Taking the kids

Model train shows

(Originally published October 25, 1998)

By Glenn Gehlke

We love: Holiday toy and model train shows.

What you need to know first: What would the holidays be without a toy train running through a snow-covered town at the base of the Christmas tree?

For many of us, such scenes evoke happy childhood memories of little locomotives chuffing along with carloads of presents and candy, circling endlessly through our living rooms as we anxiously checked off the remaining days until Santa's arrival.

Model trains are more popular today than ever, largely because aging baby boomers who remember such magic moments have introduced their kids and grandkids to the hobby. And a number of Bay Area modelers also do their part to help rekindle those memories each year with open houses and public shows held throughout the months of November and December.

If you like model railroading, or want to introduce a youngster to the fun and excitement of the hobby, several East Bay events offer the perfect opportunity.

What's to do: Most kids instantly fall in love with model trains, and with the immense size of many club layouts they can literally spend hours watching tiny steam and diesel engines crawl up hills, emerge from tunnels and push cars around yards. Some shows also have special areas where visitors can operate the controls themselves.

But model railroading is also about education and history. Many layouts are modeled after a particular era or place. You might recognize your own town, or one you have visited, in the modeler's diminutive world.

Stunning realism can be found in such details as buildings, trees, people, cars and waterways, and occasionally modelers will hide visual gags amid the scenery, like a three-headed dinosaur peeking from a dark cave, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs working in a gold mine. The longer you look the more you will often find.

Where to go: While there are many shows to choose from, here are several nearby favorites.

* Black Diamond Lines Model Railroad Club -- 425 Fulton Shipyard Road, Antioch. 925-779-1964. Holiday shows late October to early November, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $2 adults, $1 seniors and children 6-12, free for kids under 6.

This 1,500-square-foot HO-scale layout occupies two rooms. There is also a lounge area featuring railroading videos, snacks and a displays. As a bonus, the club is located near an operating railroad mainline.

* Diablo Valley Lines -- 2751 Buena Vista Ave., Walnut Creek (located off Geary Road in Larkey Park). 925-937-1888. Holiday shows late November and early December. $2 adults, $1 seniors and children 6-12, free for kids under 6.

Celebrating its 50th year, the spacious club features a 54-by-32 foot HO layout with over 4,300 feet of track and mountains rising up to 10 feet. There is also a gift shop and snack bar.

A highlight is the night sequence, when the room lights are dimmed and tiny bulbs on the trains and towns pierce the darkness. Hunt for tiny bits of whimsy, like the plane crash on the side of the mountain.

* Great American Train Show -- Alameda County Fairgrounds, 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton. 925-426-7600. Last weekend in November, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $6, children 12 and under free. Admission price is good for both days.

This touring model train show visits over 60 cities a year. In addition to hundreds of booths offering train-related merchandise for sale, modelers from all over the Bay Area are on hand with nearly a dozen operating displays ranging from teeny Z-scale layouts no bigger than a briefcase to huge G-scale trains big enough to run through a large outdoor garden.

The show offers a Lionel layout where children can operate four trains and push buttons that activate lights, bells, whistles and other actions.

Pitfalls: The quickest way to earn a model railroader's wrath is to finger his expensive and painstakingly built models. Any curious child will naturally want to touch the little trains as they roll by. Some clubs take precautions against this by designing plastic shields around their layouts or roping off the display. Others don't. Children should be supervised and admonished to look but not touch unless invited.

Because these shows tend to be popular it is sometimes difficult for small children to see the action through the crowd. A parent's strong shoulders can provide an ideal perch for train watching.

And furthermore: The holidays are by far the biggest time of year for model railroading, but the hobby is one that can be enjoyed throughout the year.

A train set given as a holiday gift can develop into a lifelong hobby for your child. For more information, ask a modeler or contact the National Model Railroad Association through their Web site at http://www.nmra.org.

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Distributed by the Contra Costa Times

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