Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Day Out With Thomas

Last weekend, Kyle and I drove the kids up to Fillmore, California, for "A Day Out with Thomas," a Thomas-themed railroad festival that culminated in a ride on one of their personal idols, Thomas the Tank Engine.

I have to say that the City of Fillmore and the Fillmore & Western Railway have a lot to offer for train enthusiasts young and old, but I wasn't super-impressed with the Thomas tie-ins.

The city of Fillmore, which is located at the edge of Ventura County between the city of Ventura and Santa Clarita, is a pleasant little town.

It almost reminded me of my hometown of Rochelle, IL, except that Fillmore is cradled by gorgeous mountains and surrounded by idyllic citrus groves and strawberry fields, rather than laying smack-dab in the middle of miles and miles of flat, un-picturesque corn and soybean farms that smell like manure.

The other difference is that while no one but hardcore railway fans would want to come to Rochelle and watch freight trains roll toward Chicago, the Fillmore & Western Railway, being more of a gimmick railway than a true freight line, has a lot to offer Southern California families in search of a fun day trip for their little train lovers.

The Fillmore & Western actually only exists because of Hollywood; it is an old section of the Southern Pacific Railway's Santa Paula branch that became a storage place for antique railway equipment, and is now a key destination for any film crew in Southern California that wishes to film trains.

In addition to functioning as a movie set, the Fillmore & Western Railway offers rides on antique passenger trains, dinner trains and murder mystery trains.

During our day with Thomas, we got to ride in one of the vintage railway cars at the very heel of the train and that was pretty cool. Unlike today's sleek Amtrak cars featuring "safe" windows that barely open (if at all), the windows on the old passenger cars opened all the way, allowing Owen to dangle his fingers out and wave at all the people at the train station, and all the cars stopped at the Railroad crossings.

We also spotted a mini-train out the window which a fellow passenger told us costs $2 to ride. It almost looked more fun than riding on the big trains, and I definitely plan on taking the kids there sometime.

After Thomas pulled all the passengers back to the station, we indulged in an ice cream cone at this little old-fashioned ice cream parlor right near the tracks. The ice cream was delicious and the ambience charming- the only problem was the crush of people right, left, and center.

Which brings me to the negative part of our "Day Out with Thomas-" the whole Thomas tie-in.

Granted, it was pretty cool to see Thomas gliding down the track with his eyes going back and forth, just like in the TV show, but there were so many people we hardly got a glimpse of Thomas anyway.

And riding on Thomas was a bit of a letdown. Sure, it was fun to ride the antique rail cars, but I thought that all of the seats were going to be close enough to Thomas that all the kids on the train could really SEE that Thomas was pulling us. After all, I'd been telling the kids for weeks that we were going to ride on Thomas, not that we were going for a train ride in a 100 degree passenger car about twenty train cars AWAY from Thomas.

So that was a little disappointing. I would actually have been willing to pay more for a ticket that allowed the kids to get closer to Thomas and really see him go.

Other Thomas tie-ins included free Thomas temporary tattoos, a visit with Sir Topham Hatt, and a gift shop filled with more Thomas toys than I've ever seen.

The temporary tattos were fun- I thought it was a little weird how, instead of just handing them out, they made us show our tickets in order to get the tattoos and then made us have "staffers" apply them on the kids. I mean, they're temporary tattoos, not gold.

They even punched our tickets to show that we had already received our tattoos, as if not doing so would result in a hysterical run on surplus tatts.

Not only that, but the tatts they offered were not that great. They gave the boys a choice of Henry, Elizabeth and Thomas,
which is fine and good, but as I walked around, I saw other kids
sporting Harold the Helicopter's and Percy's right and left. So where
were all the Harold's and Percy's when we were at the tattoo tent? I
mean, Elizabeth the Antique Truck???? She's in like ONE EPISODE and she
SUCKS! Get real, what kid is going to want to walk around with her plastered on his forearm?

And it was kind of weird that they insisted that the staff had to apply the tattoos. They did a very nice job and all, but again, it's a temporary tattoo, not a space probe. Hello- throw some water on there and it sticks, it doesn't require a professionally trained team.

Kyle overheard one couple arguing about the tattoos and it provided us with the day's best laugh. The wife was insisting that the staff had to apply the tattoo- she apparently bought into the whole thing- and her husband was so indignant with her that he sputtered: "I...(moment of enraged silence while reigning in his temper)... just GIVE me the damn thing!"

Kyle was cracking up.

I don't know how the visit with Sir Topham Hatt was, because it seemed like every time we were around, he wasn't. Supposedly, during our four hour day with Thomas, he was there twice, but we never caught so much as a glimse.

Kyle and I were really looking forward to seeing whether it would be a miserably hot teenager stuffed into one of those giant, fuzzy costumes (you know, like the Disney characters at Disneyland), or if they had hired a local actor- some crusty, dignified older gent to don a top hat and suit for the day.

Alas, we shall never know.

The gift shop was ENORMOUS, but it wasn't too much of a draw for me. I have two little boys and I'm about to have a third- I have enough Thomas the Tank Engine related merchandise thank you very much.

So you can see how I wasn't super impressed with all the Thomas paraphernalia. I honestly think the boys would have had just as much fun just visiting the railway and having a ride on one of the trains.

Not only that, but there would have been FAR less people than the hundreds, maybe thousands, that were packed into tiny downtown Fillmore for Thomas. I overheard someone at the ice cream stand saying that even the town's annual train festival didn't generate nearly this kind of crowd. "But, you know, it's Thomas," she explained.

Which is why I would recommend staying away from the Fillmore & Western on "Day Out with Thomas" weekends, but I would suggest a trip to Fillmore and a ride on one of its other trains as a very doable and fun day trip for kids of all ages.

It is really a fun place to visit for any child who is interested in trains, regardless of the presence of Thomas, and I'm sure you'll have much more fun taking your kids there without having to fight the kinds of crowds that turned out for the Blue Behemoth.

See pictures from the day!

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