All aboard the Royal Park Express!


Once again, the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester has transformed their lobby into a Christmas wonderland with a massive, whimsical gingerbread creation—the Royal Park Express, a gingerbread train on candy cane tracks.

The annual gingerbread creation gets bigger and better every year, as award-winning executive pastry chef Mark Slessor and his team of bakers think of new ways to dazzle kids and adults alike

“Every year I want to do something drastically different. I don’t want to do same thing every year,” says Slessor.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the annual Christmastime partnership between the Royal Park Hotel and The Salvation Army of Metro Detroit. The tradition started in 2009 during the recession to support the Salvation Army’s philanthropic efforts.

“Royal Park wanted to do something to help the Salvation Army to help others,” says Major Russ Sjögren, general secretary and metro Detroit area commander for The Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division. “They came up with this glorious plan to construct a giant gingerbread creation that we would use as a focal point to represent the needs of Salvation Army as we represent needy people in northern Oakland County. They came to our rescue, so to speak.”

Part of the holiday display includes the “mitten” tree will return, with a paper mitten ornament hung for every $10 or $25 donation that goes towards purchasing mittens, caps, and other cold-weather items to keep people in need warm through the winter. In addition, $1 from each decadent dessert sold in the hotel’s restaurant, Park 600, will also be donated, including Chef Mark’s Michigan Apple Galette, deconstructed crème brûlée, a limited-edition pumpkin cheesecake with gingerbread crust, chocolate cherry bread pudding, and more.

Over the last 10 years more than $55,000 has been raised to support the Salvation Army’s efforts. To help kick-start the fundraising this year, the David W. Elliott Memorial Foundation contributed $5,000. If that contribution is matched by the mitten tree and dessert sales over the holiday season, the Foundation will contribute another $5,000 so those in northern Oakland County won’t go without their needs met.

Slessor came on board (so to speak) three years into the partnership, so he has overseen eight of the last 10 creations. He likes to change the color schemes and add new and different details each year, like handmade pinecones, berries, holly leaves, and candles. He’s done houses, lighthouses, and trains, and this year he introduced beloved holiday characters: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Yukon Cornelius, Sam the Snowman, and a 10-foot-tall Abominable Snowman that contains over 300 pounds of powdered sugar alone.

“That’s what I like about it—making it so that older generations love it because trains were so cool in their time, and also those Rudolph characters were a big hit for them but my kids also love those characters even now.”

Slessor and his team wrote “happy holidays” in all different languages all around coal cart, and they even used the original gingerbread house from 2009—many pieces of past gingerbread creations are kept in year-round storage—decorated as a Salvation Army storefront.

The train is made of three types of gingerbread—red, black, and brown; fondant; royal icing; and lots of chocolate and candy. “Sometimes people don’t even realize it’s edible on the outside,” says Slessor. For those of you who love numbers, the train contains 200 pounds of gingerbread mix, 40 pounds of shortening, 50 pounds of sugar, 200 pounds of fondant, 144 eggs, 200 ounces of food coloring, and 50 pounds of candy.

This year, he says, it took a tremendous amount of time to get it all done—he estimates about 1,000 hours total. But, he adds, “You can see the joy on the people’s faces. They know how much work goes into it.”

Sjögren notes that this is part of the Salvation Army’s $8.2 million fundraising goal. More information is available at They also need bell ringers, with 500 kettle sites throughout the metro Detroit needing 150,000 hours filled. Find out more about becoming a bell ringer here. For every two volunteer hours you provide you receive an entry into the “Ring for Bling” drawing for a gorgeous diamond necklace donated by Lucido Fine Jewelry valued at $6,000.

Sjögren also says that with the Salvation Army, 87 cents of every dollar raised provides direct services to people in need each and every day of the year, “So they can have Christmas cheer all year.”

The Royal Park Express will be available for public viewing through the beginning of January 2019.