Sensory Friendly Project – The Polar Express

Written by Jamie Abelson

In 2018, Chicago Children’s Theatre was contacted by the folks at Rail Events Productions about consulting with them to create a sensory friendly version of their annual family tradition “The Polar Express Train Ride.” This immersive holiday theatrical experience is based on the beloved book “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg and deftly recreates the story of the book on actual trains around the country.

In the months leading up to Christmas, we worked with their production team, led my Holli Hipwell, to transform elements of the production to make it more sensory friendly an inviting to children with autism. This process included making small changes to the production design, including changing the strobing lighting effects, turning down the volume of the music and performer amplification, and transforming participatory group moments into more individualized interactions. We decided to reserve 2 cars on each train as “quiet cars” for children needing a break from the performance.  Each “quiet car” provided teaching artist support, sensory friendly toys, and “social stories” that visually describe the performance to audience members feeling anxiety during the experience.

When it came to training the acting companies on how to alter their performances for children with autism, we decided to partner with the wonderful people at Infinteach to create a comprehensive training for performers new to this type of work.  Along with their team, Lally Daley, Christopher Flint, Katie Hench, and Ned Williams, we created an afternoon of trainings about autism, how to anticipate specific behaviors and responses, and performing tips for creating sensory friendly experiences.

Like all new programs, the first year was challenging in terms of reaching a new audience, but with all the organizations involved spreading the word, the first year was a huge success. In fact, many of the performers and production staff involved mentioned that the sensory friendly performance was one of their favorite experiences during the project.

In 2019, we were able to extend the program to train rides in Whippany, NJ and New Orleans, LA as well as returning to Chicago for a second year. We scheduled a marathon of trainings around the country led by Chicago Children’s Theatre and Infiniteach staff. Joining the actors at the trainings were members from 2 wonderful organizations, Kaiser’s Room in New York City and Soar with Autism in New Orleans. These groups of teachers, families, and artists staffed the train during the sensory friendly rides to support the audience. The amount of families taking advantage of this amazing experience grew exponentially from the first year to the second and we are so proud to have helped Rail Events offer this unique experience to children with autism all across the country.

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