By Dan Dupont
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 24, 2003

I never bargained for the train thing. I figured my kids would get into cars and trucks and action figures and all manner of toys, but trains -- they just weren't my cup of tea growing up. So when my eldest, Jake, started to talk about Thomas the Tank Engine, I paid it little mind, going along with a few purchases: a few trains, some track, a book or two.

Fueled by overly generous grandparents, though, Jake's train kick soon became a near-obsession. Within a year we had nearly every train in the collection, miles of track, a fully stocked Thomas library and every kind of train-related thing the marketers could dream up.

And then when Jake was 3, his grandfather and I took him to a place called Northlandz, in Flemington, N.J, about an hour north of Philadelphia. We'd passed it a million times on trips north; all I knew about it was it had trains, and Jake loved trains. I figured we'd spend an hour looking at little Lionels before heading back to the grandparents' house in New Hope, Pa.

After an hour of carrying a 30-pound 3-year-old past bridges, mountains, cities and, oh yes, trains, I noticed a little sign: "You are now 25 percent of the way through the Northlandz exhibit." I nearly fell over. Expecting a little roadside diversion, I'd stumbled onto what Guinness has called the biggest model railroad on the planet -- and we were only a quarter of the way through it! Yet the spectacle of the thing kept me, my son and his grandfather enraptured. For Northlandz is an awe-inspiring world unto itself, a monument to one man's obsession with trains. Forget any notion of shopping mall Christmas displays, or anything your uncle labored over in his basement: Northlandz makes a claim for wonder-of-the-world status.

It started -- predictably -- as a basement passion for an offbeat musician and computer game designer named Bruce Williams Zaccagnino. After his train layouts outgrew his basement, he dug another, then another, then two more; the fourth basement alone was 31/2 times the size of the original house, according to Zaccagnino. "I get passionate about things," he says. And how. Two weekends a year, he and his wife would open the basement to the public and donate the admission fees to charity. People loved it so much, he said, that in 1990 they decided to "give it to the world." So Zaccagnino bought a piece of land on Route 202 in Flemington, had a warehouse built and spent the next 41/2 years working day and night to create his own world.

And what a world. Room after room features enormous train displays that run nearly floor to ceiling. And everywhere you look there are intricately wrought scenes of small-town life, farm life, city life and railroad life. There are more than 100 trains -- many running all day long -- eight miles of track, 4,000 buildings, 400 bridges (one of them 40 feet long), a half-million "lichen trees," a 30-foot mountain. Northlandz also features a 94-room dollhouse, a doll museum, a 2,000-pipe organ and a three-quarter scale replica of a steam engine that takes passengers on pleasant sojourns through the woods.

The exhibit begins with a few modest train layouts, but looking long and high at trains moving off in the distance, we get a taste of what's to come. And we hear it, too; throughout Northlandz, the clackety-clack of the engines is never far from our ears. Early on we pass "Lytle Gurly Gulch," a depiction of a real-life train disaster. In 1999 an 18-month-old girl managed to climb, Godzilla-like, into the scenery and wreck the bridge, so the Northlandz folks decided to make it part of the exhibit and turn the wreckage into, well, a wreck. It's a little scene of train crash mayhem -- broken track, train cars derailed -- that hints at the whimsy and imagination ahead.

Another is "Grandma's Pit," which is right around the corner. Apparently, the owners of Flatrock Quarry (depicted in tiny detail) couldn't talk Grandma into moving, so they simply dug around her -- leaving her farmhouse atop an island in the middle of the pit. After the workmen knocked out her plumbing, they built her an outhouse suspended over the quarry. Grandma reappears periodically throughout the exhibit, as do outhouses; at one point, built into the side of one of the countless mountains, is an outhouse factory.

Just when you're settling into miniature mode, the corridor opens wide into a 300-seat concert hall featuring three massive pipe organs -- one of the many incongruous surprises we encounter. Jake and his cousin Aidan, who joins us on a second visit, have no interest in organs, so we quickly get back to the trains -- but not before we notice the sign for when the next organ performance will be held; Zaccagnino gives concerts here every day. Hey, it's his world.

Back in the mazelike train exhibit, we encounter entire worlds around every corner. Trains clatter through little towns replete with shops, movie theaters (one marquee advertises "The African Queen"), diners, drive-throughs and period automobiles.

We see tiny but massive farms and petite yet enormous logging operations complete with minutely detailed sawmills and amusement parks featuring huge wooden roller coasters. There are diesels and steam engines, many adorned with recognizable names like the Northern Pacific and the Rio Grande. As we proceed through the exhibit we often see the same trains, seemingly miles from where we first spotted them.

The huge, surprisingly low-tech control room is where the operator can oversee all the trains running through Northlandz -- or not. When we pass, the place is empty and the trains are running on autopilot, but there's a sign: "To enter control tower, adults must be accompanied by a child." (The first time we were here, though, Jake was given the chance to start and stop a few trains, something Zaccagnino and crew love to do for the little ones.) It's hard to imagine anyone will ever break Northlandz's Guinness Book status -- Zaccagnino says he isn't close to finished. (Funds, however, are tight; he cheerfully admits to being "millions in debt," and his expansion plans await a better economy.)

Onward and upward, then down again, we wind our way past golf courses, a military depot lined with tanks and trucks, an old train junkyard piled high with lifelike train hulks. Here and there are head-scratchers like the "world's only toothpick farm," enormous medieval castles -- one of which, a sign tells us, took Zaccagnino "several thousand hours to complete" -- and then we are in . . . a doll museum.

The maze winds right through it: a hallway with dolls everywhere, including one signed by Pee-wee Herman, an "Alice in Wonderland" scene, Eskimos, you name it.

By this point we have seen it all, or so we think, and yet there's another little scene that enchants, a miniature golf course built into a mountain. And then there's another priceless little town, this one covered in snow: The 1950s-era cars are stuck in big snowdrifts and Santa's walking down the street. And then, finally, there's the last corridor, which depicts in miniature the history of U.S. railroads.

The train theme continues outside, writ large. The steam engine replica winds its way slowly through the woods; it can be ridden for a small additional fee, but only if you go through the train exhibit first. At this time of year, Santa can be found on the outside train, and inside, the place is decked out in holiday finery, with special shows and exhibits.

Northlandz is a little expensive -- and a little shopworn. The exhibits could use a good dusting, and the signs are homemade and taped to the glass. Zaccagnino, the founder, answers the phone himself. In a way, though, the homey touches are part of the charm. And, in a very real way, it's still a basement exhibit: The founder and his wife actually live upstairs.

Perhaps the best thing about Northlandz is the spirit behind it -- Zaccagnino's zeal for the project hasn't waned a bit. And it's catching. Jake is 5 now and a little bit less of a train nut. But his dad, after experiencing Northlandz, is more of one than ever.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Northlandz is outside Flemington, N.J., just under four hours from Washington. Take I-95 north through Philadelphia to Route 31 north, which merges into Route 202 north. The town center is just north of the traffic circle in Flemington.

NORTHLANDZ (908-782-4022; www.northlandz.com) is just north of the Flemington circle on Route 202. It's open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Costs are $13.75 for adults, $9.75 for children age 2 and older, and $12.50 for seniors. Tickets for the outside train ride, which cannot be purchased separately, are another $2.75.

STAYING THERE: With the picturesque towns of Stockton and Lambertville, N.J, and the Bucks County haven of New Hope, Pa., only a few miles away, there's no shortage of quaint inns and B&Bs to choose from. One to try is the Woolverton Inn, 6 Woolverton Rd. in Stockton (888-264-6648). Rooms and cottages range from $120 to $395 per night. Right in Flemington, try the Cabbage Rose Inn (162 Main St.; 908-788-0247). Rates are $85-$135, with full breakfast. Flemington also boasts a few chain motels.

EATING THERE: Northlandz features a basic snack bar, but don't miss the Market Roost (65 Main St.) in downtown Flemington -- superb lunch, eclectic menu, nice people. And the Zaccagninos recommend Alfonso's 202 (484 Route 202) and features good pasta and other basic fare. Stockton, Lambertville and New Hope are the best bets for fine evening dining.

THINGS TO DO: If you can't get enough trains at Northlandz, the Black River & Western Railroad is a few miles away in Ringoes, N.J.; it offers scenic train rides and a host of special events (908-782-9600; www.brwrr.com). On the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, little New Hope, Pa., features its own scenic railway, the New Hope & Ivyland (215-862-2332; www.newhoperailroad.com).

INFO: New Hope Visitors Center, 215-862-5880, www.newhopepa.com.

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