Katia Bergstrom-Shaw at The Polar Express Train Ride boarding area in Whippany. Katia is one of 12 boys and girls performing the role of the Hero Child in the on-the-train show, based on the classic Chris Van Allsburg book.

By ERIN ROLL
For Montclair Local

Taking a ride on the Polar Express has become a holiday tradition for many New Jersey families. For the Bergstrom-Shaw family of Montclair, it has become a tradition for a very special reason. 

This year, Katia Bergstrom-Shaw was selected to be one of the children performing the role of the Hero Child — the child who asks for a magical sleigh bell as the first gift of Christmas — on the train ride.

Two years ago, her older brother Adrian played that role. 

“It’s just a really fun experience,” Katia said. She remembered seeing her brother perform on the train for the first time, and decided that she wanted to be a part of it, too.

The Polar Express Train Ride is based on the Caldecott Medal-winning book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, published in 1985. The book was adapted into a stop-motion animated movie, with Tom Hanks as the conductor, in 2004. 

The book is the story of a young boy who finds himself whisked away on a magical train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. 

Katia, 11, is a sixth grader at Glenfield Middle School. Her brother is an eighth grader there. The family’s oldest child, Annika, is a sophomore at Montclair High School. 

All of the Bergstrom-Shaw children have performed onstage and in front of the camera. The three are all represented by the same agent in New York, and Katia’s other acting credits include public service announcements and commercials. 

The Polar Express Train Ride, which is presented by Rail Events Productions and the Morristown and Erie Railway, is a two-hour train ride that departs from the Whippany train station. Over the course of the ride, the performers on the train act out the story. 

“It’s almost like a Broadway show on wheels,” said Gina Shaw, Katia and Adrian’s mother. “It’s really beautiful, it’s really intense.” 

In previous years, it was only boys who performed the role of the Hero Child, but now the role is performed by girls as well. The production has a corps of six boys and six girls who play the part of the Hero Child, along with a cast of adult ensemble actors. 

The train ride was suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Adrian and some of the other Hero Children were too old to return to the role, Shaw said. So the producers asked the young actors’ families if there were any younger siblings willing to step in. 

Most of the rehearsals took place outside of school hours and on weekends, but there were a few rehearsals that required Katia to leave school early. It helps, Shaw said, that Glenfield is Montclair’s performing arts magnet school, so the school is accustomed to accommodating students who perform in theatrical productions. 

The first rehearsals took place at Ripley-Grier Studios in New York, a rehearsal venue for many Broadway shows. 

Katia recalled that she and the other cast members received their scripts in late October, which meant there was only a short amount of time to learn all the lines before the rides began in November.

“I think it was memorizing the lines while walking,” Katia said, when asked what the biggest challenge was. It was also a challenge when the rehearsals shifted from the rehearsal studio into the actual train cars, she recalled. 

In the book, the young boy asks for a bell from the reindeer’s harness. Only someone who believes in Santa and the magic of Christmas is able to hear the bell. The book says that as children grow up and become adults, they become unable to hear the bell. 

Hot chocolate and shortbread are served on the ride. And every rider receives a souvenir sleigh bell during the trip.

Katia said that her favorite moment on the ride comes when it is discovered that the Hero Child has just lost her bell. Without fail, the young children in the audience will immediately offer up their own bells as a replacement. 

“I hope that they remember how magical it is,” Katia said, when asked what she hoped families will take away from the experience. 

Want to go? 

  • Visit the Polar Express Train Ride’s website, whippanythepolarexpressride.com.
  • The train station is located at 1 Railroad Plaza, Whippany. Parking is available at 9 Troy Hills Road, Whippany. 
  • Coach-class tickets start at $48 for adults and $42 for children ages 2-11. First-class tickets start at $70 for adults and $65 for children ages 2-11. 
  • All passengers age 2 and over must wear face coverings on the train at all times, except when eating or drinking.  
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