Where’s One Of Those Wonderland Cakes When You Need One?

When I was younger, I was obsessed with miniature stuff. My Dad had made me a dollhouse. I loved it, with it’s little rooms, ladder to get to the second story, and red chimney. The only purchased items for it were wooden dishes and a Trivial Pursuit game. I made the bedding and furniture (with a little sewing from my Mom) out of old clothes and rags, wood scraps, and cardboard, hung up “wall decorations” made from magazines and old necklace pendants and the like, and made my little bear and rabbit families magazines and books to read. I still have all of it, even those little magazines and books I carefully cut out and stapled together and even wrote titles on. It’s all kept active at my parents’ house, where my niece now gets to live out her own little world.

I say I was obsessed, but I still kind of am. I don’t own or collect any miniature items or dollhouse furniture now, but when I find it at antique stores, I still take it in with a wide-eyed fascination.

Left: Departures and arrivals at the train station./Right: The train yard.

So, of course, the first time I set foot in the Model Railroad Museum at Balboa Park, I could barely breathe. I’ve been many times taking children here while working. One of the great aspects of working with children is you get the excuse, “Yeah, I have to bring them/do it/play it because the kids love it.” When in reality I’m just as excited to go somewhere, play a game, or partake in an activity. This museum is no exception.

Left: Who’s up for the drive-in?/Right: The farmers hard at work at the grain co-op as a train whizzes by.

I, personally, never had trains as a kid, but there was a time when practically every child wanted a train set under the tree on Christmas morning. The clickety-clack of the wheels over the tracks, the whistle, and the flashing lights mesmerizing to children, can still bring out the enthralled child in anyone.

Top left: A trolley car breezes by some classic cars./Top right: One of the models of Santa Fe Depot in San Diego./Bottom left: He’s hard to see, but Superman is in his red cape with arms raised on top of the building right above the tunnel./Bottom right: A whale plays in the harbor.

The museum goes beyond that simple train-on-tracks wonderment. They recreate landscapes, landmarks, and entire towns, and all in the form of a by-gone era. Classic cars, vintage street scenes, and tiny busy figures grace the exhibits of the museum.

Top left: Toward the right corner of the photo you can see the train operator’s hat above the mountain scenery and river. Gives a good idea about the scale of this exhibit./Top right: Green rolling hills./Bottom: An elaborate timber railroad.

There are several exhibits in the museum (most are behind glass, which is why there are reflections in some of the photos). The exhibits are designed, built, and maintained by different model railroad clubs from the area. These men volunteer and create this bustling world for so many people to come and enjoy. They put complete innovation, creativity, thought, and care into what they do. It’s fun to watch these men working behind the scenes, placing and adjusting their trains and figures until they get them just right.

Left: A carnival complete with carousel, Ferris wheel, and an airplane ride./Right: A quiet street.

You can tell they love what they’re doing, and enjoy sharing it with others. The child-like playful manner of the museum is a huge draw, but there is also a wealth of history to learn. Cases line some of the walls with sets of locomotives and some of the stories behind them. The website says that not only is this one of the largest model railroad museums in the world, but the only accredited one in the United States. Also, this place has delighted close to 3 million visitors!

Left: A small harbor./Right: Another Santa Fe Depot./Bottom: The billboard getting changed.

The scenes are incredibly detailed, brimming with sentimental activities to things that make one chuckle. At one point, as you watch a train snake around mountains and in and out of tunnels, you finally see the caboose with Mickey Mouse waving at you as it disappears into another tunnel. Using a keen eye and an interest, little surprises subtlety reveal themselves. If you head upstairs, there are in-progress exhibits. It’s really intriguing to see the raw beginnings of what will eventually become an elaborately finished and polished display.

Left: A train snakes through the countryside./Right: A mountain dwarfs a tunnel.

While I was there for the latest Residents’ Free Tuesday (just one of the many things I love about Balboa Park), taking these photos, the men who are in charge of the Toy Train Gallery started asking me about my photos. Then they invited me inside the exhibit, from where very few people get to experience the trains. I was giddy to go “behind the scenes,” and immediately said yes.

Top left: On vacation./Top right: Detail of swimmers from photo on left./Bottom left: A nostalgic street./Bottom right: Everyone waiting at the train station.

Being inside, you’re able to see much more detail and different aspects of the scenes that you can’t always see from certain angles from the outside. It was really great to see a bit of their secret world. Like the dinosaur dig, this is something I probably wouldn’t have known was there if I weren’t on the inside and having it pointed out to me. The dinosaurs are present for their own excavation. I love it!

Top left: The sign in the corner of the churchyard pays tribute to the members of their club who have passed away./Top right: Lovers’ lane overlooks the dinosaur dig./Bottom: A&W

One of the club members was telling me about their gallery and also some of the work they do outside of the museum. They’re currently helping a local individual build a scene and track in a room specifically set aside in his home. Each member has a specialty, whether it’s the building of the actual tracks, the trees and landscape, or the figures of people and cars.

Top left: Mel’s Diner/Top Right: A close-up of the diner, complete with carhop!/Bottom: Route 66

These guys were so nice and I really enjoyed how welcoming and informative they were. I was so excited to get asked “inside” that I forgot to ask them for their names. They did let me take their photo though! I hope next time I go, I see these guys again. Maybe they’ll remember me!

The members who help run the Toy Train Gallery who were so nice to me!

This place entices and almost hypnotizes you. It’s so easy to get lost in each exhibit and find yourself immersed in this mini world. The displays are so well-crafted and laid out. The artistry that is put in to each aspect is apparent. The textures and colors are breathtaking. The nostalgia that permeates through the museum is enough to get you blotto on sentiment. (Yes, please!)

I want to shrink down to size and live in this world. I want to hop in one of those 1950s convertibles and go to the drive-in. I want to pull up to Mel’s Diner and see the carhop roll out to my car. In fact, I might want to be that carhop! I want to go take a whirl on the carousel. I want to book a trip on that train that goes over the massive bridge and through the bowels of the mountain. I want to spend a weekend in that cabin by the lake. I want to cruise along Route 66 in a pink Cadillac. I want to go to Lovers’ Lane with someone who will get a little fresh with me. I want a root beer float from that A&W. I want to take that trolley to a local destination. I want to feel this stationary world spring to life and surround me in classic cars, vintage aesthetic, a sense of exploration, and grand wonderment.

Now if only I could remember where I put that little cake Alice gave me. . .

17 thoughts on “Where’s One Of Those Wonderland Cakes When You Need One?

  1. The article about the trains is one of the best written articles I have ever read, not to mention the great photos of the miniature trains and landscapes.

    I grew up with a train set over my bed, but didn’t have much on the train board besides the train itself. It would have been even more fun to have some of the miniaturized setups like the A&W Root Beer place you took a photo of. We didn’t go to fast food places much in the 50’s but we did go to A&W Root Beer for a cold frosty mug of root beer once in a great while.

    If they give awards for best blog you would win, leaving everyone else in the dust.


    • Wow, thanks, Andrew! I’m glad you enjoy it! That means a lot to me. 🙂 A train above your bed that sounds awesome! When I took one of the little boys I used to nanny for, for a haircut (it was specifically for kids), they had a train track on the wall up by the ceiling that ran around the entire place. I thought that was very cool!


  2. This is a great, fun post! I love all of the photos and the close ups; it is heart wrenching, some of these scenes with the old cars and trucks; they just suck you in. The one of the golden California Hills spotted with Live Oak looks genuine, and the figures floating in the innertubes are so realistic.

    I was very involved with miniatures in the late 1980’s, early 90’s, and attended a few shows, including Seattle and Reno. Some of the high quality of crafts is stunning; I mean, hand-made chippendale furniture, with real brass pulls, artists who paint real miniature oil paintings, actual porcelain pieces. I made the dolls. My Einstein was so detailed with such delicate fingers; then I showed it to a bosses son one day, and he dropped it 3 times and broke all of those perfect fingers off!!!! (boys!)


      • No, I haven’t done the miniatures in many years – but seeing photos like these makes me nolstalgic for it – and the tiny dolls. I had considered making portrait wedding cake dolls, though, fully moveable. I’d charge an arm and a leg for those.


  3. I had some trains and miniature “worlds” as a kid. Some of my relatives still bring out trains for the Holidays as part of Christmas display. We have a restaurant nearby that features a train that circles the ceiling continuously. The A & W picture really took me back in time. Excellent.


    • Yes! Trips to the Art Institute of Chicago were a regular part of my art classes in college. I remember not wanting to leave that room with all those little scenes. All of that fancy furniture, the tapestries, the little fireplaces. . .incredible! Thanks for reminding me of that! 🙂


  4. Great article. I visit the museum as often as I can. The care and patience that it takes to build these displays is amazing. It is very relaxing to get lost in the different scenes.
    The wood trestle you pictured is a model of the Corrizo Gorge Trestle. It is located in the Mountains east of Descanso. Next time you are at the Museum in one of the first layouts look for the miniature workman in the outhouse with the door open. The kids always get a kick out of that.
    Thanks again


    • Thanks for the info on the trestle! I’ve never noticed the outhouse, too funny! That’s one of the things I love about this place, no matter how many times I’ve been, there’s always something new to notice. And one of the guys told me they move around the stuff and make the scenes different from time to time, so now I know to give extra attention to notice the differences. 🙂


  5. My son was obsessed with model trains for about three years. I took him to every model train show that came through town, and we even made a few visits to a nearby train museum much like the one your wrote about.

    Nowadays he’s into Nintendo. Just not the same.


  6. Pingback: A Stored Childhood | Lovely Shades of Nostalgia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s