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dodge rain to tour KCS Christmas train

Cousins Kayla Ainsworth, 4, and Brandon Brister, 5, stand in awe as they look at Kansas City Southern’s Holiday Express Sunday night. The two visited the train with their grandparents, Donald and Judy Ainsworth. All are from Vicksburg. (Meredith Spencer The Vicksburg Post)

[12/6/04] ‘Twas 20 days before Christmas, and despite all the rain, Santa visited Vicksburg aboard a holiday train.

The Kansas City Southern Holiday Express made a stop at the downtown depot Sunday night for children and parents.

The holiday train premiered in 2001, and in its second visit to Vicksburg Sunday, a crowd of nearly 1,500 gathered with umbrellas to wait in line to go aboard. Last year’s crowd numbered an estimated hundred more.

“Last year we had a total of 23,000 people tour the train, and Vicksburg was one of our biggest turnouts. Tonight’s crowd is great considering the weather,” said Willis Kilpatrick, manager of transportation and “head elf” during the holiday season.

The six-car Holiday Express includes a smiling tank car named “Rudy,” a flat car carrying Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, a miniature village, a gingerbread box car, the elves’ workshop and the reindeer’s stable.

Kilpatrick said there are 12 elf helpers on board, mainly employees of KCS. He said the holiday train is kept in Shreveport, La., when not in use, and volunteers start working on the train in March to get it ready for Christmas. The actual holiday tour of nine states and 29 cities begins right after Thanksgiving and ends right before Christmas.

“We stay on board a lot. We got to Vicksburg about midafternoon today from Port Arthur, Texas, and we’ll head out tonight for Ashdown, Ark.,” he said.

Kilpatrick said KCS this year raised more than $80,000 in contributions, which was divided among the tour cities and presented to the local Salvation Army at each stop.

Though this year’s turnout was down from last year, those in line were eager.

“I’m ready to see Santa and tell him what I want for Christmas,” said 7-year-old LaTonya Davidson of Vicksburg while standing in line. “I want to see where they make the toys,” added her sister, Kayla Davidson, 5.

Once on board, visitors first got a glimpse inside Santa’s home on the train, complete with framed portraits of the reindeer hanging on the wall.

“Have you been a good girl?” Santa asked 8-year-old Alaina Hubbard.

“Yes. I want a puppy,” she said.

A miniature village with a toy KCS train awaited visitors in the next car, and in the last car the elves’ workshop came to life with toys and dolls lining the shelves.

“The village with the dump truck and lights was my favorite,” said 4-year-old Christopher Albert.

His mother, Alberta Albert, liked the workshop.

“It was so detailed. It was neat,” she said.

Eight-year-old Kelli Lynn was visiting the train for the first time and liked the toy workshop the best, but her friend, 10-year-old Jessica McCool, visited last year with her mother and brother, Race McCool, 7.

“I like all the lights. The village was cool, too, how the lights turned on and off,” said Jessica.

Bonnie Farlow was there with her mother-in-law Susie Chatham and two children, Thomas, 3, and Lily, 7 months.

“It was great. I could look at it for hours. So could Thomas. I felt bad rushing him, but the line was long outside of the train. You could tell they put a lot of time into it,” said Farlow.

Kilpatrick said the train’s route varies from year to year to include communities on the KCS system not previously visited by the Holiday Express, so he couldn’t say whether the train would visit Vicksburg again next year.

“It’s hard to say at this point,” he said. “Santa has a lot of boys and girls to visit with all over the country, so we’ll just have to see.”