If you think your cartoon-train-loving toddler would enjoy seeing the real thing a trip to a local heritage railway or train museum is probably a great idea. We’ve been going to the Toronto Railway Museum since The Small Controller was about 18 months old, and at times last summer it felt like a second home.
The museum is housed at the John Street Roundhouse, and surrounded by Roundhouse Park. Restored engines and railway cars are parked on the turntable and the tracks that radiate away from it (they do get moved for special events, which can make them a bit harder to appreciate, but they don’t leave the park and if you were hoping to see a particular one just ask inside the museum and they can let you know where it’s been moved to). Don Station and other railroad buildings have been moved to the site. When the miniature trains are running, the old station opens up to sell train tickets and functions as a gift shop .
There aren’t many places where it is safe to let your railroad-loving tot play on railroad tracks, but so long as you avoid the working mini-track, there are many stretches here that are just fine. The mini-track that winds back to the shed (and a small turntable) is only used a couple times a day, and has a small spur to the side of the shed that is lovely and overgrown with flowering weeds in the summer. The tracks for the big engines are used only when those engines have to be moved (and trust me you’ll know if that is happening and probably be excited and grateful that you stumbled upon the event – hopefully the weather is good and you can wave at Engineers Michael and Dave as they carefully shunt cars and engines around).
The Small Controller’s (and most children’s) favourite part of the indoor museum is the train table. Large, square and a bit taller than many home tables are, there’s room for many little hands to play.
The planners have also done a good job of placing many items of interest at low levels: a bell that can be rung (gently!) and a child’s model of an early steam engine (it looks a bit like The Rocket) get lots of attention. Some other pieces toddlers have to be lifted up to see properly, though this winter two display cases were added to bring beautiful models of Britannia (above) and Benkai down to a height everyone can enjoy.
The simulator ride is worth letting your tot look at, though they may not really be able to do much besides sit in the chair and blow the horn. Of course, that’s usually good enough.
You can see into the workshop area of the museum. (As I understand it, the workshop is the main function of the space; the current museum is considered temporary and plans are underway for a more permanent installation nearby. I look forward to seeing what they do, but there is something exciting about being where all the work is being done!) Currently, they are restoring Nova Scotia, a luxury passenger car that survived the Halifax Explosion (your toddler might not be interested just yet, but you can read more here, if you are).
From May to October (exact dates vary due to weather conditions), the museum has two operating miniature engines (and may have a third by summer of 2016 – I’ve heard rumours): a diesel known as Mini-Whit (or Mini-Whitcomb No. 2) and a steam engine we call Sweet Creek (it is a Sweet Creek No. 3 model). During the school year they generally run on weekends, expanding the schedule in the summer. Unless it is busy only one is usually running, but they both give a lovely ride around Roundhouse Park and through a working railway crossing (most toddlers love the bells and the arms coming down).
For safety reasons children cannot sit on parents’ laps when riding the mini-train, so prepare your toddler that they will need to sit on the bench with you behind them (you can wrap your arms around them). The first position on each passenger car is best for the very small, since the runner boards come up a few inches at the ends, and the kids really should be able to touch their feet on them.
The first summer we were going to TRM regularly The Small Controller would not go on the train. I never managed to make out if there was an element of fear involved, as the main explanation had to do with not being able to see the train once we’d sat down. Since then I’ve seen this scenario play out more than once, and often parents seem disappointed that their child doesn’t want to go on the ride. My advice is not to worry about it. It does not mean your trip was wasted. If your child is enjoying watching the train you can walk alongside for part of the route, fall back to the railway crossing to watch the arms come down and the train go by, then walk out past the water tower to watch the train come out of the woods and into the station. If your toddler loves trains they will be dancing with joy – and that is the point, however it is achieved. (Just stay well back of the tracks and hold on to the tot! The drivers are always watching, and tend to err on the side of caution but that can mean stopping the train, which obviously effects the enjoyment of those riding and anyone waiting for the next ride. Like I said earlier, there are many sections of unused track that are safe to play on, the working track should be given a berth.)
Nearby train-themed points of interest include a mural tucked away near the Leon’s side of the Roundhouse, the train play structure at Roundhouse Park playground, the Memorial to Commemorate Chinese Railroad Workers in Canada, and of course the tracks themselves – cross the road and walk behind Ripley’s Aquarium to the Skywalk, where you can watch VIA Rail, GO trains and the UP Express moving in and out of Union Station. This is an excellent place for a snack, so long as there isn’t an event starting or letting out at the Skydome, in which case the Skywalk is simply too busy and loud for most toddlers.
Nearby non-train themed points of interest are too numerous to mention, but include the aquarium, the CN Tower, and the Steam Whistle Brewery (not of interest to toddlers perhaps, but it’s in the Roundhouse building and you can eat there – also this is the nearest bathroom).
For more information about Toronto Railway Museum visit their website.
I have at this point lost track of how many times we’ve been to the Toronto Railway Museum. In fact, I think we’re going to go again tomorrow.