A Day Out With Thomas the Tank Engine in Baltimore, Pennsylvania

By Jessica McFadden
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 24, 2009

These days our kids are experienced travelers. Their journeys are tricked out with high-tech car seats, portable DVD players and handheld video game devices. But in this era of travel by minivans and jets, have your children ever traveled by passenger train?

This spring and summer, they'll get their chance, as Thomas the Tank Engine rolls into the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum and the Strasburg Rail Road for the Day Out With Thomas Tour. Today through Sunday and May 1-3 in Baltimore and June 13--21 in Strasburg, Pa., passengers can climb aboard Thomas himself for a 25-minute ride and a day's worth of train-crazy interactive fun.

Recalling the 19th and early 20th centuries, when locomotives dominated the transportation scene, Thomas the Tank Engine is a fictional steam engine created by the Rev. W.V. Awdry for his son. The stories were adapted into popular British and American children's television shows featuring the talking train and his jovial roundhouse pals. The toys followed, creating an empire of pint-size tank engine fans.

Linn Moedinger, president of the Strasburg Rail Road, understands why kids love trains. "Steam trains are very much alive: There's stuff hanging off of them and moving, the wheels turn around, the rods go up and down, there's steam and smoke, there's a lot of action. We don't see what's going on inside our cars or even in an airplane, but with a steam engine there's no doubt that something exciting is happening to make it move."

Thomas and Friends have found a cult following among the preschool set, but family members of all ages can enjoy the offerings at A Day Out With Thomas. In addition to riding the rails and enjoying the views from a train pulled by a 15-ton version of Thomas, in Baltimore your ticket gets you into the oldest, most comprehensive collection of railroad artifacts in the Western Hemisphere, the B&O Railroad Museum. Called the birthplace of American railroading, the museum includes the 1884 Baldwin Roundhouse, which houses a treasure trove of 19th- and 20th-century railroad artifacts, some of them cars and engines that visitors can climb aboard and touch. In Strasburg, families can buy combination tickets that include a second ride on the Strasburg coal-burning steam engine, transporting passengers back to the mid-1800s. Kids can propel themselves on Strasburg's hand-powered crank cars dating from the 1930s or ride the Cagney, a miniature steam engine from 1920.

Thomas events -- which include appearances by Sir Topham Hatt, the famous controller of the Sodor Railway, moon bounces, large train tables for play and temporary train tattoos -- are so popular that some fans travel to multiple Thomas locations.

"We've taken the boys to Day Out With Thomas in three different states. . . . My kids feel like they really get to see the railroad happenings, and I even feel like I'm really riding on Thomas," says Corina DuBois, 33, a mother of three from Silver Spring.

However, not all parents are as embracing of the trappings of the event. Jodi Schulz, 33, of North Potomac, the mom of a 4-year-old, quipped, "I was thrilled we spent $50 and drove an hour for Michael to play with the exact same train table we have at home that he totally ignores. . . . But in the end, Michael had a blast, and that is all that matters."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company