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