Heber Creeper creeps.
Why does Santa like the Heber Valley RR so much?
The legend is that many years ago some of Santa's elves were vacationing in Utah in the off season. They enjoyed the mountains, the lakes and rivers, and the overall beauty of the Heber Valley so much, that they convinced Mr and Mrs Claus to build a second "North Pole" in Utah. It just happens to be near our tracks somewhere. Most people don't know that the Utah North Pole is invisible most of the time. The magical singing of the children and families on the North Pole Express train make the North Pole visible when the train passes the right area. And usually Santa himself greets the train and hops on board to meet the children on the return trip to the depot.
What can people expect aboard the North Pole Express?
Our guests can expect a fun, noisy, family-friendly trip to the North Pole. Our wonderful elves and cocoa-chef's serve Mrs. Claus famous chocolate chip cookies, warm cocoa, on the trip out. Each coach has a host who will lead traditional Christmas songs, play games, and other fun activities. Miss Claus will be onboard and entertain. As we reach the North Pole, Santa will hop on board and on the return trip greet each child and present them will a special gift.
The ride is a 90-minute round trip. The train is stopped at the North Pole for about 8-10 minutes while the locomotive switches to the other end of the train to pull us back.
There are only "emergency gotta-go right now" bathrooms on the train.
Has the RR ever had to stop because of a heard of Reindeer on the tracks?
The North Pole, and our tracks are adjacent to the Deer Creek Reservoir. Obviously there are lots of reindeer in the area, and it is typical for them to wander across the tracks down to the shore of the lake for a drink. So, yes quite often the train stops just before arriving at the North Pole to "clear the tracks" of reindeer.