Christmas train to Santa Paula is ready to board

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Every December, Michelle Corral participates in a family ritual: driving from her home in Ventura to the Santa Paula Christmas Tree Farm in search of the perfect pine to cut down and take home. The tradition began before she was old enough to walk.

“It’s always been a nice place to come,” Corral says. “There’s always families all over the place picking out their trees, kids running around having a good time.”

Michelle is 24 now and has a family of her own. But next weekend, the tradition will continue as she, her husband, Robert, and their two children embark on the annual quest. For the Corrals, a fake tree just won’t do, nor will a real one that’s been baking in a parking lot.


Farm owner Dan Roatman says that despite the sputtering economy, he expects to sell about 4,000 trees by Christmas Eve. In growing numbers, his customers are enjoying an unusual -- and fun -- means of reaching his place; they’re traveling by train.

Twice each Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 21, hundreds of people will climb aboard restored passenger cars -- run by the Fillmore & Western Railway -- to make the eight-mile journey from Fillmore to Roatman’s farm. There, within a few feet of the track, thousands of trees await.

Passengers have 90 minutes in which to find a tree and saw it down. Once it’s wrapped in netting and paid for, the tree is loaded onto a flatcar. Anywhere between 90 to 120 trees accompany their buyers on the return trip.

Onboard, Santa Claus moves from car to car, greeting youngsters, handing out candy canes and posing for photos.

“We have people who come out year after year,” says Dale Bolms, the railway’s onboard service manager who stands in for St. Nick when he’s busy at the North Pole. “It becomes a tradition for them and their family to go out and cut down their own Christmas tree.”

The brightly decorated train travels through orange groves and vegetable fields on the journey to the tree farm.

“It’s a family experience. That’s what we create,” he adds.

Roatman expects most of his customers the weekends of Dec. 6 and 7 and 13 and 14, when the trains are likely to be packed. Some dates are already filling up. Others planning to make the trip are encouraged to call for reservations now.

“Most people want to have a tree up 10 days to two weeks before Christmas,” he said.

Jones is a freelance writer.