TAVARES, FL — The announcement “All aboard!” will be returning to Tavares now that the city has struck a deal to bring in regular weekend rides and The Polar Express Train Ride from Warner Bros. during the Christmas season.
Air-conditioned Amtrak trains from the 1950s will operate year-round from Tavares beginning in August, Orlando & Northwestern Railway spokesman Neil Bagaus said. Their runs will travel to Eustis and Mount Dora for the first time.
“I think we’re ready to start running trains,” said Bagaus, talking to Tavares City Council, which unanimously approved Orlando & Northwestern to use its train station this week.
Tavares, which pegs itself as America’s Seaplane City, has also made a niche in offering old-timey train rides to residents and tourists. The Orange Blossom Cannonball, a 110-year-old steam-powered train, discontinued Jan. 29. Some residents and officials were eager to replace it.
“I get a lot of people asking, ‘When is the train coming? When is the train coming?’” Tavares City Council member Troy Singer said.
Officials say it will surpass anything the city has had before with The Polar Express Train Ride, based off the 2004 movie, as the gem of the group.
“It’s a theatrical production on rails,” said Michael Brown, special events manager for Orlando & Northwestern Railway. “It includes a visit with Santa on the return trip and each guest gets a special little gift.”
The 1950s Amtrak coaches and locomotives, meanwhile, will run regularly and feature dining cars, “glass-enclosed” dome coaches and other special-event and holiday trains. The coaches will be pulled by older diesel steam engines.
Costs for regular rides will range from about $12 for children and $20 for adults up to $99 for holiday dinner trains and other special events.
“It’s going to be heritage all the way,” said Bagaus, who added that excursion trips could include seaplane rides in Tavares or performances at the Historic State Theatre in Eustis.
The new trains lack the Cannonball’s signature steam engine, but Bagaus said in email that “the company is looking at bringing in a steam locomotive. We have been visiting with various people who own steam locomotives about relocating one to Central Florida.”
The Cannonball — featured in numerous Hollywood movies such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — discontinued after Central Florida Railroad terminated its contract with the operator.
Tavares has a long history with tourist trains, including the Mount Dora Meteor and Dora Doodlebug as well as visits by Thomas the Tank, a kid magnet. In 2010, the Meteor was temporarily stopped when it was discovered 1,000 railroad ties would have to be replaced along the route.
The state of disrepair was part of a reckoning of the region’s railways. Two separate stretches of tracks from the 1920s were upgraded in 2014 between Umatilla and Orlando and Tavares and Mount Dora.
“It’s really great to be here again,” Bagaus said.