Many students on campus pick up an extra part-time job during the holiday season, often in a retail store or maybe in a restaurant, but a lucky few have a job that involves making some holiday magic happen for kids from all over the country.
These students have the unique pleasure of being “chefs” on the Polar Express Train that runs every year from Nov. 17 to Jan. 2, Luke Prince, a special events coordinator for Durango Silver Narrow Gauge Railroad, said.
“Not all of the chefs are students by any means, but a significant number of them are,” he said.
They help facilitate an experience based on the popular book written by Chris Van Allsburg in 1985 and adapted into a popular film in 2004. The plotline is about a child who rides a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve accompanied by chefs and greeted by elves when he arrives, Prince said.
This is one of the most popular themed trains that the DSNGR hosts as they sold 20,000 tickets by opening day, Prince said.
This train is so popular because of the immersive experience the DSNGR creates, and the chefs help facilitate that process, he said.
Working as a chef is not your typical holiday season job because you’re not only working as a server but also as an actor in a theatrical performance, Derek Zuniga, a chef on the Polar Express train said.
Zuniga, a senior music major at Fort Lewis College, has been working as a chef on the Polar Express train for the last two years, he said.
Chefs not only serve hot cocoa and cookies to their guests but also must perform musical numbers and encourage holiday cheer, all while staying in character, he said.
The typical night for a chef begins at the train depot between 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., where they get dressed in an all-white uniform and have a meeting. Then they split into pairs of two which are assigned to different train cars, Prince said.
Once the chefs are assigned a car, they will disperse to their assigned areas and begin getting ready for their passengers by preparing loads and loads of hot chocolate, he said.
There are three different styles of train car: coach, deluxe, and first class.
Passengers in first class are in a parlor-style cabin with individual tables for each family, compared to coach and deluxe classes which feature bench-style seating. First class passengers also receive a ceramic Polar Express-themed mug to take home, Prince said.
Hot chocolate is an integral part of the Polar Express experience, and the chefs actually perform a musical number about it once the train starts rolling northward with passengers on board. Despite the copious amounts of hot cocoa the chefs serve, they never really grow tired of drinking it, Zuniga said.
The train then swings around the depot to pick up the first round of customers.
Each train ride is about an hour and 15 minutes long, and will typically consist of three separate rides in a night, Jenn Tarwater, an elementary education major at FLC and third-year employee of the Polar Express said.
Tarwater has really loved working on the train during the holidays for the last three years because it’s a really fun atmosphere and the scheduling is very flexible and compatible with her school schedule, she said.
After picking up their passengers the chefs introduce themselves in character, and the train heads northward to the North Pole, a temporary village set up by the DSNGR in the the Animas Valley.
Once there, guests sing Christmas carols to catch the attention of Santa, who boards the train and interacts and takes pictures with the passengers.
The train spends nearly fifteen minutes at the North Pole before heading back to the train depot. On the ride back, chefs hand out songbooks with Christmas carol lyrics and encourage everyone to sing along.
“I would definitely say most of us are the kind of people who listen to Christmas music year-round,” Zuniga said of himself and his fellow chefs.
Once the train arrives back at the depot the passengers disembark and the chefs have about 10 minutes to prepare the train car for the next set of guests, he said.
The chefs typically work about four to six hours, or two to three trains, in a shift, Tarwater said.
Zuniga and Tarwater both said it was their goal to make each and every guest smile while in their car, but that some customers pose more of a challenge than others.
“I had one girl who was just absolutely terrified of Santa, and when he got on the train she just wouldn’t stop crying,” Tarwater said.
It is also not uncommon for some passengers to become ill during their voyage to the North Pole because the train does sway some while moving, he said.
“Anytime you work with a lot of kids you can expect to see some bodily fluids at some point,” said Zuniga.
Despite this, both Zuniga and Tarwater say they would recommend this job to any college student looking to make a little extra cash while staying in Durango for the holiday season.
"Anyone who is staying around campus for the winter break should consider looking into working for the train,” Prince said.