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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lisle, or maybe Wheaton: Always have a Plan B

Do you remember that old jingle, "Phone first ..."? That tune popped into my head as the kids hopped out of the car at The Museums at Lisle Station Park and shouted, "Mom, there's a sign that says it's closed." Hmm. You know, a note taped to a window that briskly says, "Sorry for the inconvenience" doesn't really appease a car-load of kids, especially the one who had his heart set on seeing the model railroad layout on the inside of  the farmhouse. So, I can't report much about what Lisle has to offer our young train fans other than the small museum campus has this to tease when the doors are locked: an 1881 caboose and a depot from 1875. (The other structures are a farmhouse, tavern/inn and a blacksmith shop.) Nice, but not quite enough to call the afternoon a success, so on to Plan B. 

We moved up the road a bit to another model railroad display, this one at the DuPage County Historical Museum in downtown Wheaton. The majority of the museum's basement is given to an HO-gauge layout with over 2,000 feet of track and numerous small-scale recreations of local landmarks. Again, we weren't there on quite the right day. Selected Saturdays throughout the year members of the DuPage Society of Model Engineers run the trains for visitors. Alas, we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, one train can be activated to run independently by the push of a button and there are plenty of scenery details to study from the large viewing windows. There's also a kid-sized train play table and displays on the history of railroads in DuPage County.

A train zips through it's miniature Wheaton landscape
Upstairs, exhibits detail local history, including a current exhibit on the Civil War. My kids liked the station allowing them to sniff the smells familiar to solders. (Conveniently, they had just been listening to the Magic Tree House book Civil War on Sunday on our ride to the museum. Can't beat audio books for keeping young travelers entertained!) Downtown Wheaton is a stop on the Union Pacific-West line, meaning it could be a destination on a Metra ride if you plan ahead. If not, enough Metra and UP trains zip through to give kids a look at the big engines they've just seen in miniature.

Getting back to Lisle, assuming the museums are open as scheduled on another summer afternoon, could also happen via Metra on the BNSF line. Or the family van, which is always more likely. Lesson of the day: when traveling with kids, always have a back up plan and plenty of in-car amusements!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Naperville: DuPage Children's Museum

My young engineers drive the Metra 
Outside the museum, give the wheel a crank and watch the train's wheels spin.
Excited train face at the model RR

The evening before our most recent visit to the DuPage Children's Museum my oldest developed a stomachache from a bit of overindulgence at a church potluck. He was miserable, not because of any discomfort, but because he was afraid he might miss going to the museum. This is how much this place is loved. Fortunately, time and a few train videos on YouTube cure all ills and the trip went off as planned.

As a children's museum, there's no shortage of fun activities for kids of all ages and interests. From their very first visits, my children have loved the WaterWays, AirWorks, and Make It Move exhibits. Last year, however, the museum made itself even more appealing with the opening of a new exhibit: "Trains -- Get On Board!" Kids have always stopped playing to watch the Metra trains zip by just north of the museum's parking lot, but the new exhibit brings the trains right into the museum. Children can be engineers or passengers in a kid-sized Metra.  ("It's the old diesel engine," points out my boy who knows these things.) A control tower gives the children something to climb. A ticket window, engineer and conductor clothing allow for pretend play. Of course, the requisite model railroad layout fills the center of the area with viewing areas both outside and within the tracks. A few observant children might even delight in the beautiful Art Deco travel posters recalling train travel of days gone by. For the youngest members of the family, one of the museum's two Young Explorers areas for babies and toddlers is next to the train exhibit allowing fairly easy supervision of all family members at once.

Thanks to the generosity of the museum and our local library, the kids earned free admission passes for participating in the summer reading program. I was happy to find a discount coupon for myself in the Oaklees Guide. The baby just squeaked in for free since he's a few weeks shy of his first birthday. Without these discounts, everyone under 60 pays $9.50 each, so consider a membership if you'd like to make repeat visits, or do your coupon scouting homework!

The museum is at 301 N. Washington Street in Naperville. Road construction on Washington and surrounding streets is making entering the parking lot a bit of an adventure these days, so watch for construction and detour signs as you approach. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Aurora: Blackberry Farm

Watching the train from the wagon ride

I love a destination that is more than trains. Obviously we're a family that enjoys almost any railroad attraction, but certain members of the group appreciate other activities, too. Aurora's Blackberry Farm fits the bill perfectly.

As the name suggests, Blackberry Farm primarily offers farm activities. It is a living-history farm, so in addition to the animals on display (rabbit, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs), there are numerous buildings to tour that recall days gone by. The schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and log cabin are among our family's favorites. We also enjoy the Streets Museum, which recreates the feel of walking through a Victorian-era town. (Everyone enjoyed it during our most recent visit, but in previous years, the dim lighting and loud sounds of a player piano bothered younger kids.) For my girly girl, there are pony rides and a carousel. All the kids love riding the pedal tractors on the newly renovated tractor course and playing in the corn -- basically a sand table, but with dried corn instead. Mom and Dad enjoy the many quiet picnic tables for a peaceful lunch before visiting the next site.

Of course, it all comes back to the trains with us. Our most recent visit took place during the Model Train Show weekend, which gave my train fanatic four train layouts to enjoy throughout the park. Even without those displays, Blackberry Farm is still a joy for the train lover. At the center of the park is a small lake and around that lake cruises a miniature train which leaves every few minutes from a traditional train depot. (The entire facility is undergoing significant renovations this year, so most of the depot is being remodeled, but during our visit one open room offered a train table and other toys for young guests.) Thankfully, beyond the admission fee there are no additional charges for activities, so it is possible to accommodate requests to ride the train again and again. As a break from riding the train, an old-fashioned hay wagon tractor ride circles the lake in the opposite direction, giving kids a chance to see the train from another angle. 

For train lovers, nature lovers and history lovers, Blackberry Farm is a fun way to spend a day. It's big enough to offer plenty to do, but small enough to be manageable for young kids. Special events throughout the year keep it entertaining enough for repeat visits. Take note of the Polar Express program scheduled for Dec. 1, 2, 8 and 9.

On the train: The forced smiles are due to the children's concern that Dad
wouldn't get on the train before it left the station!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rochelle Railroad Park

Here's a day trip for rail fans of all ages: the Rochelle Railroad Park. Located just northwest of the intersection of interstates 88 and 39 along Illinois 38, the park allows visitors a close-up view of the junction of the Union Pacific and BNSF tracks. Each day as many as 100 trains may pass the site. To accommodate train watchers, the city of Rochelle has constructed Railroad Park. Within the triangle between the train lines, visitors can enjoy a picnic under the large covered observation pavilion, explore a reconstructed "hobo jungle" or -- the kid favorite -- climb on the 7 ton Whicomb Locomotive, a small engine built in the early 20th century in Rochelle for switch work. There's also a small gift shop with railroad memorabilia and radio/video monitoring of the transmissions between train crews and dispatchers. (For the record, there are on-site restrooms, too. If, however, you are like this mom and you realize you have arrived without the memory card in your camera, Rochelle's nearby Wal-Mart has all your absent-minded family needs and a helpful family restroom, complete with toddler-sized potty. Now you know.) 

Old-timey kids on the Whitcomb Locomotive
What's nice about this park is that it draws train lovers of all ages and backgrounds. The kids climbing on the locomotive are just as excited about the train traffic as the older folks chatting with friends at the pavilion and Lincoln Highway gazebo. These are people who arrive proudly wearing their best railroad apparel and climb in and out of vehicles with their hobby proclaimed on the license plates. Rail fans with radios to listen to dispatch chatter and use cameras both small and tripod worthy. There's even a web cam mounted on the pavilion roof for those who still wonder which trains are rolling through once they've headed home for the day.

A word of caution is in order. This is a very busy train junction. The trains are close and children must be carefully supervised. Other than in the hobo jungle area, there are no fences between the park and the tracks. The trains are also exceptionally loud. Horns blare every time the engines cross the grade. As much as my children love trains, being that close to engines that loud truly scares them. The older ones begged to go into the gift shop when the trains approached, even though they had been eagerly waiting for them to arrive. Once the engines passed, however, they wanted to head right back out again to watch the cars zoom past. So, if loud noises are an issue for your group, plan to make a lot of trips inside, bring ear protection, or plan to sit in your car when the trains approach.

A 50-ton locomotive also built in Rochelle

The pavilion 

A caboose on private property across from the park
For our most recent adventure, we stuck to the railroad park. Rochelle does have several other historical attractions that could round out a day-trip adventure, including a restored 1918 filling station, a firehouse museum, the township historical museum, and an architecturally-stunning public library. It's worth the trip.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Train toys

Two very happy engineers
Thanks to a dear neighbor's clutter clearing efforts this weekend, my kids are enjoying some "new" toys, including this newly beloved Thomas tent. Several years ago, I thought about getting this very same tent for Erik, but other toys came his way instead. Turns out, he's not too big to love it even now. You just cant beat the play tents for imagination (and storage -- love the fold-up feature!). We are ready for a rainy day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Upcoming: Blackberry Farm Model Train Show

Now that my oldest son has figure out how to read, there's no sneaking past things he will love. Yesterday he noticed a poster for the upcoming model train show at Blackberry Farm in Aurora. It's coming July 21 and 22, 11 a.m. till 4:30. He also noticed a listing for the Museums at Lisle Station Park -- including a historical train station, caboose,  farmhouse, and blacksmith shop. Assuming the heat lets up, we will see you there!