By Laura Simon
Chances are, you’ve heard about the N.C. Transportation Museum because it hosts both A Day Out with Thomas and The Polar Express, large themed events that draw visitors from all over. However, the museum itself is an absolute gem any time of year, and it makes a great family day trip. I decided to head there with my three kids (9, 7, and 4) on a lovely May week day, and it kept us busy all day.
The museum is located just 45 minutes from most parts of the Triad, in what used to be the Spencer Shops. In its heyday, the complex served as a vibrant hub for the Southern Railway, building and maintaining the steam engines and cars that kept the line moving. When diesel engines took over and the shops closed, the museum stepped in to restore the original buildings, creating a large complex with exhibits centered on all things transportation-related.
Perhaps the highlight for my train lovers was the train ride itself. You can opt to buy a museum ticket without the train, but I recommend spending the extra money. The ride itself is an out and back that takes about 25 minutes. Like most train tracks, this one doesn’t show you the most scenic part of the town, but you do see a lot of train buildings, old cars, and tracks. Plus, you’re riding a train. What else could you want? I was wondering if my older boys were getting a little old for trains, but they were absolutely reduced to toddlers, jumping up and down and squealing with excitement. (There were some elderly folks doing the same thing; apparently you never outgrow trains.)
The museum also features a roundhouse, which Thomas the Train fans will recognize as Tidmouth Sheds. The inside of the building hosts all sorts of train cars and engines, from steam trains to modern diesels. You can go inside several engines (including one with a “fake” firebox, where kids can push and pull all the levers and pretend to drive), an old caboose, a WWII hospital car, and a mail car. You can also look inside ornate passenger cars, and you can watch trains be serviced and restored. In front of the roundhouse, an original turntable is still functional. Check the schedule outside the orientation room: you can ride the turntable for $1 at several set times each day.
Another large building features all sorts of vehicles, from antique school buses to planes. There’s a watercraft exhibit that ranges from ancient canoes to power boats. During special events, a model train display is up and running. Across the tracks, a building is filled with retro cars, motorcycles, and delivery vehicles. There’s also a large space with firetrucks and firefighting memorabilia. Outside, a variety of railroad crossing signs can be controlled with the push of a button. Did I mention that my kids did not leave willingly? I can still hear that clanging in my sleep.
The museum designers clearly had young kids in mind. There’s a small wooden train with foam coal that kids can shovel into the firebox, an indoor play area where kids can dress up in complete firefighter costumes and fight the “fire” light display reflected on the wall, and a covered outdoor play area with three train tables and a huge sand box full of dump trucks and diggers. The latter has overhead fans running and rocking chairs for parents to relax while kids play. We probably could have spent hours there with no complaints. A museum store sells all sorts of things with wheels – and a model train runs around the store on an elevated track.
If you decide to go, I do have a few suggestions. First, check the events calendar when you choose your day. Special events definitely increase the crowd level and activity. The museum is quieter during the week and on school days, although because it’s such a large area, even big crowds don’t feel too overwhelming.
Also, pay attention to the weather. Between the outdoor play areas, the turntable, and moving between the buildings, you’ll be outside quite a bit. You’ll also want to wear comfortable shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking – just ask my child who insisted on wearing flip flops.
If you decide to pack a lunch, there are ample places to picnic. The play area features tables (some covered, some not) and there’s a large covered picnic area near the parking lot. The museum itself doesn’t have a café, but you can walk across the street to a local diner called Roger Dogs (look for the yellow striped awning). It offers hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, ice cream, and other diner foods – along with the option to sit at the counter, which my kids loved. Be sure to bring cash, because they don’t take cards. If you’re willing to drive a few blocks, Hendrix Barbecue is a local restaurant with rave reviews. There’s also a Bojangles and a Subway just a short drive away.
The ample parking is free, and you’ll get wristbands that allow you to leave the museum site and return throughout the day. Bathrooms are also plentiful and clean, with diaper changing facilities.
The N.C. Transportation Museum really is a community treasure. If you haven’t had a chance to visit, be sure to put it on your bucket list. And if it’s been a few years, you’ll want to go back. The largest exhibit space was just recently completed and opened to the public. They also change and update exhibits regularly, so you’ll certainly find something new.
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