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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

South Elgin: Fox River Trolley Museum

A sign from local rail lines of the past. 
Stops included the
"Yeoman City of Childhood."

Red trolley! Trolley rides begin at the "Castle Muir" station
and gift shop at the north end of the property. 
Waiting for the return train at the Jon Duerr Forest Preserve
Our brave girl and her dad on the hand car
Our family usually makes at least one trip to South Elgin's Fox River Trolley Museum each year. We often go in the fall for the Pumpkin Trolley, and many friends have made it a destination for their Polar Express Christmas program or other special events. This year we went during Trolley fest for the special treat of seeing and riding a handcar. For the fest, which was held concurrently with South Elgin's other RiverFest activities, the museum had extra rolling stock out for rides. We rode a car from the early twentieth century for the first leg of our journey along the Fox River, enjoyed the handcar and the beautiful scenery of the Jon Duerr forest preserve and then returned to the museum grounds via a Chicago CTA car. On the museum grounds, the kids enjoyed exploring other open cars and rail equipment. Some of collection is waiting for the time and resources for renovation, so there are a few cars that aren't much to look at, but the restored cars, the Fox River location and the knowledgeable volunteers always make it a pleasant outing. Be sure to watch for the Wood Cliff flag stop on the west side of the tracks during your ride.
Herself with the "new" train

Taking a look at the inside of a caboose
Some final words of wisdom

Aurora: Choo Choo's Restaurant

Push a button and this crossing signal lights up

The Hershey train brings meals and desserts to kids
With coupons for free kids meals in hand, thanks to awards from our library's summer reading program, we headed to Choo Choos in Aurora. To be perfectly honest, without those certificates, it would have been a tough sell for the grown ups. The seen-better-days landscaping doesn't exactly entice anyone in. Meandering past a Browns Chicken sign, through the Mexican restaurant half of the business and then sinking into a booth that has long since lost any supportive abilities doesn't set the stage well for a good dinner. The kids, however, have a completely different perspective. The back of the restaurant is dedicated to trains and ice cream, so there's ample train decor to look at. An animated Christmas village can be control by kids pushing buttons while waiting for their food. Meals come to kids on a train that meanders through the village and up to the tables, one trip for the main meal and another for the ice cream. So, I wouldn't call it a destination restaurant, but then I'm not a train-loving child. In their minds, any place that brings them food on a train is good indeed. Know your audience, restaurateurs. Just give their parents a reason to come back, too, please. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bartlett: 2 Toots

Two of our children had birthdays last week. In honor of the now 4-year old's special day, and because of the free kid's meal coupon from their birthday club, our celebration took us back to 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill. Since we had just been to the Glen Ellyn restaurant last week, we decided to try the second and newest location in Bartlett. 

It was a good choice. The Bartlett 2 Toots serves food just as tasty as the Glen Ellyn store and every seat in the house here, too, is trackside for meal delivery via model train. The decor is similar in both restaurants. Train pictures and memoriablia cover almost every inch of the walls, even in the bathrooms. A TV in the corner runs a Thomas the Tank Engine video constantly. My six-year old votes for Bartlet for his favorite of the two places, though. Bartlett's 2 Toots has enormous windows overlooking the the Metra station and tracks across the street. There's also a large mirror on the back wall for those facing away from the windows during their meal. Though I think it's safe to assume that it's out of 2 Toots hands which engines run on the Milwaukee District West Line, my son was thrilled by seeing not one, not two, but three new Metra engines while we ate. Near as I can tell it's the  MP36PH-3S if you were wondering. We don't often see that particular engine on the lines closer to our home, so that alone made the trip worthwhile for him. For the birthday girl, the cupcake and train whistle that rounded the restaurant track just for her made the day pretty okay, too. We noticed the baby, who hasn't started waving to people yet, did an awful lot of waving to the train every time in came out of the kitchen. Aside from Mom and Dad trying to shake the oldies tunes from our heads once we left, everyone had a fine time.

After our dinner, we crossed the street to peek in the windows of the Metra station and the Bartlett Depot Museum. Both were closed for the day when we were there, but having them so close makes Bartlett a good choice for a fuller train outing during lunchtime. Thankfully, it's a no-horn zone for the railroad, so noise isn't an issue for my little ones' sensitive ears. Another possible source of noise would be from the local fire department's station across the street from 2 Toots. All was well and quiet while we were there, though. Trains, fire trucks, food! It's kid heaven.

(Grown ups, take a peek at the renovation photos of the 1873 Bartlett Depot Museum on their website. The entire structure needed to be lifted to pour a new foundation. Impressive project and fine results!)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

More Wheaton (and Glen Ellen): Cosley Zoo and 2 Toots

We just can't get enough Wheaton this week. Earlier in the week we visited the DuPage County Historical Society for a peek at their model railroad. Wednesday night found us in the area again in need of dinner, so we stopped at the ever popular 2 Toots in nearby Glen Ellyn. Today, in an effort to prove to my daughter that kids can have other interests, we went to see the animals at Wheaton's Cosley Zoo. Turns out her favorite part there was the caboose. Just can't fight the train love.

A past meal at 2 Toots during Christmastime
 2 Toots is probably the favorite restaurant of most small railroad aficionados in the area. The concept is simple but well executed: food is delivered via model train. Guests can sit at the counter or at booths -- all seats are along the track. While waiting for the meal to come out of the kitchen and around the bend, there is plenty of railroad decor to study, a Thomas video to watch, and Metra trains passing just outside. It's impossible to have a conversation with kids at 2 Toots beyond, "Look at that!" but it's one of the few places that manages to keep busy bodies in their seats until the end of the meal. The joy of this place for Mom and Dad (and other grownups) is that the food isn't an afterthought. 2 Toots knows how to make a good meal. It's standard dinner fair, but very satisfactory.

Cosley Zoo's caboose 
Just a few miles away, Wheaton's Cosley Zoo offers a very manageable outing for families with preschoolers. It's a small zoo with a duck pond, farm animals and wildlife native to the area. Within the zoo's bright red caboose is an exhibit about Illinois' natural world. The gift shop, cafe and restrooms are located "across the tracks" in a what was once Wheaton's first train station. It's just a cute place to visit.