Second graders at Sandusky Central Catholic School's Sts. Peter and Paul campus got the ride of a lifetime Tuesday.
By demonstrating good behavior, students earned their ticket to ride on the Polar Express.
At precisely 12:30 p.m., a stern conductor holding a lantern blew a train whistle and picked up pajama-clad passengers on the way to the North Pole.
The man, wearing black and white with a conductor's hat, closely resembled the character from the movie but was rumored to be a teacher's husband.
"This is so real," second grader Cassie Cebull said. "I think it's the real Polar Express."
Fifty-two students earned their tickets to ride the Polar Express, teacher Andrea Berlin said.
The conductor's train whistles, cries of "All aboard" and jingle bells on the students' necks sounded through the halls as the group paraded through the building, through classrooms and outside.
"That is so cool," whispered a child peeking out his classroom door. "Here they come, here they come. Come over here and look."
The passengers' journey didn't end until they had reached the North Pole (the gymnasium), where the Polar Express movie played and teachers armed with hot chocolate and cookies waited.
"Tickets, tickets please," cried the conductor, who stamped each ticket with a snowflake.
The children rushed into the gym, piled onto blankets and sleeping bags and eagerly waited for cookies and drinks topped with whipped cream.
"If you go up there," Andrew Gerold said, "you'll see cookies that say Gerold, my name on them. My mom made them. They're really good. My favorite part of the whole ride was going outside. It was really fun."
After the movie started, the only loudness in the room came from brightly colored pajamas and blankets that displayed Superman, Barbie, Spongebob and Hello Kitty.
"We started doing this 20 years ago," said 31-year teacher Gale Bilgen. "We originally read the book and then showed a quick,12-minute black-and-white clip from the book."
In the past, Bilgen said, teachers gave the Polar Express ticket to children as a Christmas gift, but over the years they developed ways for students to earn their right to ride.
"They earn Panther Paws," she said. "They earn them for having good manners, doing well on tests, being a friend, helping others and trying to answer questions even if they don't get the answer right. I think they had to earn 80 through the month of December for this, and everybody earned their ticket this year."
"We had to be really good in class and nice to our friends so we could earn our tickets," Alyssa Harrison said. "We had to earn 85 Panther Paws. I saw the movie at the State Theater, but I'm glad I'm watching it again."
Why the Polar Express?
"It's just Christmas," Bilgen said. "It represents the true meaning of Christmas. It's not what they get, but what they give."
Bilgen and her fellow teachers said the holiday adoption of the Polar Express was because the movie/book is all about Christmas.
When you can't hear the bell anymore, that's when you no longer believe, Bilgen said.
"The kids still ask me: Mrs. Bilgen, do you believe?" she said shaking the bell around her neck. "I tell them, 'Forever.'"
After the movie the only evidence the Polar Express had ever visited campus was a pile of snow flakes from the tickets marking the entrance of what had been the North Pole.