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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Road Trip: National Railroad Museum, Green Bay, WI

The Union Pacific Big Boy and Pennsylvania electric locomtive

Big Boy
The goal of our recent family get-away (because we're predictable like this) was to head up to Green Bay, Wisconsin to see the National Railroad Museum. Sure, the Illinois Railway Museum in Union is bigger and certainly closer, but Green Bay has a shining star: the Union Pacific Big Boy. This steam engine was one of just 25 built in the early 1940s to tackle the mountains of the Wasatch Range in Utah. Only eight still exist in transportation museums around the country. It's notable because it's enormous, the largest steam engine ever built. Truly, words cannot express how massive this machine is. Any self-respecting train lover needs to take a look at this thing. Neither #4017 nor it's surviving peers run any more, so it's worry-free exploration for the kids. This Big Boy is living out its retirement in a comfy indoor shed and guests are welcome to climb into the cab and ponder the skill of the engineers who knew how to work the countless levers, gauges and dials. Those were men of serious skill.

They know their audience:
climb-on train structures at the playground
Anytime we visit a train museum, my kids are completely overwhelmed by how much there is to see and do. The National Railroad Museum is no exception. We arrived a bit before the museum opened for the day, but that was okay because a play area right next to the parking lot features wooden train climbing structures, as well as a large swing set and sand box. The play area alone could have entertained the kids for a good long time and might make for a good picnic spot on a warmer day. (Green Bay in October is chilly, after all.) Inside there are several interesting permanent and temporary exhibits on railroad history which I would have loved to digest, but small kids have no patience for things like railroad china, especially with giant engines down the hall. In addition to the indoor center, the train pavilion outside displays the streamlined Aerotrain, several additional steam engines, passenger cars from all eras and maintenance equipment. The kids love walking through the passenger cars, especially looking at the tiny sleeper car bedrooms and climbing around the observation car's tables and kitchens.  Behind the museum is an observation tower that gives a great view of the grounds and surrounding area. Several times each day, a train ride departs from the "Hood Junction Depot" for two loops around grounds. Honestly, it was the slowest train ride we've ever experienced, but it's not a long stretch of track, so at least we spent a respectable amount of time riding. Following that, a movie on the history of the Big Boy is shown in the museum's theater. I had to duck out with a squirmy toddler but my 6-year old assures me it was great. (That's a good review from someone who is actually more interested in diesel engines than steam, if truth be told.) To cap things off, there's a fully-stocked gift shop with a huge number of items for kids and adults.

We combined this visit with stops at other sights along the way and in Green Bay, which made for a very pleasant trip. The National Railroad Museum is definitely worth a stop either as a destination for train lovers or as a side trip during Wisconsin travels. Like so many train sites, there are special events planned for autumn and Christmas holidays for extra fun.

Aerotrain and other engines in the train pavilion

View from the observation tower -- 99 steps up!

In an old mail car, the town labels looked very familiar:
Geneva, St. Charles, West Chicago, Skokie, DeKalb, etc. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Road Trip: Jelly Belly Center,Pleasant Prairie, WI

Thanks to a long weekend off from school, my family was recently able to get away for a few days and visit some places that have been on our to-see list. Our first stop was Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin where the folks at Jelly Belly have turned their candy-distribution warehouse into a very sweet train ride. The tour around their facility takes visitors on a half-an-hour train ride with stops along the way to see videos about the history of the company and the making of their jelly beans, as well as displays of candy-making equipment. Sure, it's basically advertising, but it's a  free train ride that ends with free samples! What's not to love? The "retail center" even features a sample bar where guests can taste (one bean at a time) the many, many unique flavors. My kids wisely chose various chocolate flavors, but my husband and I tried the flavors we would probably never buy: dirt, grass. Of course, if you wanted to buy crazy flavors, standard flavors, tiny packages or giant gift boxes, those options are all available to you.

The Jelly Belly Center is a short jaunt off Interstate 94, just past the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
Getting off the Jelly Belly Express