Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Road Trip: Northlandz Model Trains

As some of you are aware, my family is really into trains. My husband and my son are just nuts about real trains and model trains. Jayson got a Lionel set this past Christmas and plays with it just about every day. We also have a pretty large HO scale layout in our basement which keeps my husband occupied during the winter months, but what he's not likely to tell you is that the trains and accessories that he used to get started first belonged to me.

I got my first train set when I was about 12. I liked the trains and cars OK, but what I really enjoyed was building and painting the buildings and scenery. So it may be a bit surprising that we have never made the short trip to visit Northlandz, the world's largest model train layout.

And you just know that any place that bills itself as 'the world's largest' anything is a natural destination for a vintage- and kitsch-loving gal like myself. I can't believe we had never gone before!

So when Jayson had a cold, rainy day off of school, we took a road trip to Flemington, N.J. and Northlandz.

Northlandz is unique in that, among all the model train layouts I've ever seen, both the trains and scenery are to scale. When I say that, I mean that the distances between buildings, town, and mountains are scaled accurately. There is plenty of room along more than 8 miles of track to get in rivers, gorges, towns, train yards, cities, junkyards, amusment parks, etc. etc.  without them being all on top of each other.

The building is absolutely immense. It's three stories high, with a one mile walkway that circles around 50,000 square feet of indoor display. The tallest mountain is 30 feet high, with 400 bridges (the longest is over 40 feet long), half a million trees, and 4,200 buildings. And it's largely the work of one man, Bruce Williams Zaccagnino, a model train enthusiast, musician and video game developer.

As a matter of fact, on the Monday when we toured the building, Bruce was the only staff member there. A jovial man, he welcomed us to tour the facility, and also ran the gift shop, cooked at the snack stand (fashioned after an old fashioned soda fountain, with really good hot dogs and pizza) and provided the musical accompaniment on the building's three grand theater organs.

Now, of course, it needs to be mentioned that if he was the only staff member there, it wasn't that busy. I guess Mondays during the colder months are not that well-attended, because we saw only about 10 other people there. Also, the building was quite chilly, probably in an attempt to cut heating costs. And there were a couple spots where the roof was leaking onto the walkway. From the outside, the building does not look that well-maintained, either. So definitely call before you're planning a trip to make sure he hasn't cut the open hours back!

But, that said, all things like this have their little quirks, and it was definitely worth the price of admission ($13.75 for adults and $9.75 for kids 2 and up, which can be a bit steep for my 2 yr old). But the kids probably got more excited than the adults, because around every turn my daughter would scream "look at this!"

As an adult, I appreciated the scope of the construction, and the amazing detail. The trains themselves were not that great- most trains were only 5 or 6 cars long, and those cars were mostly "Northlandz" promotions.  But the scenery is simply incredible- have a look at the following photos and also take a look at their website for more. (Apologies for the blurry and overexposed shots- it was hard light to photograph in.)

And they obligatory 'awkward family photo' LOL- my mom was having trouble with my camera. I was going for a 1930s look with vintage wide legged navy pants, a red polka dot blouse that tied at the neck and a cropped white sweater. Believe me when I say it looked better in person than it does here! ;) Kate has on the most adorable cherry print sundress, which of course was totally inappropriate for a day with freezing rain, but hey, when you're 2, you can pull that look off.


  1. I have been to many a model train set up with my dad, who LOVES trains. He never outgrew them. Now, as an adult, I can appreciate the serious planning and craftsman ship that goes into making these miniature worlds!

  2. whoa! My boss would love that! How fun!

  3. we went there a few years ago and you were the 1st person i thought of when we went. never did i imagine that you hadn't been there, otherwise i would have mentioned it. btw - the jovial man Bruce, is the owner/creator/maker/engineer. i hope they can make enough to maintain the space and keep it open. it is extremely impressive (however, i wasn't really a fan of the creepy doll hall...)