Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Toddler Favorites: The South Bay Historical Railroad Society Railroad Museum (Santa Clara)

When last Saturday's rain showers cut short our morning playground outing, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to check out a nearby attraction that we've been meaning to visit for some time -- the South Bay Historical Society's Railroad Museum.

Conveniently located at the Santa Clara Caltrain Station (directly across the street from the main entrance to Santa Clara University), this museum is a must for any train-loving toddler, or child of train-loving parents. In fact, I've never thought of myself as a model train enthusiast, but I found myself amazed and enchanted by the incredibly detailed landscapes and set-ups. And when an attraction is free -- hey, you can't go wrong!

Here's the scoop:

  • The museum's normal operating hours are Tuesdays from 6-9 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. There are also occasional special events that offer longer hours, including the Spring 2014 Model Train Show this coming weekend (Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.).
  • Because the model trains that operate at the museum are privately owned (their owners bring them in during operating hours to run on the permanently-installed tracks/displays), a gentleman I spoke with recommended coming between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturdays, as the first hour of the day can be slow (model train enthusiasts are notorious Saturday over-sleepers...just kidding, no idea if that's true) and in the last hour, some train owners might take off early. I think Tuesday evenings anytime are fine for a visit. And of course, any time is fine for the special event this weekend.
  • Admission on normal days is free, though they very much appreciate donations to improve and maintain the model train displays (and after you see them, you'll be happy to help out). For this weekend's special event, the requested donation is $5.00 per adult over 18, with kids free -- but again, they're not making money on this venture, so any additional donations would be appreciated.
  • The museum contains lots of railroad memorabilia and artifacts, including several crossing lights (which Toddler X loves) and timetables from the 1930's for trains between San Jose and Santa Cruz (turns out that our predecessors could get to the beach in a lot less time than we can on a sunny Saturday!). There is also a library (not a big toddler favorite) and videos of train travel running on a loop.
  • The real draw of the museum, though, is the amazing set up of model train displays. They have two different sizes of train/track set up in the main room, each with an amazingly intricate world created around them. It's an absolute bounty of things for eager toddlers to identify -- "Look, a fire truck! A dump truck! A police car!" -- and parents will marvel at the amount of time and effort it must have taken to put these things together.
  • Huge toddler plus: they have step stools everywhere so that very small people can see into the displays without their exhausted parents carrying them the whole time! Toddler X has recently hit 30 lbs., so let's just say that I was appreciating those step stools, given how long he wanted to stand there looking.
  • One of the best parts of visiting the museum with your little one: the fact that toddlers will hilariously fixate on the smallest, most random things. Toddler X and I discovered a little car that had been overturned (unintentionally -- it wasn't supposed to be an accident scene), and he was fascinated, as was the 3 year old with his dad, who were passing by as we pointed it out. Even after we walked away from that section, both kids kept referring back to the "upside down car" with great interest. Such a funny age!
  • Another attraction at the museum: open the sliding doors at the rear of the building, and you're on a train platform, where you can sit on benches and watch the real trains going by. Obviously, for safety's sake, stay on the platform right behind the museum, which is separated from the operational tracks. If you're actually going to ride the Caltrain with your toddler, keep a tight hold on the actual platform.
  • Speaking of riding Caltrain with your toddler, did you know that kids 4 and under are free with a paying adult? The Santa Clara Caltrain station is located right next to the museum, and that could be quite an adventure of a day! We keep planning on taking the train from Santa Clara up to the Mountain View, Palo Alto or Menlo Park stations -- all close to the downtown areas -- then walking over to get a treat before riding back. Sounds like a perfect outing for a summer Saturday!
  • Finally, the museum has drinks and snacks at vending machines in the lobby, and apparently also sells coffee and ice cream at the desk (I didn't try it).
  • But -- on the food and drink front -- the museum is RIGHT next to a plaza that houses a Starbucks, Quiznos, and a Cramer's Bagels. Though Cramer's doesn't always have the friendliest service, their bagels are delicious and they have a nice Ikea toddler table and bead maze, so we enjoyed it as a pre-museum stop.

Anyhow, I definitely think that the museum is worth a visit (again, it's free, so worst case scenario, you've wasted a bit of time) and we will absolutely be back on Saturdays in the future. If you do go, please consider making a donation to support this cool attraction.

Give it a try, and happy toddling!


Hmm...what to do today?