Imagine a sleepy little town filled with little boys, all around ages 2 to 5. Running, screaming, shouting, wrestling little bundles of energy. It's a beautiful, blue-sky day, and we're in Traintown, U.S.A.
On the map, this place goes by the name of Strasburg Rail Road, and it's a train lover's paradise. Everything here is trains. Located in Lancaster, Pa., a couple miles off U.S. 30 (the road of outlet stores), Strasburg Rail Road is overrun with train tracks.
Pennsylvania may be the state most influenced by the railroads. New engines, new railway lines, new passenger service were all experimented upon in Pennsylvania. It is fitting that many of the greatest railroad engines have come to rest here.
Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa., is said to be the world's biggest and best museum of railroad items, but until Steamtown is completed (renovations continue for at least a few more years), Strasburg is the place for trains. And Strasburg will always be the place for little boys who love trains. Especially toy trains.
My husband and I decided to go to Strasburg around the time we bought the 50th train in the Thomas the Train line for our 3-year-old son, JoJo. This little boy has always been crazy for trains, just like his Lionel-collecting Dad. I'm the granddaughter of an engineer who once drove a steam locomotive, so this was a family ready for Strasburg, where the oldest short-line steam locomotive still runs.
So we packed up the car -- and the kids (JoJo and his 9-month-old brother, Jacob) and about an hour later, we were in the quiet Amish countryside, where a lone train whistle broke the silence.
Strasburg Rail Road
This is the Williamsburg of train rides. Tasteful, authentically restored and efficient, the Strasburg Rail Road has been running for the past 30 years. Now in top form, it boards riders in four gleaming passenger cars pulled by a big, shiny, black steam locomotive. In the summertime, there is an open-air car to ride and an incredibly ornate dining car for lunch and dinner.
Best: Relative quiet of the ride. Though I had expected a louder and lung-clotting ride with a steam engine belching tons of smoke, this was a relaxing ride through the countryside. Take the early train, and stop off at the picnic grove and playground. Your kids will love playing with the hand water pump.
Worst: Did I say countryside? I really meant to say farmlands, where the smell of fresh manure was, most times, overwhelming. This may be just a temporary problem, once the crops are planted.
Choo Choo Barn
This will remind you of the best of Baltimore's Christmas train gardens. I was not looking at trains here, but at the layouts they ran around and through. Lots of good humor and patriotism in the many depictions of daily life in a small town, with a funeral, parades, hobos sitting around a campfire and a fire engine squirting real water at a real smoking fire. Admission: $3 adults.
Best: Fire scene.
Worst: You need to hold your kids up to see all the action. This can be tiresome, as my husband and I discovered, carrying a 23-pound baby and his 32-pound brother.
Toy Train Museum
This is an absolute must-see if you collect toy trains. It is the Hall of Fame of trains. See the only Lionel train marketed to girls -- it's pulled by a pink locomotive. There are several layouts, featuring many sizes of trains, but they are more sedate than the Choo Choo Barn's. But that's not to say this place is not kid-friendly -- it has buttons to push to blow whistles and unload barrel cars.
Best: Low level of lay-outs. Kids and adults can see all the action.
Worst: If you're a newcomer to toy trains, these exhibits might be overwhelming, or even boring. Really intended for train collectors.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania
As a member of the B&O Museum in Baltimore, I feel like a traitor for saying this, but . . . Wow! What a museum! Even though nearly half of it is closed for renovations, this is a wonderful experience. Our B&O Museum may have a breathtaking roundhouse, but this museum is more satisfying in terms of information. Each train's description placard is plainly written. Also, kids can climb aboard or peek in many of the locomotives and passenger cars. Truly comprehensive and truly entertaining.
Best: Engine No. 2846 is the playground of steam locomotives. Kids can touch everything on this train. My son the engineer sat in the engineer's seat, waved his chubby hand out the window, moved levers right and left, ran up and down the coal car and had a merry time.
Worst: Because so much is currently blocked off for renovations, touring is limited, especially in the outside train yard. Grand reopening is set for May 1995, though most blocked-off sections should reopen by summer.
Red Caboose Motel