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“Just OK”

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Ranked #2 of 30 things to do in Bryson City
Certificate of Excellence
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Attraction details
Recommended length of visit: 1-2 hours
Owner description: A 52-mile rail journey through valleys, inside winding tunnels and across spectacular gorges of the Great Smoky Mountains.
New Jersey
Level Contributor
6 reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 10 helpful votes
“Just OK”
Reviewed June 3, 2009

I think this is the type of tourist attraction that is a lot more fun if you have kids and/or a deep love of trains.

I took the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, leaving from Bryson City.

From my perspective, the trip was little more than an expensive, glorified car trip to a second-rate, over priced town, with a return trip down the exact track you traveled out on.

As another reviewer noted, there is a road that runs right along the track, which spends a great deal of the time wending its way through scrub trees or rock cuts. There are intermittent glimpses of the lake and the river, through the trees. But that's it. After a while there is only so much waving at rafters that one can do,

And that's it for the view. There is a nice historical commentary that accompanies the trip, but, again, you typically cannot see the things they are describing.

I paid for a seat in the open-air coach ($49), but once the trip started was free to wander into any other car. I imagine in high season this wouldn't be allowed, but no one said anything on my visit. As you pay a surcharge to be upgraded to other cars, this would bother me had I paid for the additional amenities (climate controlled cars, snacks served for free, etc.). See website for full description of rates

The view from the left side of the train is comparatively better than the right. The conductor came through the train and marked our tickets with "L" or "R," to indicate which side of the train we were on. We assumed this was so people couldn't switch from one side to the other and see the same view twice. Particularly when/if the train is crowded.

However, the train simply reverses itself when it reaches the end, and if you were on the right going out, you are on the same side going back. Does this doom the left-side people to the same view? I do not know, as the conductor never came back to check our tickets again (compounding the "sit in any car you like" situation).

There is a concession stand and a dining car on the train. At the concession stand I purchased a hot dog for four dollars, which I had to "make myself," taking a dog from a hot water vat, grabbing a roll from a plastic bin, putting it on a plate.and applying a plastic packet of mustard. For four dollars I'd at least like it served to me.

Two hours into the trip a conductor came through the car with menus and recommended we purchase food from the dining car before the break. I purchased a hot sandwich to take back to my seat -- there are limited # of booths in the car, but imagine that would be a nice thing to do if I were with a small group of people.

For $8.75 I got a rubbery piece of chicken on what was billed as a "hot sourdough" roll, but was in truth a slightly stale white-bread hamburger roll of supermarket quality. There were also a small serving of seasoned potatoes, which were good. I do not eat bread and needed to cut my chicken to eat it. I was told I could not take cutlery from the dining car back to my seat and they were unable to provide a plastic knife or fork.

Shortly afterward we did stop at the end of the line for about 15 minutes. Assuming this was the advertised break, many people went and purchased food. The train began its return journey and about 45 minutes later, the real break was announced. We were stopping for an hour in a local town where there were a number of restaurants and shops.

I really felt that we were misled by the people on board the train. To be honest, I should have done my research better and would have known that an hour break would take place during the trip, and I should have asked someone. But I was unaware and it wasn't made clear why we stopped for 15 minutes mid-way through the trip.

I did not leave the train during the break, but seatmates told me it was a nice little place, albeit overpriced ($3.00 for a soda).

All this being said, if you have kids I'm sure this is a great trip for them to go on. For me, It wasn't a heinous experience, it simply was an unremarkable way to spend five hours of my day and a trip I easily could have made in my own car for less money. For $50 in gas I could have driven every road in the Smokies.

7 Thank elemsee
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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1 review
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 7 helpful votes
“Polar Express 12/10/2008”
Reviewed December 23, 2008

I rode the Polar Express this year with my neice, newphew and my 12 week old son and some adults. This year i put us on 1st class instead of standard like last year. Let me tell you, the 1st class was definitely worth it. Instead of feeling like i'm back in high school on a school bus, they have nice big tables and comfortable chairs. The windows are really big for the kids to see out of. The 1st class also holds fewer people which was nice because we all had our own room. I got the hot chocolate which was me was cold, but perfect temperature for the kids, it came in a cute little red polar express mug that we all got to take home with us. The treats they gave us were pretty good, some muffins, cookies,and pastries as well as the chocolate covered marshmellow santa which was russell stovers chocolate... We all danced and sung songs as we rode into the night. The moonlight overlooked the river beautiful making it seem kind of majestic. As we got to the North pole, the car attendents said "Everyone, look and see the North Pole, you have to wave to Santa or he wont know there is anyone on our car!" My nephew who is 4 just jumped up and started waving like crazy. After a little while Santa arrived at our car. He picked up my 12 week old son and posed for pictures and picked up my 1year old neice to get some pictures with her. Then Santa got next to my newphew and took pictures with him. We didn't have books, but Santa signed the mugs and out Golden Tickets. My son as young as he is wouldn't stop smiling for Santa and started to cry when he left!!! But I was excited about the whole trip, it's not great for adults but if the kids are happy it makes it all worth it. You have to have a positive attitude because if you don't enjoy it then the children wont enjoy it. To see the smiles on their faces, I will be riding again next year!!

7 Thank alwyzasweethrt
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
1 review
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 3 helpful votes
“Polar express ride on Saturday December 20”
Reviewed December 22, 2008

We had an awesome time! It was pouring down rain but we didn't let that get our spirits down. The kids were excited and so were we! We had a group of 10 (7 adults and 3 kids)...a family Christmas get together. The ride was complete with songs from the movie, the story read aloud, hot chocolate, a marshmallow chocolate treat, christmas songs, dancing, the north pole, "the real" Santa, and a bell! We loved every part of this adventure. We didn't have any expectations so everything that happened was a surprise and fun! A few tips: Arrive early, be prepared to wait in line some, bring large umbrellas in the case of rain, bring snacks, if you have a copy of the Polar Express book-bring it along, and most importantly your camara and a festive attitude!
We stayed in a cabin rented by the Watershed cabin company...another great experience!

3 Thank CharlestonSC3
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
1 review
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 5 helpful votes
“Great Smokies Railroad: Polar Express”
Reviewed December 20, 2008

December 18 2008

Just returned from a night on the Great Smokies Railroad, Polar Express train RIde. Went with my husband and our 2 girls ages 4 and 5yrs. We all had a FABULOUS time!

We did the upgraded Club Car seating which provided the nicer seating and train cars, we were given complimentary Hot Cocoa Mugs and served pastries. The attendant was Wonderful, very outgoing, friendly and great with the kids--they danced the entire way to the North Pole!

Once we arrived in the North Pole, Santa climbed on board to give all the kids "magical bells", he then came back through all the cars for pictures, autographs, and to gather all the kids wish list!

We will definately return next year for another Magical Trip!

5 Thank NcLakegirl
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Level Contributor
6 reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 10 helpful votes
“Polar Express”
Reviewed December 15, 2008

The reason I say neutral for this is as an adult is was not worth the price. With that being said, it was for the kids. They had a good time. 6 and a half girl and 2 and a half year old boy. We had recently watched the movie for the first time. We booked on a Sunday for the following Thursday. (we went on Dec. 11 08). We took the 5:00 train ride. It was light when we left and dark on the way back. Pros and cons to both. (As a side note, it would have been way better if there were snow on the ground. While you can't predict that, the later in Dec you go, you'll have a better chance.) While it was light on the trip up, we could see some nice picturesque sites but could also see the "poverty" and delapidated houses and trailers. While on the way back, it was dark and you couldn't really see much. Not that many houses have xmas lights. Just a little up in "the north pole". Where they say those are the elves houses.
We got in line about 20 minutes before boarding. It was orderly and not problems there. Just make sure you line up near your train. The name is on your ticket and the name is on the side of the train. There are 4 of us in the family so we took the 2 benches (no tables in the regular cars. i think only in the higher priced club cars). Each facing the other. Of course if you get "car sick", you'll want to ride in the seat facing the direction you are going. There were 2 waiters in our box car (one younger girl and one older man). After we started moving, they played the hot cocoa song over the speaker system. The music could barely be heard which was disappointing. They served the hot cocoa (which was pretty decent) and at a warm temp for the kids to be able to drink. They also gave a very good chocolate covered marshmellow santa. I can't remember the name of the chocolate but it was a mainstream brand. Not See's but one like that so it was not some cheap thing. Once they finished passing out the drinks, they read the PE book. If you can, be sure to bring the book with you. Santa will sign the book. Once we hit the "north pole" they point out Santa to you. He is outside waving with a few elves and near his sleigh. We sit on the train for about 5 minutes and then start heading back to the depot. At this point, Santa is on board somewhere going through each car. The waiters pass out a paper paphlet of xmas carols that we all sing together until Santa arrives in our car. He was very good. He goes one by one to each family and kids. He takes pictures, talks and asks the kids what they want. I did not feel he rushed through at all. In fact, spent more time that I would have thought. We had our books and he said he would sign them on the way back through. (which he did) They probably play that by ear as it may take longer to get him through to see everyone before the train gets back to the depot. After he left our car, we picked back up with the carols and that was it until we arrived back. It's about an hour round trip or so.
Like I said, not worth the money for the adults but the kids liked it and we have to pay whatever they want as we want to do this for our kids.
There was a 6:30 train and 8p train. For our age of kids, this would have been too late. They get tired and cranky around the 7p time so keep that in mind depending on your childs age.
The train windows do slide up. Some lock in place and some don't. Be careful with that for kids heads and fingers sticking out. We need the fresh air as the train got pretty stuffy and hot. They even pass out paper towels to each person to wipe the widows as they steam up.
Hope this review helps someone.

8 Thank LakeShow1
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.

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