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The Sullivan Express Provides Another Season of Holiday Fun

Photographer / Michael Durr

Sullivan ExpressIt’s not every day that you can ride a train to see Santa at his workshop, leading up to the most wonderful time of the year. Thanks to the magic of the Sullivan Express, however, this opportunity is made possible to Indianapolis residents in search of a special holiday excursion.

In service from November 26 to December 23 this year, the Sullivan Express runs out of the Sullivan Hardware & Garden on Keystone Avenue, where families can make a reservation to ride aboard one of the train’s cars as a group. Having become a tradition for many in the Indianapolis area, a trip on the Sullivan Express consists of a narrated train ride to the North Pole, where kids get a chance to play in Santa’s workshop and enjoy a one-on-one visit with Kris Kringle himself.

A lifelong Indianapolis native, Pat Sullivan, owner of the three Sullivan Hardware & Garden stores in central Indiana, remembers going to L.S. Ayres and riding their Christmas-themed train as a kid.

“We all as kids went to L.S. Ayres for their train and Santa experience in the 1960s and ‘70s,” he says.

The father of five children, Sullivan says it was always “a bit of a nightmare” taking his kids to visit Santa every year as they were growing up. Drawing from his own unpleasant experiences, he started holding free events at the hardware store where families could come visit Mr. Claus with less waiting in line.

“Instead of standing in line, we’d do something simple like give you a number so you could run and play,” he says. “Then we’d call the number.”

The staff became victims of their own success, however, as the store’s Santa experience quickly grew to be too popular to maintain. In brainstorming solutions, Sullivan harkened back to his days of riding the L.S. Ayres Christmas train. Hence, the Sullivan Express was born.

“I always had the train thing in the back of my mind, and at the time we had acquired some more property on Keystone,” he says. “In 2015 that’s what we did. We developed that piece of property with the train in mind. When we poured the concrete, it was at the right radiuses for the trains and all of that.”

In its initial year, Sullivan and company sold 89 tickets to the Sullivan Express in their first hour of sales.

“We were beyond thrilled,” he remembers. “The success we had really propelled us to then make some changes and add on.”

After only having one train in the first year, the Sullivan Express now has six rotating trains that run through the course of a day. In comparing ticket sales from 2015 to now, Sullivan also points out that he and his team sold 4,500 tickets in the first hour this year, as opposed to 89 in year one.

Since seeing a boost in popularity, the staff has been able to make some much-needed improvements to the Sullivan Express. Early on, for example, Sullivan says he and his team were responsible for constructing many of the animatronics seen throughout the ride.

Sullivan Express“We had schlocky animatronics back in the very first year,” he says. “We took stuffed bears, put air pistons on them, and made them jump up and down or move an arm. As we moved on and the success continued, we finally found a company in Denmark where we buy animation. They can do custom animation for you. It’s that animation type that you see in department-store windows – just an updated version of it.”

As improvements have been made to the Sullivan Express, the ride has extended from a round-trip time of about six minutes to about 17 minutes. Through the course of this journey, riders are treated to a narrated tale that’s full of twists and turns.

“As the story goes, the train gets diverted because of an overturned railroad car full of candy canes,” Sullivan says. “The train has to go through a service tunnel to get to the North Pole, and it ends up going past the reindeer workout room, where reindeer are on treadmills and pumping iron.”

When riders arrive at the North Pole, they are granted a unique opportunity to interact with Santa. While some youngsters may be shyer than others, Sullivan explains that the workshop environment gives every parent the chance for a photo opportunity.

Sullivan Express“You’re there for 15 minutes, which in lap time, as we call it in the Santa world, is a long time,” Sullivan says. “Some kids will run right up to Santa. Other kids hang back. If they don’t want to come up to Santa, Santa will generally come out and do what we call a peekaboo shot, where he gets behind the kid while they’re playing. Then at least the parents get a picture.”

In reflecting on the Sullivan Express and its impact on the central Indiana community, Sullivan says he’s seen the train bring joy to countless families throughout the years as they come together to celebrate the holidays.

“When you think about it, you’re seeing families at their happiest time of the year,” he says.

Ultimately, putting together the Sullivan Express is something that brings Sullivan and his staff at Sullivan Hardware & Garden some joy every year too.

“Just to be able to provide them an experience is gratifying, and it allows for a lot of creativity in the planning and with our staff,” Sullivan says. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”

For more info, visit sullivanhardware.com/pages/sullivan-express.

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