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Polar Express ready to roll for Parade of Lights

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Posted: Thursday, December 7, 2017 2:06 pm

In a large warehouse at Pacific Coast Producers, a small audience stands around the Polar Express, waiting patiently.

Then, with a quiet whir, snow begins streaming from the top of the train’s “locomotive” and falling gently to the ground.

It’s not real snow — the soapy formula was discovered online and leaf blowers shoot the mixture out in “flakes” — but it looks real enough to wow children and a few adults each year at the Parade of Lights.

The team hard at work on the train on Tuesday were happy to give the Lodi News-Sentinel a behind-the-scenes look at how they put the popular float together each year.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Mike Van Gundy, plant manager at Pacific Coast Producers. “Every year, we try and think of stuff we can add to make it a little different than the year before.”

They first began tossing around the idea for a float several years ago, and went through several ideas — including a reproduction of the Grinch’s sled, complete with his dog — before striking on the idea of a train.

Leonard Feltus, who works in Pacific Coast Producer’s maintenance department, is a train enthusiast. For years, he set up an extensive model track in his living room each Christmas, and he was featured in Classic Toy Trains, a magazine for hobbyists.

“It’s a long-time hobby,” Feltus said.

With Feltus checking the accuracy, the team put together a locomotive and trailer made over to look like a train car the first year. By the second, a second trailer was added, along with fake train wheels that chugged along as the float moved.

Since then, the team has added fake smoke and snow, lights that blink in time to a soundtrack, plush animal passengers in a vista area atop the first train car, and more.

“We’ve got a couple surprises for this year as well,” Van Gundy said.

Kevin Kidd, the plant’s maintenance and production superintendent, echoed him while showing a News-Sentinel reporter and photographer the float.

“We have to change it up every year,” he said. “We don’t want people to get bored.”

Building the machine

It’s easier now than it used to be.

The first year that the team made their float, it took a lot of designing, fabricating and time to piece it all together. Now, it’s about a four-day process.

This is partly because several of the pieces are already built. The two trailers that serve as train cars have been retired. They are stored in the warehouse until just before the parade each year, then pulled out for some cleanup and redesign — but the heavy lifting is done.

The locomotive engine is a plywood structure that sits on top of a massive forklift, normally used to move tons of fruit around the plant.

The locomotive frame does need to be pieced back together each year, but that mainly requires some lifting and maneuvering, Kidd said.

Then, they just need to hook up all of the electronics and special effects, and test everything to make sure it works.

Luckily, this leaves time for tinkering and improvements each year.

Feltus came up with the vista dome, a clear dome on top of the first trailer that provides seating for several plush animal passengers.

Decorating masterminds Mike Karlson and Myron Miller take point on tasks like rewrapping battered “gifts” and how to fit the float into the yearly theme.

“They’re the ones who come up with a lot of the ideas on where to place things,” Kidd said.

The team also includes John Flaherty, Larry Pinheiro, Danny Rodriguez and several others from the plant’s maintenance department, Van Gundy said.

“A lot of guys put their hands on it. I could go on and on. Everybody has a little part in it,” he said.

Light show spectacular

It wouldn’t be a Christmas parade without strings of brightly colored lights.

The first year, there were plenty of lights, but they mainly served to brighten up the locomotive and trailer — back then, there was only one “car” on the Polar Express.

“Inside the engine there’s a couple generators,” Van Gundy said.

There are generators on each of the train cars, too.

The second year, they had a surprise in store.

Sotheara Ong, a production superintendent at Pacific Coast Producers, created a music mix. He worked with the electricians so the lights would flash in time to the music.

“He’s pretty tech savvy,” Van Gundy said.

Even the folks on the Lodi Electric Utility float were impressed, Kidd recalled.

Ong creates a new playlist each year for the lights to twinkle in time with.

This year, viewers can expect a new surprise with the lights — but anyone who’s curious will need to watch the parade to see them.

The chemists

Dmitro Verenchuk and Mike Post are the team’s chemists, Kidd said.

The first year the train team decided the locomotive needed real smoke, they used dry ice in pans of water. It ended up being a lot of effort — they had to stop frequently to change the ice or add more water — and it didn’t give the effect they had hoped for.

Verenchuk and Post jumped on the challenge.

First, they swapped out the dry ice for a collection of four fog machines, which they modified to fit their imaginations.

Then, the pair and Kidd turned to the internet to find out how to make both smoke that would rise from the smokestack, and fog that would burst out like steam along the ground.

“We found some of it online and then altered it,” Post said.

He and Verenchuk did the same when they decided the Polar Express needed snow. They found a formula for realistic fake snow used at parades in Disneyland, then played around with the recipe until they got it right.

Then they repurposed some leaf blowers to spew the eco-friendly snow on either side of the train.

Making their way downtown

“Just getting the float from the plant to the parade route is quite an adventure,” Van Gundy said.

Part of the problem is the scale of the float, and that a massive forklift towing two trailers — however well-decorated — just doesn’t move very quickly.

So the team had to carefully map the route so the trailers wouldn’t scrape on any railroad tracks or dips in the road, Kidd said. They also have point cars, one before and one behind, as they head to the staging area.

They even had to get a variance from the city allowing them to have such a long float.

That involved inviting some city engineers over to the plant to show off maneuverability of the two specially designed trailers, which have separate controls for the front and back wheels. Before they were retired, the two trailers were used to haul canned fruit around the plant.

“Each set of wheels turn because our warehouses are really tight,” Kidd said.

Why they do it

The team that creates the float each year just wants to have fun.

“If I let our maintenance guys have at it, they would work on it from the day the pack is over until the parade,” Van Gundy said with a laugh.

As an added bonus, it brings publicity to Pacific Coast Producers.

But there is another goal, Van Gundy admitted.

“Our main intention is just to raise the bar. I’d love to get beat by a nicer float,” he said.

He grew up in Lodi, and has been going to the Parade of Lights for years. While it’s always been a great parade, he noticed that people weren’t being as creative with their floats as they could be.

Since they first entered the Polar Express, Kidd said, they’ve begun seeing other groups rise to the challenge.

“We’re seeing more and more spectacular floats,” he said.

The team is thrilled at the competition. They’d love to see someone with a better float snatch the title away from their Polar Express.

But they have no intention of fading into the night when that happens. It’s too fun to shine.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but everyone enjoys it,” Kidd said. “We all look forward to it.”

The Parade of Lights begins at 6:17 p.m. tonight in Downtown Lodi.

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