You can start "small" by visiting a permanent model railroad exhibit. At the Museum of Science and Industry’s "Great Train Story," kids can watch more than 30 trains make the journey from Chicago to Seattle. Interactive stations allow them to build a tunnel, raise a drawbridge and load lumber. While you’re there, check out the vintage 1934 Pioneer Zephyr. During the 20-minute guided tour families can explore the baggage, smoking, passenger and observation compartments. Kids can even "drive" the train via an interactive computer. www.msichicago.orgIf you prefer to remain outdoors this summer, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Model Railroad Garden takes visitors from coast to coast with model trains, miniature representations of America’s best-loved landmarks and colorful small-scale gardens. The garden has expanded its depictions of the west this year with the addition of Telegraph Hill, Mount St. Helens and more. www.chicagobotanic.org.
The real thingIllinois boasts America’s largest railway museum north of Chicago, in Union. The Illinois Railway Museum preserves and operates dozens of historic railroad and mass transit cars. Unlike other museums where artifacts are meant only to be seen, Illinois Railway is a "museum in motion." Kids can take a ride on a steam or diesel train. Streetcars make the rounds for on-property transportation. Plus many models are available for kids to explore on their own. Visit www.irm.org for a full schedule.Illinois Railway Museum also hosts an annual Day Out with Thomas event. Kids can ride Thomas the Tank Engine and meet Sir Topham Hatt. The museum offers Thomas-themed entertainment, including puppet shows, live music and balloon animals. This year’s event will be held Aug. 15-17 and Aug. 23-24. Advance tickets ($18 each, ages 2 and up) are required. Visit www.irm.org for more details.
Ride the railsDon’t forget to plan a train trip this summer. It doesn’t have to be a long distance. Consider taking the train into the city for the day. A quick visit to www.transitchicago.com gives you access to maps and route schedules. If Metra is more convenient for you, take advantage of its Family Fares. Up to three children age 11 and under ride free with a fare-paying adult on weekends and select holidays. Visit www.metrarail.com for more details and route information.
Eat like an engineer
Once you’ve covered all the trains you can see, touch and ride, consider a train-themed restaurant where your meal can be delivered via locomotive. At the Choo Choo Café in Des Plaines, Choo Choo Johnny’s in Frankfort and 2Toots Train Whistle Grill in Downers Grove, families can eat around a track where the train "stops" at your table with burgers and sandwiches. For a summer time treat, you can even sample old-fashioned ice cream while seated in an authentic railroad caboose at The Old Caboose Ice Cream Shoppe in Flossmoor. Alena Murguia