Thursday, July 25th, 2013
Max has loved trains, planes and cars since he was a tot, a stereotype I was glad for because I was anxious about all the ways he wasn’t behaving like a typically-developing kid. Playing with his toy cars was actually therapeutic, because it helped him learn to grasp (the cerebral palsy impaired his hand muscles). And taking him on rides, well, that was therapeutic for me and my husband because of Max’s extreme joy. He’d been through so much in his young life that we felt he was owed lots and lots of bliss.
That feeling’s never stopped and so, we recently decided to take the kids to visit train nirvana in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. First up, a stop at the Choo Choo Barn, home to 22 operating model trains and 150 animations housed in a 1700-square foot display area. It is all sorts of amazing—I was every bit as wowed as the kids were.
There was a zoo, a baseball field, even people skiing down a mountain. The kids were particularly mesmerized by the house with smoke coming from the roof; a firetruck pull up, firemen get out and hose down the home, then drive away. There was even a marching band!
The room gets dark every 10 minutes so visitors can better see the light-up displays; I was concerned it would be a sensory snafu for Max, but he was so mesmerized by the scene that he did not even flinch. The Choo Choo Barn just started offering monthly sensory-friendly event for kids with autism, with reduced sounds, a shortened period of time when lights are dimmed and a limited crowd (they cap the event at 50 people, so RSVP’s are required). Upcoming dates: August 13, September 10, October 8, November 12 and December 10.
Somehow, we managed to get Max out of there, and then we took a one-minute drive to the Strasburg Rail Road. Founded in 1832, it is America’s oldest shortline railroad. The locomotives, passenger cars, dining cars and freight cars are all beautifully restored; you truly get a sense of being back in the Victorian era. We were treated to a 45-minute round trip ride leaving from Strasburg station.
Besides the main attraction, there is a mini amusement park complete with a playground, a Pint-Sized Pufferbelly steam train, a wagon train ride and a hand-propelled Cranky Car; $5 gets you unlimited rides on them all.
Nothing like a ride powered by Daddy Engine #1!
There are several ride options to choose from, including the First-Class Parlor, First-Class Lounge Car and Coach, with prices starting at $14.00 for adults (12+) and kids ages 3-11 $8; toddlers are free. One of the rail road’s most popular events is Day Out With Thomas, complete with a full-sized Thomas the Tank engine and a meet-and-greet with Sir Topham Hat. It’s offered three times a year.
We decided to have lunch on the train and got an insider tip that Car #75, the overflow car for the Dining Car, would be on the quiet side (Max isn’t one for noise). We were the first ones on, and we had the entire car to ourselves. It is beautifully appointed, with wood trim everywhere and plush upholstered seats.
Each Hobo Lunch arrived in a tied bandanna. The kids got hot dogs and beans, and Dave and I had cheesesteaks, complete with iced tea and lemonade in mason jars plus chocolate-chip cookies.
There’s a guided narrative from a loudspeaker with history about the train, but I wasn’t able to pay much attention because the kids were so giddy about being on the train they did not stop chattering.
We did, however, take in the dairy farms and Amish homesteads we passed, thousands and thousands of lush acres.
There’s a picnic area at the end of the rails, where riders can hop off the train and picnic at the juncture where the Strasburg line meets the Amtrak trails. Families can also get off at the Groff’s Grove picnic and playground area, then jump back on a train returning to the station. I couldn’t get the kids off the train, so we wandered into the parlor car and chilled there.
All of us enjoyed the ride, but perhaps nobody more than Max. He got upset that he couldn’t go on a second ride, but then decided he was content to stand there and wave goodbye to the next train as it pulled out.