SIDE OR­DER

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY NEVIN MARTELL travel@wash­post.com

It’s not the Is­land of Sodor, but it will have to do: A train-ob­sessed kid’s South­ern Cal­i­for­nia itin­er­ary.

Com­ing around the curve, my son ex­cit­edly pointed at the red wooden bridge cross­ing over a small creek.

“Look, Mompa,” Ze­phyr said, col­lec­tively re­fer­ring to his mother and me.

We were all aboard a minia­ture train loop­ing around a woody patch of Grif­fith Park, 4,210 acres of green­ery sit­u­ated in the heart of north­west Los An­ge­les. In front of us, the cheery cherry-red, propane-fu­eled Stan­ley Di­a­mond en­gine chugged along, the engi­neer oc­ca­sion­ally toot­ing its whis­tle. Af­ter cross­ing the bridge, we mo­men­tar­ily passed out of the bright sun­shine into a short tun­nel be­fore whizzing through a mock Western town.

This late-morn­ing rail­road ride was the per­fect amuse­ment for our 2-year-old son, as trains fas­ci­nate and de­light him no end. Some morn­ings I awake with the im­print of a Thomas the Tank En­gine on my face. Ze­phyr of­ten brings his fa­vorite toy lo­co­mo­tive to bed and, be­cause he sleeps with us, it some­how al­ways ends up be­tween my cheek and the pil­low dur­ing the course of the night. Down­stairs, our liv­ing room is ruled by an epic Brio-brand train ta­ble cov­ered in wooden tracks, en­gines and train cars — plus plenty of plas­tic di­nosaurs.

So when we started plan­ning a week-long fam­ily trip to Cal­i­for­nia, we de­cided to sched­ule sev­eral stops at train-re­lated at­trac­tions. Our first des­ti­na­tion was Grif­fith Park & South­ern Rail­road, which has been run­ning mini en­gines, such as the Stan­ley Di­a­mond that car­ried us, since the late 1940s.

Sec­ond on the itin­er­ary was Travel Town Mu­seum, lo­cated on the other side of Grif­fith Park, a 10-minute drive away. Al­though there’s an­other minia­ture train to be rid­den there, we de­cided to sim­ply walk through the out­door col­lec­tion. There are a dozen en­gines and nearly a dozen cars, as well as semi-re­lated odd­i­ties, in­clud­ing a horse-drawn car and a San Fran­cisco cable car.

A Bald­win steam lo­co­mo­tive from 1899 weigh­ing an im­pres­sive 70 tons was front and cen­ter in the rail yard that day. (Trains move around the tracks that criss­cross the prop­erty fre­quently, so there’s no map for the park, and not all pieces may al­ways be on dis­play.). Char­coal-black, its round face is bright sil­ver that gleams in the mid day sun. Num­ber 664 once ran the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe route and has been a top draw here since it was do­nated more than 60 years ago. Al­though you can’t climb up into many of the be he moths, it was enough for Ze­phyr to sim­ply stare up at the vin­tage iron horses, mar­veling at their size and the power em­a­nat­ing off them even in still­ness.

There are small ed­u­ca­tional in­stal­la­tions dot­ting the park, in­clud­ing an in­door col­lec­tion dubbed “Hol­ly­wood on Track.” Pho­tos, posters and mem­o­ra­bilia cover the walls and fill the cases. The park it­self has be­come a lo­ca­tion in a num­ber of tele­vi­sion shows, in­clud­ing “Knight Rider,” “Six Feet Un­der” and “CHIPS.”

Nearby, a small — at first glance — gift shop was chock-full, nearly floor-to-ceil­ing. If I could do it over again, I would go in alone to avoid the in­evitable melt­down that oc­curs when there are so many de­sir­ables that can’t be touched and won’t be bought. I couldn’t re­sist buy­ing a limegreen steam tram named Zephius and a black en­gine branded with the park’s name that can run on Ze­phyr’s wooden tracks at home.

Two days later, and two hours to the south, the next stop on our Cal­i­for­nia Ex­press was the San Diego Model Rail­road Mu­seum. Boast­ing 27,000 square feet of lay­outs, the col­lec­tion is in a base­ment space in­side the city’s cul­ture-rich Bal­boa Park. There are plenty of dio­ra­mas and his­tor­i­cal ex­hibits for adult Casey Jones wannabes, but the toy train gallery is the best op­tion for lit­tle ones.

Vol­un­teer mem­bers of the San Diego 3-Rail­ers bring their own trains to op­er­ate while over­see­ing a sprawl­ing 42-by-44-foot dio­rama with four sep­a­rate tracks loop­ing around it. The ki­netic scene en­com­passes both town and coun- try. Cars run on the roads, char­ac­ters move in some scenes, lights flash, horns beep and smoke puffs out of some of the train en­gines.

One por­tion of the dis­play was at Ze­phyr’s eye level. There’s a but­ton to push that moves a Thomas the Tank En­gine around the tracks. Ze­phyr prob­a­bly pushed it a hun­dred times in our half-hour visit. Up­stairs there is a whole play­room de­voted to the lit­tle blue lo­co­mo­tive, but we didn’t have the op­por­tu­nity to check it out. Guess we’ll be head­ing back there the next time we find our­selves in San Diego.

The fi­nal des­ti­na­tion on our tour was Le­goland, half an hour north of San Diego in Carls­bad. Ad­mit­tedly, this stop was just as much for my in­ner child as it was for my child. The col­or­ful, cre­ativ­ity-boost­ing bricks were a sta­ple in my play­rooms grow­ing up, and I still buy the oc­ca­sional mini-fig­ure or small set to dec­o­rate my home of­fice. Af­ter an ex­tended visit to the “Star Wars” ex­hibit — the life-size Darth Vader and the Death Star made of half a mil­lion pieces were the fa­vorites— we ul­ti­mately ended up in the Du­plo Play­town. The pri­mary-col­ored play­ground is geared to­wards the park’s smaller vis­i­tors, packed with slides and climbable build­ings.

In the far back cor­ner sits the yel­low-red-and-blue Le­goland Ex­press. The tiny train for pint-size pas­sen­gers cir­cles, at a se­date speed, a small track sur­round­ing a gar­den filled with Lego veg­eta­bles. For an adult, it’s an un­der­whelm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but for a 2-year-old it’s a dream come true.

“Again, again,” Ze­phyr in­sisted. So we did it again and again.

On his last ride, the at­ten­dant let him sit at the front in the minia­ture en­gine car. Abroad smile arced across my son’s face as the train chugged out of the sta­tion. He couldn’t have been hap­pier. “Look, Mompa!” I was glad to be wear­ing sun­glasses at that mo­ment, so no one saw the joy­ful tears queu­ing up in the cor­ners of my eyes.

Martell is a Wash­ing­ton writer and the author of sev­eral books, in­clud­ing “Freak Show With­out a Tent: Swim­ming With Pi­ra­nhas, Get­ting Stoned in Fiji and Other Fam­ily Va­ca­tions.” On Twit­ter: @nev­in­martell.

NEVIN MARTELL

A train en­gine on dis­play at the Travel Town Mu­seum at Grif­fith Park in Los An­ge­les.

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