Polimene's train in action

Ahwatukee residents do not have to travel far or spend a lot to find quality family holiday entertainment — and if they stay close they will even have a chance to contribute to a truly great cause.

Frank Polimene has been operating one of the most popular displays in the south Valley with his Santa Train growing to span the length of his home in Ahwatukee Foothills, an operation that has not just grown but has become increasingly automated since its inception when Frank was living in Baltimore 37 years ago.

“My wife used to say we are sort of home bound during Christmas time because of the train, and that used to be the case but now with everything being automated we are a little less confined,” Polimene said.

The idea for a train started when Polimene saw a toy train advertised in a Harbor Freight catalogue, believing it would be a great gift for his sons, David and Tony, he bought it only to find their interest was minimal. The next year, having been transferred to a management position from his role as an electrical engineer, Polimene was looking for a sort of outlet for his creativity, and thus began the transformation of the plastic train from a simple push toy to a fully motorized display. Those first few years he was confined by the harsh Baltimore winter, but upon moving to Phoenix 25 years ago he found the possibilities open.

“The weather was so much better so I took a lot more leeway in making the display even better,” Polimene said. “I still had the plastic track at that time but the Phoenix sun really deteriorated that pretty quickly, so in the mid-2000s it fell apart and I was feeling pretty bad, my father had just passed away and I thought now is the time to start new and build a whole new system.”

This new system was the work of a true craftsman, comprised of many everyday hardware items and built as a fully automated structure. Now every element of the display functions with the help of a central computer system that controls everything from when the train runs to when events occur like a Ferris wheel turning to a volcano erupting. The train even parks itself at night and has a security system to protect against the unfortunate if infrequent vandalism that has happened over the years.

The train began running on Thanksgiving evening, as it does every year, and will continue to run every year until around New Years from dusk until 11 p.m. On Fridays through Sunday he has a snow-making machine that runs off of a special soap-like mixture, which is a part of Polimene’s environmentally-friendly approach that a few years ago included a complete transfer to an LED-only display. He even has a website that shows when the train is and is not operating, as it has occasional maintenance periods.

“I have the website that lets people know when the train is fully operational because I know some people come from far away; I would hate for people to come from the north Valley just to see the train is not running,” he said.

Yet Polimene has come to see the display as even more than just a way to brighten his neighborhood and the Ahwatukee community — it has become the perfect method through which to contribute to those most in need during the holiday season. A few years ago people began leaving unsolicited monetary donations, leading Polimene to search out charities each year as the donations grew. Now he has a permanent donation box for Phoenix Children’s Hospital (PCH) for whom he raised more than $2,000 last year, not including his and his wife Dianne’s matching donation of $500.

This year he decided to do even more for those children spending the holidays in the hospital by making puzzles with a picture of the train on them and distributing them to PCH among numerous hospital emergency wards across the Valley.

“The charity part of it has really grown and become a passion of mine because when you see these kids and hear their stories it really pulls on your heartstrings and I just want to do whatever I can to help,” he said.

Almost four decades after buying that original toy train, Polimene has been able to keep it running to see his granddaughter Sophia, 6, have a chance to enjoy what has grown so much since her father first had the chance to ride it.

He does not know how much longer he will keep it operating, but in the mean time he will continue to devote himself to those in need, whether that need be comforting in hard times or a way to partake in some holiday fun.

Polimene's house is located at 541 E. Mountain Sky Avenue in Ahwatukee.

For more information, visit SantaTrain.com.

• Contact writer: 480-898-7914 or jgingerich@ahwatukee.com.

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