A Theme for Every Season
Heber Valley Railroad
Little girls in princess garb wait anxiously for Elsa and Anna look-alikes to step into their train car. The excitement on their faces is palpable. As they arrive, each full-grown princess moves through the car, stopping to chat with her adoring fans — answering questions, offering hugs, posing for pictures.
“Maybe you and Anna could come to my house, and we could mess up our hair and make castles,” a 4-year-old girl in a purple satin dress suggests to Elsa. “Have you seen Olaf lately?” she asks Anna.
A few weeks later, the crowd is a bit rougher — boots and bandanas replace glittery slippers and luxuriant Elsa braids. Whips crack, cowboys yee-haw and gunshots crackle during the wild west preshow on the Heber Valley Historic Railroad station platform in Heber City, Utah. The onboard entertainment on this particular ride is, not surprisingly, a train robbery.
“It’s a holdup!” shouts a masked man bursting into the car. Fear and delight alternate on kids’ faces as the mock holdup unfolds, ending with a surprise sheriff who was pretending to be a bad guy and a money box full of gold-foil chocolate coins for the kids.
The fun doesn’t end upon disembarking. Crazy Annie sings, twirls her guns and performs rope tricks. There are pony rides, a corn sandbox, magician, civil war tent and much more.
From Freight to Families
Beginning in 1899, the first Rio Grande Western train started transporting passengers and freight between Heber and Provo. Locals dubbed it the Heber Creeper. Eventually, roads were built and the train whistle stopped blowing. The last Rio Grande train rolled out of Heber in 1968.
Twice the flagging railroad was revived by train enthusiasts. The second time in 1993 as the scenic train we know today — the Heber Valley Historic Railroad — rolling between Heber and Vivian Park in Provo. It is owned by the State of Utah.
In 2012, Mark Nelson was hired as executive director and quickly discovered most train riders were out-of-state tourists. “When I quizzed people from Utah about the train they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I love it. I rode it 15 years ago.’ The premise was they’d done it once, why do it again?”
A Theme for Every Season
Nelson wanted to find a way to get locals to ride several times a year. Theme train rides were the answer, with offerings like the ones above along with masquerade, chocolate lovers, North Pole express, karaoke, cheese tasting and more.
His plan worked. Five years later in 2016, more than half the riders were Utah residents. The most popular theme train was — and still is — the North Pole Express, which drew 30,000 of the 100,000 guests total in 2016. “It’s become a family tradition,” Nelson says. “For the past three years, every North Pole train has been sold out before Thanksgiving.”
Talented local teens are hired as hosts, princesses and themed characters of every kind. “The high school kids are incredible,” Nelson says. A local group of re-enactors, dubbed the “Salt Water Bunch,” provide Old West activity that is fun and entertaining.
One of the best things about the theme rides is that adults can revel in the scenery when not distracted by their kids’ happy faces. It’s Wasatch Back Utah at its best with green pastures, cows grazing, meandering rivers, snowcapped mountains and glistening Deer Creek reservoir. The colors change with the seasons, but the scenes out the oversized windows are consistently beautiful.
A Grand Addition
The grandest Heber Valley Railroad addition rolled onto the tracks for public use in January, much to everyone’s excitement at the railroad. It’s a 1913 first-class “business” car formerly enjoyed by the president of the Rio Grande Western. The Heber Valley Railroad invested $300,000 to bring the car back to Utah, thanks to donations from several individuals and organizations.
“It is so cool,” Nelson enthused. “The layout includes a viewing porch, parlor, dining room, bedrooms, kitchen and porters’ quarters. It’s in great shape and is built with gleaming brass, rich inlaid dark wood and stained glass. It has its own power system, heating and air conditioning.”
The train car is mostly used for private events and holds about 20 passengers. But on the scenic rides, visitors feeling flush can pay a premium and ride in luxury with a butler in tow.