Taking the kids

California State Railroad Museum -- Sacramento, California

(Originally published December 14, 1997)

By Glenn Gehlke

We love: California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento

What you need to know first: My 3-year-old, who is a big fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, refers to the museum as "Thomas Country" because of its well-stocked gift shop containing a vast array of merchandise from his favorite television show, not to mention books, videos, T-shirts and many other things train-related.

But the museum -- which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation's best -- is much more than souvenirs and rusting railroad relics. In fact, it is a highly polished interactive look at America's romance with the rails that will delight young and old alike.

What's to do: The California State Railroad Museum is really three attractions in one. The main museum features nearly two dozen meticulously restored locomotives and rail cars from the last 150 years of railroading.

Several displays invite visitors to climb aboard, walk through or duck underneath for a closer look. Children will especially like sitting in the engineer's cab of a Santa Fe steam locomotive, or experiencing the simulated rocking motion of a sleeping car on a virtual rail trip. They will also be awed (as will most adults) when they stand next to a hulking Southern Pacific cab forward steam engine that once hauled mile-long freight trains over Donner Pass and now occupies a spot in the museum nearly half a football field long.

Next, there is the reconstructed Central Pacific passenger station that houses additional exhibits and serves as the boarding point for summer excursion trains that provide a 30-minute ride along the Sacramento River.

Finally, there is the rail yard and its working turntable where historic engines can and often do make surprise appearances. You can normally view these areas without buying a museum ticket. Excursion and event weekends offer the best time to watch trains come in and out of the yard.

Pitfalls: Cost of admission and parking, if you visit often. The good news is that an annual family membership is available which provides unlimited admissions, train rides and discounts on merchandise. Also, parents burdened with strollers may find it awkward to view some of the more interactive exhibits, as well as navigate the museum's sole elevator.

Kid-friendly: Young children and museums traditionally don't mix, so it is always refreshing to find a place that keeps them in mind and can hold their short attention spans. Attractions such as the model train exhibit on the museum's second floor will engage little ones with a working Lionel layout reminiscent of one their parents probably grew up with years ago. Generally the museum has enough bells, whistles and flashing lights to please even a young railfan.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Other costs: Museum admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children 6-12, free for kids 5 and younger. Those are also the prices for a ride on the museum's excursion train, which runs hourly during weekends from April to the end of September, including Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, train fare does not include museum admission or vice versa. Plan on $4 to $6 for parking.

To get there: From the Bay Area, take Interstate 80 to Sacramento, then head south on I-5 to the J Street exit. Or from Highway 160, take I-5 north to J Street. Signs will guide you to parking in Old Town. The museum is located at the corner of Second and I streets.

And furthermore: Regardless of how many times you visit, each trip to the museum offers a chance for new adventure. Displays are moved around frequently to accommodate numerous special events. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the ancient turntable in action or hear the roar of a 50-year-old diesel locomotive as it hits the tracks under its own power. Kids particularly will love the annual Railfair, which normally takes place Father's Day weekend in June.

Call: 916-445-7387, or visit the museum's Web site at http:/www.csrmf.org. For recorded, regularly updated information on upcoming museum events, call 916-552-5252, ext. 7245.

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Distributed by the Contra Costa Times

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