Webers: A Stop for Train-Lovers on Hwy 11

If you are travelling on Hwy 11 near Orillia, with a train loving toddler (or anyone who likes trains and French fries) I recommend a stop at Webers – the burger place on a train. Well, a few old train cars.

You’ll eat on a dining car (unless it’s beautiful out and you choose to eat where you can look at the train cars instead).  The bathrooms are in another converted car. There’s a bright yellow caboose and more.  We visited in winter, at night, and it was still fun to look at everything. Another day time visit has been requested though, so The Small Controller can have a really good look around.

The menu is online (and of course subject to change), so I won’t get too much into it here, but my understanding is that they have tried to keep it pretty simple to speed up service during big cottaging weekends.  You may even know their burgers already from the frozen meats department of your local Loblaws affiliate – though buying them to make at home probably isn’t the same as getting a charcoal-grilled one onsite.  We were happy to discover that they had veggie burgers, too. The condiments selection is limited. This is unlikely to disturb most toddlers but if yours has specific burger needs it might be worth cold packing any toppings beyond cheese, ketchup and mustard, and bringing them with you. The Small Controller regretted the lack of mayo, but made do and enjoyed the burgers, fries and milkshake.

It has been further suggested that when we go back, during the day, we will have ice cream, since it was spotted on the menu.  It’s not a bad idea.  I definitely remember my own mother employing the “ice cream break” strategy on long trips up north when I was a kid.

Service was friendly and quite good, despite our being there on a very snowy night only half an hour before they closed.

Webers is on the northbound side of the highway, but their popularity is such that they have a parking lot on the southbound side, and a bridge over the highway (the only privately owned bridge over an Ontario highway).  It was snowy when we traveled and I have to admit I was nervous about crossing an icy, windswept bridge over the highway with a toddler.  I needn’t have worried (or at least not much): the upper part of the bridge is enclosed.  The wind and weather are concerns on the stairs up and down, but they were well maintained (as was the lot), and the bridge itself was more or less dry even as a snowstorm was dying down around us.

We ate, used the restrooms, and wandered around as much as we could in the snow to admire the train cars.  It was a good experience, and definitely helped The Small Controller get through the drive.  There was anticipation, the visit and then talking about the visit and when we might go again (while still slurping milkshake).

They have a good website that includes a calendar noting which days they are open (We were returning from a visit with family, and got lucky with one of their open days following Christmas.  Webers won’t be open again this year until mid-March).

I’ll add more pictures and any warm weather addendums to this post once we’ve gone again.  If you’re travelling that way I hope you get the chance to stop in, and enjoy it.

Henry’s Spooky Halloween

This is a piece of Thomas fan fiction written for The Small Controller.  I am currently building a train table layout to go with it and will add pictures and a link to a post about making it and a new engine, as soon as possible.  I wanted to post at least the story before Halloween.  Hope you enjoy it!


It was Halloween day on the island of Sodor.  Brightly coloured leaves were falling from the trees, and pumpkins carved into jack o’lanterns decorated Knapford Station.

Sir Topham Hatt was giving Henry a very special Special that he would have to do after his other jobs, that night.  Now, you might think Henry wouldn’t like Halloween, with its ghosts and goblins, because Henry is a bit of a worrier, but the truth is Henry loves Halloween.

On Halloween, Henry knows that the strange creatures he sees racing past the schoolhouse are just the children in their fancy dress costumes. He knows that the spooky music he hears near Ulfstead Castle is just Miss Alicia Bottie preparing for the Halloween party.  And he knows that the squeaking, creaking and crashing coming down the rails behind him is … Wait, who is that?

It’s Thomas! – Delivering his Halloween special.

“Good morning, Henry!” Peeped Thomas.

“Good morning, Thomas. My, the Earl wants all of that … scrap for the children’s party tonight?”

“Yes. He’s built a special haunted house for the party, and he wants it to look old and abandoned.”

“Oh my!” Henry laughed, “with all that it certainly will, Thomas.”

Toot! Toot! Thomas peeped and went on his way. Henry went on his way too.  Everyone had lots to do to get ready for Halloween.

Henry chuffed along, taking heavy goods trains from Brendam Docks and making deliveries. He was having a very fine day.

His last delivery before his special was to Ulfstead Castle.  While he was there he had to get directions to the Earl’s special Halloween party house from Millie, but poor Millie was very busy!  When Henry arrived she was chuffing and huffing, going to and fro trying to make sure everything and everyone got to the right places.

Henry waited patiently while his cars were unhooked.  Millie was still busy helping the trains who were taking food and decorations to the party.  Now normally Henry would be getting worried, but he was having such a good Halloween day that he remembered what Sir Topham Hatt had told him that morning; “Finish your other jobs first Henry, your special delivery doesn’t have to get to the party until after dark.”  So Henry wasn’t worried at all.

Millie came to see him, “Oh Henry, I am sorry to keep you waiting, but there are so many things to be done!”

“That’s okay, Millie.  It’s important to get the food and decorations to the party first.”

Millie smiled and tooted, “But your delivery is important, too!  The Earl is so excited about all of his Halloween surprises.  Did Sir Topham Hatt tell you where to pick up the –” Millie stopped and giggled as a group of children dressed as ghosts, robots and pirates ran past.  Millie whispered to Henry, “Um, the package?”

“Yes, Millie.  I just need to know where I’m supposed to deliver it to.”

“Of course!  Take the main track away from the factory.  Look for an old branch line on the right, where there’s … Oh!”

Toot! Toot!! Thomas had arrived with Annie and Clarabel to take the children to the party.  The children were laughing, talking excitedly, and running around.

“Millie!” called the Earl.

“Coming, sir!” Millie tooted back.  To Henry she wheeshed quickly, “Follow the track into the woods and you will find the party!  Stephen is there pretending to be a scary ghost engine. So don’t be frightened if you see him!” Millie raced over to where the Earl was waiting, then she braked and called back to Henry, “Henry, I forgot to tell you; there’s a big pumpkin by the switch, that’s how you will know you’ve found the right track!”

But Henry was already gone.

Henry puffed down the track away from Ulfstead Castle. He had to pick up his delivery at the Sodor Dynamite Factory.

When he got there the sun was just starting to go down. Henry was a little bit worried, but once again he remembered what Sir Topham Hatt had said about the package not being needed until after dark.  It was a very big, heavy crate!

Once the workers had the crate safely on Henry’s flatbed and his driver had lit his lamp, Henry chuffed away, down the main line, just like Millie said.

Henry looked to his right for an old-looking track, but it was getting a bit dark.  Henry didn’t go to the Dynamite Factory often and he didn’t know this part of the railway. He wasn’t sure where the old branch line might be.

Henry chuffed very slowly and carefully. Suddenly the wind blew some leaves away and he saw a track leading off into the woods.  His fireman jumped down to switch the points.  Henry was happy, but there was no big pumpkin by the switch.  Henry hadn’t heard Millie, and he didn’t know about the pumpkin.

Henry chuffed down the old branch line even more carefully. It led into a deep valley, and the track was covered in leaves and branches, as though no one had gone that way in years.

“The Earl must have had someone cover the track to make it spookier for the children.” Henry tooted to himself, but he still thought it was a little scary.

Then Henry banged and clattered over some bumpy track!  “Oh my!” he wheeshed, “The Earl must have left the tracks bumpy so Annie and Clarabel would rattle and roll.”  But he was beginning to get even more scared.

Finally Henry saw an old, dark ruin of a house at the end of the line.  There was a big letter H above the door, and there were old and broken things all around.  “That must be the scrap that the Earl asked Thomas to bring, so the house would look old and haunted.”

But the house did look old and haunted, and no one came to get the crate Henry was delivering. In fact, Henry couldn’t see anyone at all.  Henry began to get very scared indeed.

“Hello?  Thomas?  Is anyone there?”  Henry blew his whistle as loudly as he could, but he heard no whistle in return.

Then there was a rattle and a shudder from near the house. Henry huffed slowly toward the end of the line.  At first he thought he saw buffers, but then his light shone on an old, broken engine whose colour seemed to shift and change in the cool night air!

“Ss.. Stephen?” Henry peeped, but Henry knew deep in his boiler that the engine wasn’t Stephen, that this wasn’t the Earl’s party and that he was all alone in the dark with a spooky, scary engine he had never met before!


At the Earl’s party, Thomas and Stephen were beginning to get worried.

“We need Henry’s delivery soon, Thomas.  Do you think he’s alright?”

“I don’t know, Stephen.  He left to go to the Dynamite Factory while I was picking up the children.  He should have been here by now.”

Stephen was still pretending to be a ghost engine to entertain the partygoers, and he couldn’t leave, so Thomas decided to go and look for Henry.


Henry was frightened and he didn’t know what to do. He’d taken an old branch line, and he’d found a spooky, haunted house, but this house looked too spooky and haunted, and he couldn’t see any party.

Henry’s light flickered, and the old engine seemed to change again!  “Whoooo?” It huffed in a deep, low voice.

That was enough for Henry.  He tried to reverse back down the track, but the track was so steep that instead he moved forward and biffed into the old engine! “Oh!  I’m sorry! Oh, my!”

Henry got into reverse and went clattering and banging back over the bumps and sliding on the leaves. Up, up, up out of the valley he went, but he wasn’t alone.  Creaking and groaning, the old engine came after him!


Thomas had looked for Henry at the Dynamite Factory and was just going down the main line when he heard Henry’s whistle tooting loud and fast.

“Henry?” He peeped, and then “Henry!!” Thomas blasted his own whistle, because he could see Henry coming backwards down the track towards him.

Henry went over a very large bump, rattling his wheels up in the air. Luckily he stayed on the track, but he could hear Thomas’ whistle coming from behind him.

Thomas whistled again as he tried to move away.  Henry heard Thomas again.  He was scared of the old engine who had been chasing him down the line, but he knew that if a big engine like him and his cargo crashed into Thomas, he could hurt Thomas very badly indeed.

Henry put on his brakes, and his cargo car came to a stop just in front of Thomas.

Thomas wheeshed with relief.

Henry looked down the line, but he couldn’t see the old engine anymore.

“I’m glad I found you, Henry.  The Earl’s party has started and they need your delivery!”

Henry was scared, but he wasn’t alone anymore and he did want to be a Really Useful Engine and deliver his special.

“Of course, Thomas. Do you … think you can help me find the party?”

“Of course!” Tooted Thomas. Henry looked down the old branch line one more time, as he let Thomas get in front of him, but he still couldn’t see the spooky old engine. When Thomas was ready Henry backed out onto the track he’d taken from the factory and followed his tank engine friend. Henry had never felt happier to be with another engine.


When they got to the Earl’s party house Henry was relieved. There were children in costumes, and even with the old scrap that Thomas had brought to decorate the house it looked cheery and happy, even if it was in kind of spooky Halloween way.

Sir Topham Hatt and the Earl came to see him. “Henry,” Sir Topham Hatt said, “Where have you been? The party has started and it was dark long ago, and … Henry?”

In the light from the jack o’lanterns and decorations the Earl had at the front of the house Sir Topham Hatt could see Henry’s expression. He could see that Henry was scared. His voice softened, “Henry, what has happened?”

The Earl peered around at Henry’s front buffer. “Henry! Your coupler has snapped.”

“It has?” Tooted Henry. Thomas pulled up beside him. Henry was quiet.

“Henry went down the wrong branch line, Sir. But he came back very fast. He knew you needed his delivery right away, Sir …”

Henry interrupted Thomas. “That’s not why I was going so fast, Thomas. I’m sorry, Sir. And I’m sorry, Thomas. I almost ran into you.” Henry wheeshed steam. He felt very bad, and he was still scared. “Thomas is right, Sir. I went down the wrong line, and I found a spooky looking house. I thought it was the party at first, but then I ran into an old engine, and I knew it wasn’t Stephen. It chased me down the line. That’s why I was going so fast Thomas.”

“An old engine?” Thomas wondered.

“And another old branch line.” Sir Topham Hatt said thoughtfully.

“How wonderful!” exclaimed the Earl. “This sounds like a perfect Halloween adventure. Sir Topham, are you up for it?”

Sir Topham thought for a moment, and then said, “Yes. The Earl and I will ride in Thomas. Henry, can you take us to this old branch line?”

Henry was scared, but he didn’t want to let Sir Topham Hatt or the Earl down, and he knew his friend Thomas would be right beside him. “Yes, sir, I think I can.”

Henry’s cargo was uncoupled, and he and Thomas went back away from the party. It was very dark.

Henry found the old line. Sir Topham and the Earl looked at it, and then they all followed Henry down into the valley.

Henry went slowly, half-expecting to find the old engine waiting for him where he had last seen it, but it wasn’t there. His boiler bubbled. What if the house wasn’t there either? What if he was just a big, scaredy engine and he had imagined it all?

“You came all this way by yourself, Henry?” Thomas peeped, “This valley is dark, and spooky!”

“Well, I thought it was supposed to be, Thomas, for the party.”

“I wish I could’ve made the path to the party this spooky, Henry!” said the Earl. “Though perhaps it is for the best that I didn’t. One doesn’t want the children to really be frightened after all.”

It made Henry feel better that Thomas and the Earl both though the line was spooky, too. Finally they got close to the house.

“It’s just ahead, Sir,” peeped Henry, “You can see it now.”

The old house rose into view. Thomas, the Earl and Sir Topham Hatt all gasped.

“And you said there was an engine, Henry?” Sir Topham Hatt asked, just as the light from Henry’s lamp picked out the strange old engine, sitting as it had been when Henry first arrived, at the very end of the line, beside the house.

“Henry!” said the Earl, “Your coupler!”

And there it was, hooked onto the coupler of the old engine, who was looking at them all in astonishment. “Whooo?” It creaked again, “Who are yooou?”

Henry was scared, but Sir Topham Hatt swung down out of Thomas’ cab and came up beside him to look, first at the house and then at the old engine. He spoke gently, “I am Sir Topham Hatt, controller of the railway on Sodor.”

“Haaaatt?” The old engine wheeshed. And even though the engine was still very strange looking, it seemed to Henry that it was maybe a little bit scared too.

Sir Topham Hatt continued, “Yes, and I think you are Luna. You have been lost for a very long time.”

The old engine smiled, as Sir Topham and the Earl came closer. “Goodness! You’ve been out in the weather for a very long time, haven’t you? Well, no matter. If Victor could fix Stephen after I found him, he’ll be able to fix you too, Luna.”

The old engine looked up at Henry and Thomas. Henry could see that she was scared. “It’s true,” he peeped, “Victor fixes me all the time, and he’s fixed very old engines before. I’m sure he can help you too, but um, who are you and what are you doing here?”

The old engine coughed and rattled.

“I have some oil in my cab,” whistled Thomas.

Sir Topham Hatt picked up the can and oiled Luna’s joints.

“Oh,” she said. Her voice sounded much nicer now. “That’s better. You’re right, Sirs, I have been here a long time. And my name is Luna.”

Sir Topham Hatt looked up at the house. “And this was where Amelia Hatt retired to, isn’t it?”

Luna smiled at the name. “It is.”

“Amelia Hatt, Sir? I’ve never met her, have I?” peeped Henry.

“No, Henry, nor you Thomas. Amelia was before your time. Before mine, too. Amelia Hatt was an inventor. Her brother, Sir Stephen was the controller of the railway. Amelia was always inventing new things: signal lights, or parts for engines. She built Luna, and gave her special paint that changes colour. Amelia was Really Useful, but she found life in the towns too busy. She moved to an unsettled part of Sodor. Sir Stephen ran a special branch line out to her house, and she took Luna with her so she could visit. Back then there were no factories and no towns nearby. After Amelia no one wanted to move into the house and I suppose it became the ruin we see here tonight.”

“I heard about Amelia in school,” said the Earl, “This is fabulous Sir Topham. What wonders might we find in the home of the famous inventor?”

“And it’s all thanks to you, Henry!” said Sir Topham Hatt, “If you hadn’t gone down this branch line with your special, I don’t know if anyone would have found this old house or Luna.”

“Yes,” Luna whistled softly, “Thank you, Henry.”

“And what about your special, Henry?” peeped Thomas, “I never even knew what it was. What did the Earl need from the Sodor Dynamite Factory for a Halloween party?”

“Oh, I think that mystery will reveal itself in a moment Thomas,” said the Earl, “Look up!”

They all did as the Earl suggested, and suddenly the sky was changing colour! There were bursts of white and blue and sparkly pink.

“Fireworks!” whistled Thomas

“Ooh!” said Luna

“And I can’t think of anything more appropriate to welcome you to my railway, Luna.” Said Sir Topham Hatt “Welcome.”

Henry and Thomas blew their whistles in welcome too.

Henry gazed up at the sky, lit up with the beautiful fireworks he had delivered from the Dynamite Factory, and then down at the spooky old house and at the not-so-spooky-anymore old engine named Luna. He was happy to have a new friend, and happy to have been a Really Useful Engine.


Subway : Book Review

Looking for a good book for a train loving tot? Check out my review of Subway by Anastasia Suen, with illustrations by Karen Katz.

Book review: Subway by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Karen Katz

24 pages, English

Published 2008

Available in Hardcover and Board Book


We first got Subway from the library when The Small Controller was three, and I wish I had found it long ago. It is the story of a child’s subway trip, describing the events in rhyme. The words are simple and the rhyme scheme is strong.

I knew the illustrator, Karen Katz, from various peek-a-boo books, and her style is consistent here: colourful, including bright patterns and rounded shapes.

The main characters are a girl and her mother, which is great to see in a vehicle related book (although it could be argued that Subway is more a description of an experience a child might have than a book intended for subway/vehicle lovers, it’s still great). Better still, the main characters are people of colour, as are many of the other subway riders. Children’s train books, in my experience thus far, weigh heavily towards having only (or mainly) white, male human characters. Even if your train-loving child is white and male it is a really good thing to have other identities reflected in his literary world. If the train-loving child in your life isn’t white and male, the difficulty of finding other options could be enough to make you weep.

Subway is not a technical book and does not describe how the subway works, or even who the various people necessary for its operation are; instead its point-of-view is simply that of the rider. It begins with going down the stairs into the subway station and ends with the main characters exiting the station at their destination and the train disappearing down the tunnel. In between it covers typical aspects of a subway trip: changing trains, listening to musicians in the station, and watching out the window of a busy train.

It’s a lovely book. Anastasia Suen’s rhyme and repetitive language make it a good choice even for pre-verbal children. I could recommend it for any young child as a preparation for a first subway trip, but it has also become a fast favourite for The Small Controller who has been riding the subway for a couple of years.

Review: Those Troublesome Trucks!

“We’ll give ’em some nonsense!” isn’t always a promise a parent wants to hear. Wwe’ve had the Giggling Troublesome Trucks for a couple months now: This is how it’s working out for us.


The Small Controller got the Giggling Troublesome Trucks (for wooden railway) for Christmas, so we’ve had them for a couple of months now.  They weren’t something that was specifically requested, but apparently Santa knew of The Small Controller’s love of recreating James’ derailment from The Adventure Begins, and so thought they’d be a good idea.

They are a fascinating product. They are rolling stock, which I have long understood the play value of, but can’t actually be loaded with anything: one has a non-removable load of a grey material that might be ballast or gravel, the other (the one that giggles) is covered with a red tarp.

They are also, kind of, characters.  Kind of, because one Troublesome Truck is very much like the next.  At some point in the future this might be an interesting starting place for a conversation about stereotypes and marginalized characters in literature, but for now it simply means they have a bit of personality which sets them apart from other flatbeds and boxcars.  The facial expressions are pretty great, which is not always the case with wooden railway pieces. They actually look like the CGI cartoon that most toddlers these days are familiar with.  The Small Controller refers to the grey one as having an “oh no!” face.

The sound effects, as I mentioned, only come from one truck. There is no way to turn it off, except removing the batteries, which as with any modern toddler toy requires a screwdriver.  It is set off relatively easily, with pressure to the top of the truck rather than a smaller button.  All of which is to say; if you are a parent quickly irritated by sound making toys this is not for your household. It is however not that loud (as compared with other tot toys), and the voice recording is clear and matches the Troublesome Truck voice in the modern episodes. The ease with which it can be triggered delights The Small Controller. The limited repertoire is also less of an issue than it is with engines. We only have two in the house (and one a hand-me-down), but the Troublesome Truck is activated far more often than the specifically requested Talking Gordon that The Small Controller also got from Santa. Troublesome Trucks just don’t say that much by and large, so three utterances suit them pretty well.

The one feature that I didn’t expect, and that is both fun and actually troublesome is that the cars rock to the extent that they can pull off the line if they happen to be on a tight curve or at points. One rocks side to side, the other back and forth. They look awesome traveling along a straight track, and derailments are certainly common on a toddler’s wooden railway, but it does make me glad that The Small Controller got them as an older toddler.  Consider your toddler’s physical ability to get trains back on the line, and emotional ability to handle added frustration. At the right stage these could improve both, but too early they may prove discouraging.

Troublesome trucks on the track

They get played with both specifically as Troublesome Trucks and as rolling stock (making long freight trains is a passion at the moment).  In terms of playtime, they see more of it than a lot of engines.

Overall the Giggling Troublesome Trucks have been a fun and good addition to The Small Controller’s railway, and I hope this review helps you decide if they might be right for yours. If you have questions about the Troublesome Trucks that I haven’t addressed here please feel free to email me. I may add any such questions and responses to the review.

Making a winter train table

I decided a year ago to make a winter themed set-up for The Small Controller’s train table – this is how it turned out.

Sir Topham at the castle

I began planning a winter train table set up for The Small Controller a year before it happened, which is why I’m posting this now. If it tickles your craft-funny bone, you may want to start looking for bargains and bits already for next year. (You may also be a super speedy craftster and whip up a winter theme for the reminder of the season, in any case, I hope this provides some inspiration.)

Snow, holiday lights, Christmas trees and decorations all are cause for joy in this house. I cannot tell you how many times last winter, when due to illness or really bad weather we couldn’t go out, I was asked to bring snow inside the house. I’d fill a little sand bucket and dump it out on a waterproof mat (with towels nearby to absorb the puddles that form), and the trains (notably Hiro) would run into the snow.

Hiro's rescue

I’m sure we’ll be doing that again, as it is really its own experience, but my point is TSC loves winter. LOVES.

When I saw Playmobile’s 4892 set, including a Christmas tree with working lights, on sale after the holidays (2015) I didn’t really have to think about it. The tree is a self-contained unit that stands on its battery pack, so there are no wires. It turns on by a small black button that is neither too difficult to depress, nor so close to the tree that it requires a lot of dexterity. I don’t know if this same set will continue to be available, but if the folks at Playmobile are smart this tree will appear in other sets too. It is well designed (thought it has small pieces, so is most appropriate for the toddler who no longer needs to mouth-test everything), and as a bonus switches itself off after five minutes. This both saves on batteries and meant that The Small Controller could use it as a timer when I would say “Five minutes until bath time” or whatever it was that was going to interrupt playtime.

The tree is what got the snowball rolling for me, but of course you don’t need a Christmas tree to make your train table a winter wonderland. We happen to celebrate Christmas, so it makes sense for us, but the only thing everyone needs is snow. That means a new mat.

The material I used for the mat is a white foam roll, sold at Michaels Arts and Crafts*. It is $12.99 here in Canada, and you can paint both sides without any difficulty (I made an autumn/harvest set-up before doing winter, painted the whole thing browns and greens and there is not a single point of leakage). The foam doesn’t wrinkle, fray or tear easily; you can cut it to whatever size your train table needs; and it holds the paint well, allowing it to absorb slightly so that it doesn’t crack or peel even with rough play.

I opted for simple for the winter paint job, and didn’t try to shade in snow banks or paint a lot of half-covered bushes or anything. The Small Controller is three, which means snow is white. I wanted an icy pond (ponds are always good accident settings, plus we just got Skiff so some water seemed a good idea) and, because the railway crossing is probably The Small Controller’s favourite feature on the train table at the moment, I knew there had to be a road.

I used four colours. Deco Art’s Americana brand in Pebble, and Craft Smart Multi-Surface Premium Metallic Icy Blue, Premium Glitter Sparkling Ice and Premium Satin White. Pebble I had bought to make a construction site on the autumn set up, and used it here to make a road. It isn’t a match to the grey road on our Brio railway crossing, but it is close enough and is a very versatile colour that I know I’ll use again. The Sparkling Ice I really can’t recommend enough. It isn’t overwhelmingly sparkly, just that slight glitter of fresh snow. Icy Blue made quite a nice pond and white was, well, white. I used it to give the pond an impression of being snow swept, as well as putting lines on the road.

Winter table overview

I created a layout featuring The Small Controller’s must-haves (the crossing, a layer of sheds that does double duty as the Steamworks) and a few other points of interest, and then plotted the paint. I actually did the painting on the train table while TSC was out with Dad for a few hours, using small sponges and two sizes of brush (mostly for the road, since it needed more solid colour). I wasn’t sure if I would have to remove the mat and let it dry elsewhere, but drying was quite fast, even for the road.

Finished paint

I could do a step-by-step for my pond, but the reality is you are painting this for a toddler. Simple is fine. Snow is white. Water is blue. Twisting the sponge on the metallic blue paint gave the pond a nice texture. Making streaks of white and smearing them made it look lovely and snow swept.  I did some scruffy work in Pebble at the edges of the pond for definition.  Probably not necessary but we’d done ponds with rocks and trees by the edges before, so it was building on that.

I also picked up small white craft pom-poms (purchasable at Michaels and other craft stores, some dollar stores). We’d used the orange version as pumpkins for the autumn table. They make excellent cargo if you have gondola-style cars, and if your tot has trains with plows and toy construction vehicles, or better yet a vaguely-to-scale snowplow (Siku and Matchbox make them, I’m sure there are others – you can probably pick one up for $2-to-5), they are very fun to push around. **  I picked up some clear, pale blue and blue decorative gems for the same purpose, but they were ignored. They weren’t warm and fuzzy, and didn’t stick to one another and roll around like the pom-poms, plus they were a little big for loading into the train cars (you could fit a few, but nothing like the mounds of little snowballs). Next year they may grace some other decoration around the house. I don’t think they’ll return to the train table.

Mail station

The final cargo item was some tiny foil wrapped gifts. We have MegaBloks trains as well as wooden, and picked up Percy Delivers the Mail for $6, which gave the table a mail station. Packages were picked up there and delivered to the castle where the tree had been set up.

Castle birdhouse Castle on the hill

I decided to add a building or two. I picked up a castle birdhouse at Michael’s because I reasoned that it could be used any time of year (and certainly at Halloween), and castles feature in so many Thomas storylines that having one might ignite some play ideas. I used the aforementioned Pebble as mortar and stonework, CraftSmart Burnt Sienna for the brick and dipped an old toothbrush in slightly watered down white to flick at it to get a bit of a snow effect. Finally I positioned it on top of a bakery cake container – one of those black plastic ones the city doesn’t recycle yet – that I had covered in white felt (taped to the underside after white glue didn’t work – hot glue might have done the job just as well but I was leery of melted plastic vapours – packing tape did the job admirably).   The castle was now on a snowy hill.

Frosty station

The second building was a kind of silly house from the dollar store with snow on the roof and gingerbread man and candy cane motifs. I wound up setting up the winter railway before I had time to paint this one, so asked The Small Controller to choose colours: Icy Blue, White, and Sparkling Ice came in to use again, as well as Martha Stewart Pearl Antique Silk, Martha Stewart Rose Gold, Martha Stewart Camella Pink (with a coat of Sparkling Ice over it), and Folk Art Extreme Glitter Purple.   It has been used as a station.

Stickers were added to the castle and roundhouse. I got some puffy 3D wreaths since I was going for a Christmas theme and managed in my haste to put them all on upside down (ribbons at the top seemed right, but if you look at how they flow they are clearly meant to be on the bottom, ah well!), but there are lots of lovely non-denominational stickers buried in the Christmas piles: snowmen or snowflakes are usually easy to find, cardinals are out there if you look hard enough, as are other winter scenery pieces.

Roundhouse w lights wreaths

We already had some wooden evergreens, but I got some additional winter scenery in the form of a pack of Lemax snow covered trees (Michaels again) and working streetlamps (Dollarama). The trees I was a bit worried about since they aren’t really playthings, but they have stood up remarkably well and The Small Controller has never been injured handling them – and they do get handled. They get delivered all over the place and eventually returned to “the forest”. The streetlamps were a mistake – not because The Small Controller couldn’t handle having something immovable on the table (I ran the wires under the roundhouse), but because they eat batteries. The lamps cost $3. The Lemax version was more like $15 or $20, but, assuming they are more efficient, they’d have been cheaper in the long run. I’m thinking these ones may have their wires removed and become set decoration only.

Lights on

On the other hand, I bought a string of battery-pack powered multicoloured mini lights at Dollarama that were fantastic. I strung them around the Sodor suspension bridge, and they were lovely. Three AA batteries lasted us from late November until early February, and some days they were on a lot. Sadly, they no longer make the suspension bridge – if you are going to use real lights they must be firmly attached to something that isn’t moving – preferably they are wound around at least part of the object so that the string really can’t come away. As an alternative Jolee make a scrapbooking sticker string of lights that I could have put on the castle or roundhouse. They don’t light up, but they are colourful and reasonably to scale.

The winter effect was rounded out with some winter animals in the forest (these came both from Kinder Surprise eggs and Schliech) and figures from the My Busy Books Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer set (often on sale at Winners and Chapters-Indigo) which I had to buy because it had a snowman and, as I might have mentioned, The Small Controller LOVES snow.

The winter table was set up a few days ahead of schedule when The Small Controller got sick at the end of November. It was met with genuine excitement and has inspired many stories and games, as well as discussion about the seasons and how they affect plants, animals and trains.

You don’t have to be a particularly skilled crafter to do something like this. I purchased most of the elements of the table because I felt the ready-made would stand up to play better than something I could make (if you are handy at woodcraft your mileage may vary, and do you live nearby??). Really, you just need a sense of what will thrill your tot, combined with what at their stage they can play with safely. There are lots of chunky, tough plastic or wooden things appropriate for a child more prone to throwing (or with a younger sibling who likes to join in the fun), and similarly with a more dexterous and calm child there are lots of other more delicate things in the crafts aisles. Have fun!

And don’t be afraid to start hoarding! Lots of red and white craft supplies are about to go on sale post-Valentine’s Day (possibly including little white pom-poms), and Michael’s has a wide variety of birdhouses – I’m talking space rockets, pirate ships, castles of a more Frozenesque style than what I used – that often go on sale in the spring. Of course, you don’t have to wait until next year to do a special train table – I took my first request and unless something changes, should have a springtime train table featuring a zoo to show soon.


* The foam mats are also available in black, and I have one of those for a spooky Halloween themed table next year. TSC is just getting into enjoying spooky, so by next year is likely to be primed for it.

** Fisher Price is continuing their practice of web-exclusive trains with a rotary snowplow engine named Dustin new for 2016.   You can see him here. He can be purchased with a book, or in a large track set that also includes the book. You can also get a Percy with a snowplow with a different Dustin book and a track feature that looks like a satellite dish (presumably a weather tracking station). The web exclusives cost more than I tend to pay for The Small Controller’s train gear, but I include the info here because rotary snowplows are all kinds of awesome, and I know some kids would be over the moon for this (including TSC). If I break down and order I promise to review it.


Toronto Railway Museum

6213 in rain

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.

Roundhouse in the rain

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.

Britannia new case

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.

Big Whit

Fun with Melissa & Doug Create-a-Craft Train

4+! Ha! The Small Controller is not bound by your ages suggestions (though seriously we may try again at 4) and takes on a Melissa & Doug craft kit train engine.



The Small Controller is three-and-a-half now, and I’ve noticed big improvements in dexterity lately. This has been apparent at the train table, with Duplo/MegaBloks, in play with figurines and, most particularly, when it comes to art.

Colouring within the lines may take some time yet, but making purposeful shapes in approximate relationship to one another to form, say, a train?

Chalk train

That is happening. Painting things, adding sparkles or stickers, and gluing things together are sure toddler pleasing activities these days.

Which brings us to the Melissa & Doug Create-a-Craft Train.

M&D CaC Train

I’ve had this thing stashed in a box since Amazon convinced me it was a great add-on item two years ago. (It was actually a great add-on item, since it bumped me up to free shipping, but still, I knew even as I was ordering it that The Small Controller was nowhere near ready to make it at the time.)

It came out last week and was met with excited oohs and ahs. I let The Small Controller go wild, picking paint colours and dabbing them on wherever. We spent about fifteen minutes on it before it was deemed “all done”. Or at least the paint job was – The Small Controller wanted to glue the wheels on right away. Now, now, now!

Art projects requiring patience are a new thing. Waiting for paint to dry has been around forever (or at least since one-and-a-half), but when it comes to a painting The Small Controller generally feels finished with the work in question. Patience, like strength and dexterity needs to be used to grow though, so I’ve been introducing some multi-stage projects recently – and explained, in this case, that if we handled the engine or its wheels while the paint was still wet it would smear and get on us, and on parts of the engine that had not been painted. My explanation was accepted and we moved on to bathtime and bed (art on bath night, repeat after me: art on bath night).

Axles & wheels

The wheels went on first thing in the morning. The Small Controller was able to push the axles through without assistance, though squeezing the glue out of the supplied tube became difficult as it emptied. We got the wheels on, added a bit more paint, and once again set it aside to dry.


The final phase of adding stickers was actually more difficult than it needed to be … because it shouldn’t have been the final phase. If I had looked more carefully at the pictures on the box I’d have seen that some of the stickers were under the wheels. The stickers should have gone on before the wheels were glued in place.

Nevertheless, The Small Controller was pleased with the results, because as parents must remember when doing arts and crafts with the short set: toddler. As fussy as they can be about some things The Small Controller wants fun from art projects, not perfection.

And frankly, as a parent, I’ve received pieces of art that I’m pretty sure a daycare provider made almost singlehandedly, and I have work that The Small Controller mashed and splashed together, giggling all the while. I know what I prefer, too.

We both really enjoyed the Create-a-Craft train. Enough so, that when The Small Controller is a bit older I expect I will ask if another would be fun. If we do one at four-and-a-half I’ll report on that experience too.

On the G-gauge track

As for this one, for the moment it has a place of pride on a section of G scale track in The Small Controller’s bedroom.

The Obsession Begins

Not all toddlers are obsessive, but if you have one that is, you know it. The range of things they can be obsessive about it pretty impressive: dinosaurs, butterflies and moths, or construction vehicles all seem to be pretty common. With my little one it began with the alphabet.

Not all toddlers are obsessive, but if you have one that is, you know it. The range of things they can be obsessive about it pretty impressive: dinosaurs, butterflies and moths, or construction vehicles all seem to be pretty common. With my little one it began with the alphabet.

We watched Sesame Street videos. I was home-alone-with-baby a lot, as many new mothers are, and my baby was a bouncer. It freaked me right out when the bouncing took place in the high chair, and a little video calmed things down while I made second, third and sometimes fourth helpings of cereal (and other foods, as they were introduced).

Sesame Street has approximately a thousand versions of the alphabet up on YouTube.

Okay, okay maybe that’s an exaggeration, but they have a lot. A lot. My kid loved them all. Patti LaBelle? Oh yeah! Kermit? Yup. Usher? Yes, we will watch that please. Elmo? Sing it, furry red monster! Ray Charles, India Arie, Tilly and the Wall? Yes, yes and yes!

They have songs about individual letters, too. My child had favorite letters of the alphabet. We would cheer when the letter U came out, like it was the star player of a sports team.

The alphabet, I will have you know, is a gateway to train obsession.

Trains are a perfect vehicle (literally) for displaying the alphabet, collecting the alphabet and singing about the alphabet. There are lots of alphabet related train videos, and slowly we started watching some of them, too.

I can’t blame only the alphabet though. The truth is, we watched Baby Einstein’s Things That Go video and for reasons I will probably never know the train segment struck a chord deep within my child. The entire video was loved, but as soon as my little one could sign “more”, there were requests to re-watch the part about trains.

There were no train toys in the house. It was ages before we saw Thomas and Friends or anything like it. It didn’t matter. My kid was in love.

If there is a train nearby it will be found and celebrated, whether hurtling past us on the highway or in the background of an illustration nearly hidden in a jumble of other objects. Unrelated items that bear passing resemblance to a train are inspected for possibilities.

High speed mouse

High speed train

Monorail sink edge

Monorail train

In our house (and outside of it) we do trains.

When it began, I knew next to nothing. Like, seriously, right next to nada, zip, zilch. I was a frequent subway rider, and had taken a train to visit my grandmother in northern Ontario as a child. I’d never even had a toy train. Now I tweet about trains and toddlers, and write, and hope that even if your child isn’t quite as laser-point focused as mine is, that you may find some of it useful and interesting.

I didn’t (and don’t) know if it will end someday and another love will blossom, but my kid is still pretty keen on the alphabet, and the love of trains is going strong.