Plan Ahead for the Christmas Cannonball Express

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Saturday, November 10, 2012, 1:04 PM EST

Each holiday season, families gather on a depot platform in Lake County, tickets clinched firmly in hand.  In order to get on this magical ride, you'll need to slow down long enough and get a ticket as a trip on the rails comes to life.

"It's not a duplicate, it's not a reproduction, it is the real deal," says an excited Neil Bagaus, dressed in his train conductor's uniform.

The real deal is called the Orange Blossom Cannonball. On weekend nights in Lake County, holiday past becomes the present aboard this steam engine, still hugging the tracks.

"It just brought it to life. Brought the Christmas Spirit back here," says Cathy Napier passionately.

Families climb aboard the wood-fired engine built in 1907 by the famed Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. Once rolling, Conductor Bagaus punches tickets in the festive coaches covered in lights.

"It is literally like stepping back into 1915 in the coaches when these cars were built," he exclaims.

Soon, the hot chocolate and cookies start flowing. Wearing his Christmas sweater, Gabriel Rodriguez had a few cookies.

"One. No, two," a shy Rodriguez says while correcting himself on how many bake goods are resting in his belly.

"The cookie was wonderful and fresh. Something I would never be able to do," Napier says with a laugh while holding her son.

Meantime, the anticipation inside the coaches builds, as the engine begins to slow. Call it a little holiday magic if you will. After leaving Tavares behind, the Orange Blossom Cannonball arrives in the darkness of the North Pole. It's here where one special guest climbs aboard.

"We brought Santa!" shouts an elf dressed in red and green as they storm the train through the back door.

It's only been 10 minutes and the Cannonball Christmas Express has gone from Tavares on the Harris Chain of Lakes, to the North Pole on the Artic Circle.

"We use a lot of magical dust to do that," Bagaus confides. The Cannonball Christmas Express rolls on, with Santa's elves giving each child a bell to hear the sounds of the season.

"We got a special bell," Napier says, "It was from Santa's sleigh!"

Santa spends time with each child before the train completes its 45 minute, round trip journey.

Note: The Cannonball Christmas Express often sells out before the holiday season.  To avoid disappointment, tickets should be purchased early.  In 2012, the train departs nightly on November 23,24,25 and 30. December 1,2,7,8,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23.