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Article updated: 11/6/2013 10:26 PM

Warner Bros. cracks down on suburban 'Polar Express' rides

By Eric Peterson

Many suburban park districts have made book- and movie-inspired "Polar Express" train rides an annual holiday tradition for local children, but for the most part they have been overlooking Warner Bros.' cut of the action.

Enforcing the licensing of the "Polar Express" name everywhere isn't the easiest of tasks for Warner Bros. Entertainment's anti-piracy department. But a comprehensive website of Northern Illinois Santa events compiled by one Streamwood-based Santa made it a lot easier to locate Chicago-area culprits this year.

Veteran Santa John Sullivan said it's an unintended consequence of his desire five years ago to create a comprehensive list of Santa appearances at santainchicago.com as a way of making his website distinctive.

Park districts listed on his site for "Polar Express" events have been recently receiving letters from Warner Bros. Entertainment asking them either to license future events through its agent at Colorado-based Rail Events Inc. or to make substantive changes to their programs.

Many of these park districts have been holding these events on nearby train lines for years, even before the website existed.

"Now Scrooge has come along," said Sullivan, who's been playing Santa for 23 years since serving as an understudy at Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles.

Sullivan said he got a call from Rail Events Inc. earlier this year asking him about his list of park district-run "Polar Express" events. His site lists 67 events with "Polar Express" in the name.

"They said they'd seen my website and they felt a lot of the people using the 'Polar Express' name didn't have the right to it," Sullivan said. "I'm kind of surprised by it because this is doing the book and the movie a lot of good. It's keeping them alive."

The Arlington Heights Park District is among the agencies that received a letter from Warner Bros. Entertainment Anti-Piracy Director Susan Proctor.

"It is our belief that your train ride event will erroneously lead consumers to believe that Arlington Heights Park District is licensed by, sponsored by or authorized by, Warner Bros., when in fact that is not the case," Proctor wrote. " In addition, your use of Warner Bros.' Intellectual Property dilutes the distinctiveness of 'The Polar Express' property by trading upon the goodwill and reputation which the public associates with the property."

Proctor said Wednesday that this type of enforcement is hardly a new effort but that the list of events on Sullivan's website helped to track down unlicensed use of the names.

Events that have already sold tickets will be permitted to use the name without a license for one last season, she said.

The Arlington Heights, Barrington and Hoffman Estates park districts are among those that will evaluate how to proceed in 2014 once the coming holidays have passed.

"That gives us time to decide what we're going to do for next year," said Hoffman Estates Park District spokeswoman Sandy Manisco.

She and Barrington Park District Recreation Supervisor Jodi Krause agreed that taking the name "Polar Express" out of their events wouldn't hurt their popularity much. But Krause thought it would be more significant to Barrington's event if the reading of the story could no longer be part of it.

Krause said that in speaking with Warner Bros.' licensing agent, she learned that up to 30 percent of the gross for the event could be charged for the license.

"That could sink the event, because we don't make that much," Krause said.

Hiring a train is already a major overhead cost for the event, she said.

Jeff Johnson, events development director of Rail Events Inc., said that licensing typically is done as a percentage of proceeds but that the licensing of the type of events Chicago-area park districts have been running remains unprecedented at this point. He said contracts for these kind of events would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

Arlington Heights Park District Recreation and Facilities Director Brian Meyer said his district's "Polar Express" event has been growing ever more popular since it began in 2001.

Then, one train was booked for 140 participants. This year, three trains will carry a total of 397 people.

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