I was raised in a family of 8 children: four girls and four boys. Every Christmas my brothers would set up a very large fiberboard platform, painted green,in the bedroom they shared (very large) to recreate their Lionel train display. I think this was not an unusual thing to do in that era; lots of families had their own train displays around the holidays.
In our family, setting up the train table was a ritual that started the holiday festivities. Once completed, guests and family relations were invited “upstairs” to watch the trains run and to see the new layout of the surrounding landscape. Every year new features were added and some disappeared due to natural obsolescence. New features would include more complex track switches, train cars with special features like doors that would open and close, or a milk car whose doors would open and a milkman would appear, unloading milk cans. The display was pure magic and my brothers put a lot of effort into making it so.
Now, many decades later, my family chooses one special event to attend together for a holiday treat. This year, after years of saying we would make the trip, we decided to make the trek to the Bronx to see the annual New York Botanical Gardens Train Show. The excursion was to coincide with my birthday which is three days after Christmas and would include a special dinner at The Hudson Grill, a farm-to-table restaurant.
My 36-year-old son wisely acquired tickets for us on “bar car” night when only adults would be viewing the show. The bar car was an actual feature on our Long Island commuter trains until recently. Commuters loved to hang out in the bar car, imbibing their favorite drink(s) as they returned to their homes in the suburbs, bumping along the rickety Long Island railroad tracks (even more rickety now). The night we chose to attend the show offered several “bar car” stations where we could buy a drink to enjoy as we roamed the grounds of the Botanical Gardens (in the 10 degree weather).
The amazing thing we had read about the displays that surround the trains at the BG is that each item (buildings, landscape features) is created from natural botanical substances including twigs, leaves, stems, vines, tree nuts, seeds, fruit slices, berries and more. Creating these objects requires hours and hours of tedious work to assemble the natural items into a house, or a park, or a bridge, for example; this is a job done by mostly creative volunteer enthusiasts. My daughter and I were probably more interested in this part of the train show than the actual trains.
The Train Show did not disappoint! In fact, it surpassed our expectations in every way. And that is quite extraordinary because we live in the suburbs near NYC and thus have been fortunate to have seen many amazing displays, shows, concerts, exhibitions over the years. But this exhibit is unique both for its subject matter and for its execution. Some people go every year because each year the exhibit has a different special feature. This year, mid-town Manhattan was the featured display and main event for regular attendees.
For first-timers, it was all glorious. The smaller room we first entered included some charming features and a few intertwining tracks of trains constantly running.
At first I felt a wee bit disappointed, lovely as it was. But then we turned the corner and entered the truly magical world of the train show. We were in the greenhouse, surrounded by lush greenery of all kinds, intermixed with the building and train displays in amazing ways. We walked through displays of historic buildings, row houses, museums, soaring bridges lit up like Christmas trees, and even a miniature Coney Island complete with the famous Cyclone roller coaster and the terrifying (to me, as a child) Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel.
There was also a large elephant which I believe was an actual feature at Coney Island in its hey-day. We strolled through a miniature Central Park with a reproduction of the famous Bethesda Fountain and the beloved pond with rowboats.
Finally we emerged into yet another room with the piece de resistance of the show: a reproduction of midtown Manhattan that included the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and much more, all aglow beneath the towering greens that surrounded the display. And of course, there were trains running throughout the display.
If you ever plan to spend time in NYC during the holidays, don’t miss the Train Show! It’s a low-key, communal type experience that is a must-see for young and old. And the drinks we had from the “bar car” definitely added to our enjoyment on such a cold, December night.