Day Out with Thomas

We have a 3-year-old son, which means, inevitably, that our house is filled beyond capacity with Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia.

Over the year-plus of his ongoing obsession with the little blue “Really Useful Engineâ„¢,” we’ve learned that the owners of the Thomas trademark will spare every expense where quality is concerned. They know, 3-year-old boys don’t care about quality. They want it, even if it’s crap, and they’ll whine until their parents shell out $20 for 10 cents’ worth of Made-in-China plastic.

Then, of course, there’s the wondrous phenomenon that is “Day Out with Thomas.” This is basically a traveling Homer Simpson-quality carnival (minus the moldy mattresses, but including several barely-appealing attractions partitioned with soggy hay bales), topped off by a teenager in a Sir Topham Hatt costume and an overpriced ride on a train pulling a flimsy full-scale model of Thomas the Tank Engine, apparently constructed of plywood and fiberglass, with a dry ice machine inside the funnel.

Now, if I seem a bit cynical and negative when it comes to an event designed to appeal to people just discovering the fascination of smelling their own underpants (trust me, it’s true), it’s only because the coordinators of said event went beyond simply doing everything on the cheap; I am convinced they threw in added touches that didn’t cost — or save — them so much as a penny, but were sure to add to parents’ frustration and dismay with the overall experience.

We arrived in Stillwater, MN for our own Day Out with Thomas today around 1:30 PM, a full hour and a half before our scheduled train ride. By 2:45, our son’s excitement was at fever pitch, so we were relieved and genuinely enthused, if not excited ourselves, when we could begin boarding the train. My wife and I viewed it mainly as an opportunity to get a taste of riding the Minnesota Zephyr without shelling out $71 each for the full-blown experience that includes a gourmet 5-course dinner.

But… oh, man.

We knew going into it that our $17 (each, mind you, including our 3-year-old) was only buying us a 20-minute ride. But we knew nothing of the distance, or lack thereof, involved. The ride consisted of 10 minutes out, stop, reverse, and 10 minutes back. Fair enough. But the train never surpassed the pace of a brisk stroll. At one point the train was passed by a guy on a bike. Seriously. The outbound limit of the journey, on a track that runs parallel to highway 95 on one side and the St. Croix River on the other, was just slightly beyond, but still within sight of, the wayside rest we used as a turnaround while trying to locate a parking space.

But our son loved it, which made it all worthwhile.

Wait, how much did I spend on those tickets…?