Ken Buehler, director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, Minn., has announced that while the museum’s holiday train rides inspired by Chris van Allsburg’s 1985 picture book The Polar Express have “had a good run” since their mid-1980s launch, it’s time to move on: the museum has published its own holiday picture book to accompany the vintage train rides, in order to save on the royalties demanded by Warner Bros., which in 2004 produced a film version of van Allsburg’s Caldecott Medal-winning book.
The Christmas City Express, written by local theater professionals and educators Cheryl Skafte and Luke Moravec and illustrated by local artist Marissa Saurer, was inspired by a story that Buehler’s father told him and his siblings when they were children. Buehler adapted the tale for Duluth readers, replacing its original Wisconsin setting with a rail journey from Minnesota’s Iron Range to Duluth on Christmas Eve.
According to Buehler, the museum’s Polar Express holiday train ride became part of its annual holiday activities soon after the book’s publication. “It grew over the years,” he said. “It became an event.” In 2012, Warner Bros. served the museum with a cease-and-desist letter, demanding 30% of the gross proceeds if it wanted to continue using the words “Polar Express” in its promotional materials. (Buehler declined to disclose how much the museum typically earns from the holiday train rides.)
The letter compelled the museum to look elsewhere for a book tie-in with its holiday train rides. After all, Buehler said, proceeds from the holiday train excursions allow the nonprofit organization, housed in a renovated 19th-century train depot, to “survive the winter.” Having to give up 30% of the proceeds simply to use to the name and “to get to buy some coffee cups,” he said, was not worth the expense. The museum gave up 30% of gross sales when it sponsored Thomas the Tank Engine, but, he noted, licensee HIT Entertainment also provided the museum with personnel, security for the train, the opportunity to sell exclusive souvenir items, and other perks.
The Christmas City Express holiday train rides launched on November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, with a mile-long train ride between Fitgers Brewery Complex on the east side of downtown Duluth and the “North Pole Forest” at the Duluth Depot, on the west side of downtown. There, co-author Skafte acted out the story for the 900 guests. The Christmas City Express is being sold through the Train Museum’s gift shop, which has sold 600 copies of an initial 1,000 copy print run to date. Holiday trains will run weekends through Christmas.