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Amtrak's the ticket for Great America

Anyone who's traveled on Amtrak likely has made the acquaintance of Julie! the automated voice system behind the national railroad's toll-free telephone number, (800) USA-RAIL (872-7245).

I spell Julie! with an exclamation point because this Amtrak automatron with no last name speaks! with such enthusiasm! that one would think! she stood to make! a million bucks! off of every sales transaction!

Actually, I like Julie! She's much more personable and efficient than the dronelike voices staffing the airlines' toll-free numbers. But like any robot, Julie! has her limitations.

Case in point: Recently, my kids were pestering me to take them to opening day at Paramount's Great America, the Santa Clara theme park. While I didn't mind devoting a Saturday to this endeavor, I was less than thrilled about driving the 300-mile round trip. Knowing that Amtrak runs several Capitol Corridor trains daily between Sacramento and Santa Clara, I called Julie! to find out about schedules and fares.

"Let's get started!" she enthused, and I could almost picture this computerized voice rubbing her (its?) hands in glee. Sure enough, Julie! handled the schedule request without a blip: We would leave Sacramento at 7:40 a.m., arrive in Santa Clara three hours later, depart for home at 7:52 p.m. and be home by 11.

It wasn't until I informed Julie! that my party of travelers included one adult and three children that she began to crumble.

"Unfortunately, I can't handle reservations when there are more than two children per adult!" she chirped, and turned me over to a live agent.

After some humorous small talk about Julie! I told the human on the other end of the line my travel plans, and said I was interested in Amtrak's "One-Two-Free" promotion. This is a deal under which a second passenger travels for half-price and a third rides for free when accompanied by a full-fare adult. (A third child travels for half the adult fare.) After warning me that seats on the train were unreserved, the agent said the total fare for the four of us would be $72.

This sounded like a swell deal to me: At today's gas prices, the trip by car would have consumed $35 to $40 in gasoline alone. Driving time in light traffic -- which you can never count on in the Bay Area -- would be at least 2 1/2 hours each way. The trip by rail would be slightly longer, but on the train I could read, sleep, relax, play games with the kids. It was an easy sell.

When our gang presented itself at Amtrak's I Street depot at 7:20 the next morning, picnic breakfast in tow, the last thing I expected was a glitch. "I'd like the One-Two-Free fare for one adult and three children," I told the agent.

She asked me for a reservation number.

"Excuse me?" I replied. "I thought the train was unreserved."

"It is, but the fare requires a three-day advance reservation."

I heard myself stuttering as I explained that neither Julie! nor the live agent had mentioned this restriction.

But not to worry: In a separate Amtrak promotion, up to two kids per full-fare adult ride free on weekends. The price worked out to be the same: $72 round trip for the four of us. Whew.

We were feeling pretty perky as we boarded the double-decker train car and raced to the upper level. As the first passengers to arrive, we had no trouble snagging a pod of four comfortable seats around a central table.

Considering the price we had paid -- less than $10 per person over the cost of driving -- I expected to see lots of families on the train headed for a day of fun in San Francisco, if not to Great America. But as far as I could tell, we were it. The train was almost empty, and it picked up and discharged fewer than 50 people over the portion of the route we traveled.

The three hours passed quickly, and before we knew it we were disembarking at the Santa Clara/Great America station.

Well, it wasn't a station, not exactly: There was no building, just a platform beneath a freeway with a stairway leading to a sidewalk. We had no one to ask about how to get to the theme park. The agent back in Sacramento had thought there was a shuttle bus, but we never saw one. So we just started walking toward the roller coasters we could see looping above the horizon about a mile away. A vigorous 20 minutes later, we were through the gates. It was exactly 11 a.m.

This was my first visit to Great America, and I was pleasantly surprised by the gleaming grounds and calming music that seemed always to be playing in the background. The kids, of course, ran themselves ragged and were exhausted by the time we regrouped at the lockers near the front entrance when it was time to go.

The mile back to the Amtrak stop seemed longer than it had in the other direction. But the train, due at 7:52 p.m., pulled up just three minutes later, delivering us on time at the Sacramento station.

Now, I don't want to sound smug, but I have to say that taking the train was ever so much nicer than driving. And the way I see it, if Amtrak doesn't care to get the word out about the easy connections between Sacramento and Great America, I'll be happy to do the honors.

The whole trip -- shuttle bus or no shuttle bus -- was a piece of cake, and a mighty delicious one, at that. I highly recommend that any Sacramento family with the Bay Area on its weekend agenda consider Amtrak as the way to go.

Tell Julie! I sent you.

Amtrak Capital Corridor at a Glance

* For Amtrak fare and schedule information: Call a travel agent or Amtrak's Julie! at (800) 872-7245 (USA-RAIL). Or, go to

* Fares under the One-Two-Free promotion must be purchased by April 30 for travel through Aug. 28.

* The Kids Ride Free program, in effect Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 14, lets one or two children up to age 15 ride for free with an adult paying full fare on Capitol Corridor trains operating between Sacramento and San Jose. Advance reservations are not needed.

* Up to 11 weekday trains (nine on weekends) in each direction serve the Capitol Corridor; some run only between Sacramento and Oakland.

A tip for train travelers to Great America: Bring a change of clothes for everyone in your party; the water rides will get you soaked. Storage lockers are available at the park.