Lots of Triangle families make the trek to Spencer, N.C., to ride aboard Thomas, the useful tank engine and the stuff of many a three-year-old boy's dreams.
For the last 15 years, a Day Out with Thomas, a traveling production featuring the popular character and some of his friends, has stopped at the N.C. Transportation Museum for a couple of weekends in the fall. This year, he's back in late September and October with Percy, which visitors also will be able to ride. Thousands more will travel to Spencer for the Polar Express, when the holiday-themed ride and show leaves the station for the first time here in late November.
But there's much more to this museum, about two hours from the Triangle, than these big special events. From rides aboard trains and a train turntable to opportunities to board cabooses and check out all kinds of vintage cars and a Wright Flyer replica, this museum is a worthy road trip, especially for families with transportation-loving kids.
"Everything that rolls, everything that moves," said Mark Brown, museum information and communications specialist, of the museum's exhibits. "We've got airplanes. We've got cars. Most of all and what we do best ... is trains."
The 57-acre site right in downtown Spencer was the largest steam locomotive repair facility for the Southern Railway Company. It sat between the railway's major terminal points in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, according to the museum's website. Construction of the facility began in 1896.
The Shops, as they were called, were a major employer for the town. At one point, according to a movie that you can watch on site, 2,000 of the town's 2,500 residents worked there. The emergence of diesel engines, which didn't need such regular maintenance, eventually killed the need for the Spencer Shops. The property was eventually turned over to the state and opened to the public in 1983.
The property has a collection of buildings, many of which have been turned into exhibit halls. The former flue shop is home to Bumper to Bumper, which features a variety of classic and vintage cars built between 1901 and 1978. The back shop, where trains needing major repairs were sent, now is a cavernous building home to planes, trucks, cars, boats and more. Visitors can see many of them from a viewing area at one end of the building, which is being restored.
And then there is the 37-bay roundhouse, one of the largest ever built. Trains needing minor repairs and tune ups were sent to the roundhouse.
The roundhouse now features about three dozen restored engines and railroad cars. Some of the engines and cars have viewing platforms so you can walk up and look inside.
There's a very informative and entertaining movie at the entrance where you can learn more about the facility. Also here, at the desk, you can ask for a ride on the 100-foot turntable outside the roundhouse. The turntable is still used to position trains into the correct bay in the roundhouse. The short, slow ride, two times around, is definitely not something you do everyday. My four-year-old loved it.
If you go, be sure to head to the end of the roundhouse where you'll find interactive displays along with two open cars - a rail post office car and an Army hospital car from World War II. There's also a big control desk with switches and buttons and audio from people directing trains. It's a fun spot for young kids.
Of course, a trip here isn't complete without a ride on an actual train. These are short vintage train rides of about 25 minutes, which take visitors across the property. The ride includes narration - over a loud speaker or in person from a volunteer. Train rides run generally between Memorial Day and Labor Day, on weekends and by special request. There are no bathrooms on board these enclosed trains, but there are some at the depot where you get on and off.
My mom, cousin and four-year-old tagged along with me on this road trip. We spent four hours here and could have easily filled up another hour, exploring the exhibits even more. There is no restaurant on site, but there is a picnic shelter and you can walk across the street to restaurants in Spencer.
Tickets for the N.C. Transportation Museum and train ride (which I recommend) are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $8 for kids ages 3 to 12. A ride on the turntable costs another $1.
The museum has an expansive gift shop with Thomas the Tank Engine toys out for kids to play with and a big selection of Thomas-themed merchandise, along with other toys and gear. Purchases help support the work at the museum.
Brown tells me there are big plans ahead in 2015. They include a new children's play area with hands-on, transportation-related activities. That will make a trip to this family-friendly destination even more fun.
Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday. For more ideas, check our posts on parks and playgrounds and Triangle family destinations. This post is part of an occasional summer series on road trips.