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All aboard for ‘Carol’

This holiday weekend, it seemed as though downtown’s Union Station had been transformed into Disneyland. Hundreds lined up inside one of the station’s tunnels. Snacks being unwrapped and empty water bottles being crunched created the soundtrack. And impatient children were tugging on their equally impatient parents.

And the wait time? About three hours. And it was all brought to you by -- fittingly -- Disney.

“Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” a 3-D version of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday story, doesn’t hit theaters until Nov. 6, but that didn’t stop the well-oiled Disney marketing machine from literally pulling into town. Apparently, even this revered yuletide tale needs a publicity tour as the entertainment giant embarks on one of its most elaborate nationwide marketing schemes -- by train.

The six-month train tour will hit 40 cities with a multi-car exhibit highlighting different aspects of the high-tech production, which is directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Jim Carrey in the roles of Scrooge and all three ghosts. “We were blown away by this movie, and we knew we had to do something really special for it,” said Lylle Breier, senior vice president of worldwide special events for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. “We wanted to get out into the country and let people really see it and experience it for themselves.” Despite the warm weather over the weekend, it felt like Christmas in this pocket of Los Angeles, with carolers, holiday decorations and artificial snow capturing the Dickens fantasy. More than 30,000 walked through the railway fantasy over the weekend, Breier said.

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Inside, they found a first edition of the original novel, on loan from the Charles Dickens Museum in London; artwork, costumes and props from the film; demonstrations of performance-capture technology; and a face-morphing booth that transforms the mold of a visitor’s face into one of the film’s characters. “I think it’s a cool strategy,” said Wes Whatley, 44, of Studio City, who came with his wife and four children. “It certainly got us out here.”

The tour leaves L.A.'s Union Station today, then travels across about 16,000 miles of track as it stops in such big cities as Seattle, Chicago and Houston, and smaller ones like Whitefish, Mont., Spencer, N.C., and Fargo, N.D. Each stop lasts a few days. On Oct. 30, the train is scheduled to make its final stop at New York’s Grand Central.

“It’s the whole notion of grand experience,” said Neal Burns, director of the Center for Brand Research at the University of Texas at Austin. “Studios are struggling with the lack of viewership in the conventional ways of promoting films.”

Disney isn’t the first to make use of trains on their track for publicity. L.A. music fans bobbed to the pounding beats of four DJs set up in a six-car express train as it made its way to Indio for the 2008 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. That same year, journalists boarded a 1949 Pullman rail car from L.A. to San Diego for Comic-Con. The train car, decorated with props and costumes, was promoting the film “City of Ember,” starring Bill Murray and Tim Robbins.

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Disney officials wouldn’t say how much the “Christmas Carol” train tour -- or the movie itself -- cost, but overall marketing can sometimes rival a movie’s budget. The studio partnered with Hewlett-Packard, which provides support for the interactive exhibits, and Amtrak, which has its share of railway properties.

Visitors were admitted free -- if you didn’t factor in how much money a person’s time is worth. A three-hour wait was out of the question for some, including Irense Casados, 59, and her family, who arrived Saturday afternoon. “Three hours? Forget this,” she said. “Let’s go to Olvera Street. I’ll get myself a margarita.”

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yvonne.villareal@latimes.com


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